The world of diplomacy. It hit the headlines after the Australian High Commission was accused of ‘unfair and unjust treatment’ by a Ghanaian former employee, Mercy Catherine Adjabeng. This accusation is playing out in the court of public opinion after a press conference highlighting the allegations. There is an opportunity to explore this world of diplomacy through an additional culture and framework, that of emotional justice and its elements of equity and empathy.
The Australian High Commission is undoubtedly feeling the heat as headlines continue with allegations of breach of contract, failure to honor a good faith agreement, and failure to honor agreed compensation. The news media has reported the details of the story and the allegations made by Madame Adjabeng. In short, Mercy Adjabeng alleges that after returning to the Australian High Commission at their persistent request, and an agreed increase in compensation due to elevated duties, the Commission failed to honor that agreement. This is a case being fought by an individual seeking justice for a grievance. I invite us to reckon with the structural issue and opportunity here.
Australia – like all the other missions – are vibrant, important, and culturally rich places where opportunities exist, where great work is being done, and where support is being offered and given to and within the nation where that mission operates. We can both acknowledge the great work being done within missions, and recognize where a mission may fall short, and how that falling short speaks to bigger structural issues that can be examined with a focus on resolution, transformation and healing.
Missions in Ghana are more than bricks and mortar that house the diplomatic entity of a particular country. They are relationships between cultures, values, and histories. Every mission in Ghana must navigate dual cultures. The world of diplomacy is always one of two cultures – that of the mission, and that of the country the mission operates in. It can be a blending of cultures in the best ways, but it may feel like a nation within a nation. How a mission navigates this path of dual cultures, the tools it engages, the challenges it faces, the opportunities that arise are also linked to a mission nation’s history to Africa and blackness. These can be thorny challenging spaces – always made more challenging due to the intersection of power and culture. They need not be.
When it comes to Africa – in this case Ghana – part of the mission’s relationship between culture, values and history isn’t just about a mission’s relationship with the country in which it works, it’s also about a mission’s relationship with issues of race, Blackness and Africa in its own nation. Diplomacy by its very definition means the skill of managing international relations, typically by a country’s relationships abroad, it is about the art of dealing with people in a sensitive way.
It’s worth breaking this down. The art of dealing with people, and the skill of managing international relations requires contextualizing those relations within the legacy of history and the systems that shape our history, culture and people. In Ghana, across the Continent, a history of colonialism, its legacy, the deadly fictions of white superiority and black inferiority shape power, and how people are nurtured to see themselves and each other. That seeing, that shaping then shows up within workplace culture. And while all missions may have policies that represent values of global diversity and equity, it is in the treatment of people that we gain a more accurate measure of how a country wrestles and reckons with its own relationship to a history of colonialism and its legacy.
These are difficult conversations, the type of conversations resisted by missions and the world of diplomacy. Emotional Justice is a framework, a roadmap for racial healing that invites this dialogue as a roadmap for the kind of transformation that creates empathy and equity. The issue of blackness and race is rarely not a thorny one. People get defensive, may feel personally maligned and then react from those spaces. Transformation cannot happen from such spaces.
In the world of diplomacy, power – or rather perceptions of power – can shape a willingness to engage, adapt, or make change. I’ve seen in Ghana how sometimes the world of diplomacy engages the culture of Ghana – and specifically Ghanaian people who work within missions – with a contempt and a disdain. To be clear, there may be the performance of reverence and respect, but behind the performance, when you examine some of the treatment of culture and staff there are darker things. It is those darker places that need the light of truth-telling and an exploration of how history, legacy and Africa show up in mission practice.
However challenging the terrain, embarrassing the headlines, or problematic the issue, this global moment can become one where the world of diplomacy engages the culture of Ghana and the Ghanaians it works with, differently. It can begin a journey of emotional justice within diplomacy. That means each of us – those within the mission, those Ghanaians they work with and engage – do the emotional work of transforming behaviours that uphold an abuse of power and a disregard of diplomacy’s own values of skill and sensitivity when it comes to people.
Like the rest of the world, the isolation of lockdown, the uncertainty, loss and grief of the pandemic, the racial reckoning due to the murder of George Floyd and the global protests that followed meant many, many nations were challenged to reckon with their own country’s relationship to race, equity and justice.
For Australia – as with every other nation and mission, there is its own relationship to the Continent, and issues of race and Blackness to navigate. The first recorded African diasporans are said to have arrived in Australia in 1788. That’s contrary to a narrative that Africans arrived there only recently. In a 2019 book ‘Growing up African in Australia’, editor Maxine Beneba Clarke brings together diverse African voices who speak about shifting identities, curating your Africanness and blackness in order to – as the writers describe it – ‘be who Australia wants you to be and not who you really are’. This is, of course, not unique to Australia. In the US, the UK and other European countries, there is this identify shifting Africans do – and Black folk globally do – to make their way in a world shaped by notions of white supremacy and anti-Blackness. The book describes it as ‘conditional belonging’. There is also gratitude expressed to and about making Australia home, and the opportunities, education and advancement they have found. It matters we remember these are not linear narratives, but multiple layers of experiences. All of them contribute to shaping an identity experience.
Understanding the world of diplomacy better, matters. Here in Ghana, Diplomatic Affairs is a television programme hosted by global anchor and journalist Harriet Nartey. It airs weekly on Pan-African Television to more than 45 countries. It offers a window into the world of diplomacy. The show builds a bridge between the world of diplomacy and media, inviting an audience to better understand what missions do, how they function and each missions’ particular focus in Ghana. It is crucial space that offers education to a broad audience who may simply see High Commissions, and the world of diplomacy, as imposing buildings of power that are unconnected to them.
The world of diplomacy, and their missions must not be devoid of accountability in Ghana. Accountability can become opportunity to transform and lead with equity and empathy. Too often power treats challenge and accountability as a threat that needs to be silenced, shamed or punished. Embracing accountability as opportunity to make change is about each mission asking and exploring these questions: who do you say you are when it to comes to Ghana? How might you more effectively honor that with your treatment of the culture and those within that culture? How do you navigate the dual cultures in your work, how might you more effectively navigate them with sensitivity, empathy and equity?
It is time for emotional justice within the world of diplomacy.