In addition, having people on the ground provides added value in terms of obtaining insight into what is going on in the host country. While it is plausible that the information gathering and country assessment functions of an embassy can be done remotely using modern technology, the quality is not the same. Consolidating and aggregating information is not enough. Analyzing local developments is a key part of a diplomat's work and requires a deep understanding and appreciation of the issues, culture and "pulse" of the host country and its citizens. While our globalized world is increasingly interdependent, competition for access to markets and resources remains. A country with people on the ground is more likely to get a more accurate assessment of local opportunities, risks and developments. That is a competitive advantage.
Another advantage of having people on the ground is the extensive people-to-people contact is allows the host country. While communication may be maintained via phone and e-mail, and air travel makes it easy for officials to fly in for crucial meetings, these tools cannot replicate the relationship that can be established through constant personal contact and interaction.
Especially in countries whose cultures put a premium on personal relationships as part of doing business, a lot more is usually achieved over a round of golf, karaoke sessions or coffee at a cafe compared to constant exchanges of e-mails or phone calls.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Global migration is another key element that comes into play when assessing the need for embassies. In its "International Migration Report 2009: A Global Assessment," the Population Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations Secretariat notes that by 2010, the number of international migrants could be as high as 214 million, an increase of 58 million since 1990.
Roughly 10% of the population of the Philippines (around 8-9 million people) live overseas, either as migrants or foreign workers. More significantly, the Central Bank of the Philippines (BSP) reported that personal remittances, which support the domestic spending that has fueled the country’s economic rise, rose 7 percent year-on-year. The Philippines is the fourth-largest recipient of remittances from overseas workers in the world, trailing only India, China and Mexico. But as a percentage of GDP, the Philippines leads with 13.5 percent.
Like other countries with very large migrant communities based overseas, the presence of embassies and consulates facilitates the effective provision of consular services and protection. The increase in levels of migration has also given rise to the global problem of human trafficking and incidents of abuse of foreign workers. Without embassies, these citizens would lose a valuable layer of protection.
So what are governments to do? The diplomatic approach would entail compromise, or a middle room. Governments will likely try to balance necessity and cost-cutting. Already, a number of countries are streamlining their diplomatic presences overseas by closing certain embassies and downsizing embassy staffs.
One novel and effective option being explored by some countries entails arrangements that deploy a resident diplomat based in an embassy of another country or the mission of a multilateral organization. For example, Estonia's first diplomatic representation in South America is in Brasilia, capital of Brazil, and consists of one diplomat based in the Portuguese Embassy. This arrangement is made possible via a bilateral arrangement between Portugal and Estonia. Something similar is being explored by certain Latin American countries, particularly the members of the Pacific Alliance, especially with regard to enhancing their diplomatic presence in East Asia.
Embassies have existed for centuries and it is very likely that they will be around for a long time to come. The way they will operate and conduct their work will necessarily change and evolve to keep them relevant and responsive to global developments, but in one form or another, the embassy will continue to be key to the conduct of international relations.
Moira G Gallaga was Presidential Protocol Officer to three Philippine presidents and has completed assignments at the Philippine Consulate General in Los Angeles and Philippine Embassy in Washington D.C.