Diplomatic duties

As I mentioned in an earlier post, after a while of being in Zambia the FAO Representative (FAOR) left his job due to sickness and I was given the temporary task of keeping the office going until the replacement arrived. Unfortunately, the newcomer took about one year to arrive, so the additional work burden lasted longer than I anticipated. It was clear that my other colleagues (some senior than me) had skilfully avoided this added burden! Despite this, it gave me a taste of this different kind of work that would help me in the future.

Luckily, the office had very capable people able to run the show on their own. However, rules indicated that someone had to be finally responsible and needed to sign the important documents. My added duties required two visits to the FAO office, mornings, and afternoons or, if my activities kept at my own project office, the work would be brought to me. So, there was no escape.

In addition, as the name indicates, I also needed to represent the institution in various events. That was a trickier job that I was not really prepared for. Again, Mabel, the FAOR’s secretary was very experienced and helped greatly. However, when the time came, I was the one that needed to perform the work [1].

I will not describe the exciting work of signing paychecks, official documents and attending management meetings but focus on some instances that stuck in my mind for different reasons.

In the early 90s South Africa, the main commercial partner of Zambia, was moving towards the end of apartheid and there was a strong diplomatic drive with its neighbours. Mandela had been released from prison in February 1990 and so it was that I attended several political events when President Kaunda and later Chiluba hosted famous personalities such as de Frederick de Klerk, Winnie Mandela and others, a new experience for me to see politics firsthand by participation rather than reading the papers. I can assure you -as you probably guessed- that my presence there had no impact on the on-going negotiations!

Support to Zambia and the region through projects was one of the important activities of FAO in Zambia. One of these was the launching of some support to COMESA. I was told that I would meet its Secretary General (SG) thirty minutes prior to the meeting so I had no time to prepare my speech! I had a mild panic as I was not familiar with the project.

When I asked for my speech to one of the FAO officers assisting me, she replied jokingly “a good FAOR always has a speech ready for any occasion!” As I did not belong to that selected group my shaky participation was nothing compared with the relaxed approach that the SG had. The latter was Dr Bingu wa Mutharika, later to become the President of Malawi.

I attended many functions and received many visitors during that year but only two of these activities still occupy a place in my mind. The first one was on the occasion of FAO’s donation of motorboats to the Fisheries Department. As usual, the ceremony involved me speaking first according to the protocol followed by the key speech by the Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries.

My speech was as usual a mediocre one and then, to my relief, I could sit, relax and listen to the Minister’s response. Then, I noted that there was something wrong. The Minister handed some papers to one of his aids and, by the way he spoke, it was apparent that he was not happy. Nevertheless, he gave his improvised speech, still better than mine. Later on, I learnt that his earlier displeasure followed the receipt of a speech for another event but, being a politician he pulled it through!

The second meeting involved the visit to the FAO Office of an Ambassador from one of FAO’s donor countries. Already before the meeting I knew that something was wrong just by hearing loud voices an afterwards looking at the face of my secretary!

The Ambassador marched into my office, hardly greeted me, sat down and without any introduction said “I can accept that a project manager gets involved in some additional activities but that he runs a petrol station is too much!” he uttered, clearly and justifiably angry, I thought.

Completely taken aback I asked him to give me more information so that we could deal with the situation. He mentioned a name that I did not know located at a city we had no activities! So, I explained this to him.

The Ambassador looked at me in shock, perhaps thinking that I was covering up the issue he was reporting! He then hesitated and asked me if he was in another UN agency office. When I explained that he was at FAO, without further ado, he stood up, muttered an almost inaudible apology, and marched off as brusquely as he had come! A few days later he rang me to formally apologize and to tell me that the issue had been solved.

There was still one final sad function I attended but I will tell you about it in a future post.

[1] In these instances I always remembered the phrase that Oscar Bonavena, a heavyweight Argentinian boxer once said: “You have a manager, a masseur who softens your body, you even get advice from the promoter, some of them take more money than the boxer himself; but the truth is that when the bell rings, they take away your stool and you’re on your own.”


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