Building Finland’s contacts with Africa and the Middle East
“The importance of being present in Africa and the Middle East is increasingly important for Finland. A closer review of developments in these areas reveals that much good progress is being made. In addition to development cooperation, commercial activities are pursued there, but we also need to strengthen the political relations,” says Leena-Kaisa Mikkola, who started as Director General of the Department for Africa and the Middle East in the autumn 2017.
Finland's presence in Africa and in the Middle East is handled by 18 missions and two Roving Ambassadors. The Department headed by Mikkola is responsible for providing guidance for Finland’s diplomatic and consular missions in these areas. She was Finland's Ambassador to Israel for five years. Having experience of the tasks of head of mission, she is well suited for this position which involves steering of the work of missions abroad.
“Global interdependence necessitates Finland’s engagement in extensive cooperation. On the one hand, our presence in Africa and in the Middle East serves our national interests and strengthens Finland’s international position. On the other hand, promoting our own values, such as equality and the rule of law, supports development in the countries in Africa and the Middle East,” she stresses.
Africa and the Middle East are making much good progress but, at the same time, it is important take note that new problems may arise for which they should be prepared. Many African countries experience a high rate of population growth and the countries’ GDP is not raising enough to cover the needs of the growing population. Moreover, climate change poses challenges of its own.
The latest news on these themes were heard at the African Union and European Union Summit in November. Mikkola was among the Finnish delegation attending the meeting. The main theme of the Summit was youth.
“Finland was the only participating country with a youth representative, which attracted positive attention. Education, including the provision of vocational education and training, is an important means of creating trust in the future among young people. Finland has much to offer and valuable expertise."
Small missions handle big issues
Mikkola reminds that, geographically speaking, we are talking about Europe’s neighbouring areas and their development, which is significant also for Finland. In a straight line, the distance from Finland to Lebanon is approximately the same as to Madrid. Our idea of these regions is often associated with poverty and conflicts.
“The Middle East is a historically fascinating crossroads of different cultures and three world religions. It is also one of the most important points of reference as concerns global politics. Africa, for its part, is a continent of 54 states and vast regional differences."
Finland’s missions work hard with their limited resources, and the requirements are becoming more and more demanding.
“In the past, working in Africa was largely based on development cooperation, but Business Finland cooperation and the management of good political relations requires more resources than earlier. Commercial interests towards the area are growing. As the network of Finnish missions on the continent is small, it would be important to invest more commercial resources in Africa, including in North Africa,” she stresses.
Finland’s story attracts interest
Finland has a good reputation in Africa and in the Middle East, and sharing our story is worthwhile.
“Finland is a small country with limited assets, which is why the ambassadors must make use of their personal qualities at work. We must leave a good impression in people’s minds, and it is importnat to show genuine interest in others. We must be able to create good working relations with colleagues, because human relations are an essential element of working life.”
According to Mikkola, in Israel for example, Finland is known for its fair and high-quality education system.
“Equality, the Winter War, clean nature, Lapland, the four seasons, and frost are also known in Israel. The Israeli people have a genuine desire to know more about Finland. When events were organised at the mission, the house was always full, which helped in promoting Finland’s country brand."
Finland’s external relations cover a broad range of matters
The Department for Africa and the Middle East is responsible for a wide spectrum of tasks, including Finland’s relations with the countries in the areas, preparation of Finland’s positions, handling of matters related to development cooperation, provision of guidance to the missions, preparation and management of state visits and ministerial visits, and collaboration with the other departments of the Foreign Ministry.
The Director General’s everyday work often consists of meetings outside the Ministry and networking, which may involve contacting foreign diplomats based in Finland as well as cooperation related to the EU.
“It is nice that the days are varied. Usually I don’t have time to go through my emails until late in the afternoon. What is significant in this work is that there are a broad diversity of matters that need to be addressed. Political relations between countries, commercial cooperation and development cooperation cover a big part of Finland’s external relations,” Mikkola summarises.
Mikkola has been Senior Adviser in the Department for Africa and the Middle East since September 2016. Before that, she served as Finland’s Ambassador to Israel for five years. Her career in the diplomatic services includes postings to the Permanent Representation of Finland to the EU in Brussels and working in the Embassies of Finland in Canberra, Athens and Budapest.
In the Ministry, she has served as Director of the Unit for European Common Foreign and Security Policy in the Political Department, and held different positions in the Political Department, the Department for Europe, and the Department for Press and Cultural Affairs.
The author is a Communications Officer at Finland’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs.