By Dibussi Tande
The July/August 2008 issue of Foreign Affairs (an influential American journal on international relations published by the Council on Foreign Relations) carries a “sponsored country report” on Cameroon titled "Cameroon at Crossroads".
This advertising supplement was produced by the Washington, DC-based lobbying firm, SML Strategic Media (SML), in collaboration with Stratline Communication, a PR firm with headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland.
According to its website, SML “provides strategic communications advice to corporations, organizations and governments around the world… We strongly believe that communications used strategically have the power to change perceptions, alter behaviors and create value.”
Stratline Communication, on the other hand, specializes “in improving the image of the African continent”. It seems to focus almost exclusively on Cameroon and has placed infomercials on behalf of the government of Cameroon in Le Monde, Le Figaro, Fortune Magazine, New African, etc. Its TV spots on Cameroon have also appeared on France Television and TV5 International. [Click here to view Stratline’s Cameroon portfolio]
According to the sponsored ad,
In two years, Cameroon will celebrate the 50th anniversary of its independence. The journey of the country from difficult beginnings to its present condition as a united entity with considerable positive prospects has been remarkable. This report gives an insight into the country's challenges as it grows into a hub for central African trade and interests. Cameroon is at the crossroads of development, and shows all the signs of having chosen the most fortuitous path.
It stresses that:
As part of its policy to promote good governance, Cameroon is committed to the war on corruption, which has seen some major casualties from the highly competitive political
elite. Although the anti-corruption moves come partly from donor pressure, it responds to a popular mood, often expressed in Cameroon’s quasi-independent media.
The ad also makes a case for the Biya presidency by arguing that:
The main opposition leader John Fru Ndi, head of the Social Democratic Front, who was a serious challenger in the 1992 elections, has become an increasingly isolated figure. Thus, with less influence being exerted by the opposition, President Paul Biya is said to represent the best advocate of stability in Cameroon.
The advertisement supplement in Foreign Affairs, a key player in shaping US foreign policy since World War II, is the second one that has appeared in the US this month. On July 2, another advertising supplement on Cameroon appeared in the Washington Post. According to the anti-corruption watch group Global Integrity, that supplement highlighted moves by the Biya regime to “consolidate the rule of law and fight corruption” and the increased transparency of public financial management, including “stepped up efforts to improve the quality of public spending” and “progressive measures […] such as [public disclosure] of a summary of investments.”
Intrigued by the advert, Global Integrity decided to find out more about the ad. Using the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which requires that all foreign governments lobbying the U.S. government or seeking to influence U.S. public opinion file regular reports about such activities with the U.S. Department of Justice, the group found out that over the years, the government of Cameroon has used PR firms such as Burson-Marsteller and Patton to spruce up its image in the US.
Most interestingly, it unearthed the actual contract of $350,000 a year [about 145 million FCFA] between the Government of Cameroon and GoodWorks International (GWI), an Atlanta-based consulting firm (co-chaired by former US ambassador Andrew Young) which placed the ad in the Washington Post. [see contract at the end of this article] According to Global Integrity:
The GWI contract with the Cameroonian Minister of Economy and Finance, signed in July 2007, details a ‘strategy for securing a Compact under the Millennium Challenge Account […] in as little as 12-18 months [by raising] some of the negative indicators that now make the country ineligible.’ The contract also stipulates that ‘GWI will assist the Cameroonian authorities to devise a communications strategy to show-case Cameroon’s reform efforts.’ Now, two weeks before the contract is due to expire, with a Compact yet to be achieved, the ad appeared in last week’s Post...
At a cost of “only” $350,000 a year – the price of Cameroon’s annual retainer with GWI – perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised when hundreds of millions of MCC dollars are at stake.
Is it worth it?
Exactly one year ago, a firestorm erupted when another watch group revealed that the government of Cameroon had paid $250,000 (120 million FCFA back then) for an advertising supplement in New York Times Magazine (Click here to read original story).
Back then, the widespread view was that the New York Times Magazine ad and others like it rarely led to concrete business leads or investment, and that they generally served no credible purpose other than a fleeting PR exposure for the Biya regime. As one commentator put it,
… as far as Cameroonians are concerned, the Biya regime has just "wasted" about 120 million FCFA of taxpayers' money on a prestige project with no real benefit to Cameroon – no different from paying 250 million FCFA annually to those ineffective lobbyists in Washington, DC. After all, how many new businesses or even business leads resulted from the 2001 supplement [in the New York Times] or from the others published in Le Monde, Jeune Afrique, etc.?
If we assume that each advertising supplement averages about $250,000 (using last year’s New York Times advert as the standard), it is not a stretch to assume that the Biya regime spends no less than five billion FCFA annually, worldwide, on these ads (that is, apart from the annual retainer paid to lobbyists and PR firms around the world, particularly in the US).
Without doubt, this is money flushed down the drain since very little, if anything, ever comes from these infomercials – i.e., apart from lining the pockets of lobbyists in Washington and elsewhere, the newspapers which carry these infomercials, and high ranking government officials back in Cameroon who negotiate these lucrative deals (a review of the transcripts of the Ondo Ndong trial is instructive in this regard). After about two decades of government-sponsored ads, the generally negative perceptions in the United States about the Biya regime and/or the investment climate in Cameroon have not changed fundamentally. In fact, Cameroon’s US lobbyists will be hard-pressed to cite one example of a credible business venture that resulted from these ads.
If Cameroon is serious about changing the negative perceptions in the United States, it should start by transforming its embassy in Washington DC into a proactive and responsive diplomatic mission and establishing a fully functional trade mission staffed with qualified personnel who have a firm understanding of American business practices and are able to express themselves in English. Such a trade mission will also need modern communications tools such as a cutting-edge and regularly updated website with relevant information for potential investors, not stale propaganda pieces. Embassy employees should also step out of their comfort zone and participate regularly in the plethora of trade fairs that take place in the US each year, or organize business forums between Cameroonian and US businesses similar to those organized annually by the US government in Washington, DC and Chicago, etc.
This will be a good start but it will not be enough: The truth is that serious investors and policy makers in the US do not base investment or foreign policy decisions on infomercials. They rely on credible and vetted information from US government agencies or from international donor agencies and political and economic think tanks which publish peer-reviewed country-by-country surveys and rankings on key political and economic indicators each year. These annual surveys/rankings include the Corruption Perceptions Index (Transparency International), Doing Business (World Bank), Economic Freedom of the World Report (Cato Institute), Freedom in the World (Freedom House), Global Competitiveness Index ; Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Report (World Economic Forum), etc. A favorable mention in any of these reports , based on real and observable changes on the ground, is worth more than 10 infomercials in the Washington Post.
In the end, therefore, the real impetus for change can only come from within Cameroon. Establishing less cumbersome foreign investment procedures, making it easier for foreigners to do business in Cameroon, cracking down on the endemic and systemic corruption rather than indulging in show arrests and trials that leave the structures of corruption intact, making palpable moves towards more political freedoms etc., will be much more effective than any lobbying campaign by spinmeisters in the US or elsewhere.
Until then, Cameroon’s PR campaign in the US will continue to be a catalogue of failures and frustrations that only serve to attract the wrath of watchdog groups such as Global Integrity and Global Justice which are only too happy to expose the seedy underbelly of Cameroon’s lobbying efforts in the United States.