Botswana’s top man at the United Nations Collen V Kelapile assumes a key leading role at the world’s top agency this week. He becomes the President of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) for a period of a year. But who is Ambassador Kelapile and what does this new role mean for the country and him? He fields questions from STAFF WRITER MPHO DIBEELA
Kindly introduce yourself – who are you?
AMBASSADOR (AMB): I am a 53-year-old male Motswana, born on 10 July 1968 and was raised in Maitengwe during my childhood and teenage days including attending Mengwe Primary School from Standard 1 to 7. I was later admitted at Molefi Secondary School in Mochudi (boarding) for my Form 1 to 5 from or around 1984. Moving to as far as Mochudi was actually the first time ever I travelled beyond Tutume, let alone the culture shock of being in Kgatleng – all the way from Bokalanga. From Molefi, I went for National Service (Tirelo Sechaba) in Sojwe, Kweneng, in or around 1990/91 where I was attached to the local health clinic. I later enrolled at University of Botswana (UB) where I studied for a Bachelor’s Degree in Public Administration and Political Science from 1991-1995. Again, being at UB was the first ever time I had lived in a City. Soon after graduating from UB, I did two very quick job stints the same year in 1995: first at the National Assembly (Parliament), where I was part of a group assigned to listen to the recorded tapes of Parliamentary proceedings for transcription in the Hanzard. I also worked for Ministry of Local Government of which I was assigned as one of the first ever UB graduates as Board Secretary at Kweneng Land Board in Lentsweletau. After succeeding in an interview that featured about 13 of us for four openings at Foreign Affairs, I later joined the Ministry in October 1995 as Desk Officer for the United Nations. Little did I know that I was launching an uninterrupted 26 years of multilateral diplomatic career which is still on-going as I am now the current Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Botswana to the United Nations in New York since October, 2018.
Catalogue your career journey culminating with your appointment to the UN.
AMB: I am a career diplomat with 26 years since joining Foreign Affairs. I have specialised on the United Nations. My career in multilateral diplomacy has traversed three phases: first as a representative of Botswana Government, both at junior level at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (1995- 1998) and at the Permanent Mission of Botswana to the United Nations in New York where I rose through ranks up to Counsellor level and engaged in intergovernmental negotiations (1998-2003); second as expert or advisor when I was submitted as Botswana-Southern Africa candidate and got elected by the UN General Assembly to serve in its Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ) from 2004 – 2012, which I also later Chaired at the rank equivalent of Under-Secretary-General from 2011-2012; lastly as a UN Secretariat Staff at Director level position as Chief of Staff to the Executive Secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, from 2014 to 2018. So, after joining UNECA in 2014 and at expiration of my unpaid leave from Foreign Affairs, in 2016 I had to resign to continue with my Chief of Staff position in UNECA. But at the request by His Excellency the President upon assuming his mandate, I had to again resign my UN job to come and serve our beautiful country as Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York. I presented my Letters of Credence to the UN Secretary-General on 26 October, 2018.
What attracted you first to diplomatic work?
AMB: I would not be telling the truth if I claimed that there was any real and detailed plan to become a diplomat. What I know is that I was extremely good in the art sciences and excelled also in history and other subjects with international relations content. That actually later informed my career choice to enrol for a Bachelor’s Degree in Public Administration and Political Science at the University of Botswana. So, while I have come to enjoy the diplomatic experience, it was a fortuitous and a perfect coincidence which was simply based on how I had performed in arts sciences at secondary school level.
Any top inspirational figure that you leaned to?
AMB: I would really honestly give initial credit to my first supervisor when joined Foreign Affairs — Mr. Benjamin Motlhalamme. He was an incredibly gifted diplomat with unparalleled writing and problem solving skills, and he pursued a leadership style that empowered those working under his supervision. For instance, his approach was that the first step for review of incoming correspondence (except those that were extremely confidential) should start with his team first, and that when consulting him one must demonstrate that you have carefully analysed the task and applied the STAR (Situation, Task, Action and Result) approach and make a clear recommendation on way forward. Then he will tell you what is possible and what is not. This forced us to learn and grow quickly as fresh recruits from University. I therefore credit Ben, as he was affectionately known, for being a resourceful motivator and mentor in my early diplomatic career. But otherwise as Desk Officer for the United Nations, I would later get to know more about our long serving and charismatic Ambassador Legwaila Menson John Legwaila who I later worked under in New York from 1998-2001 before his appointment by Secretary-General Kofi Annan as Special Representative for the UN Mission for Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE). As a matter of fact, after I attended the UN General Assembly in 1997 as delegate from home then, I later learned from his Deputy Ambassador, Mr. Mothusi Nkgowe, that Ambassador Legwaila had expressed positive views about my abilities which resulted in my transfer to New York in 1998. We had often heard how demanding it was to work with such a dedicated diplomat who knew almost everything about the UN, and who was not easy to impress. Joe, as he was famously renowned, indeed commanded immense respect and awe in UN corridors to the extent that I almost believed that people worshipped him. For me, a briefcase carrier then, I definitely wished to be like him. In a way, working under his supervision inspired my diplomatic career significantly and I am privileged that I made it to the summit seat that he once occupied as our Ambassador to the United Nations.
What are the joys of being a diplomat?
AMB: The outward or external facing nature of diplomacy – in the sense of enabling cross national and cultural interactions beyond one’s own borders – makes the profession as unparalleled and unique like no other. The benefit that comes with extensive networking, especially in multilateral duty stations like New York which is considered the epicentre of diplomacy where all nations of the world converge, is quite extensive. In the end, being a diplomat affords a seamless opportunity for peer learning and sharing of experiences, as well as appreciation of global diversity in many ways.
What are the current major issues that the UN is grappling with?
AMB: Beyond the stagnant or slow paced process of achieving comprehensive institutional reforms, regrettably the global challenges keep adding up with time. In recent years, the major drawback that still remains an issue of concern is the regression in the spirit and principles underpinning multilateralism. The widening rift amongst nations has somewhat overshadowed the needed unity and harmony among them to effectively tackle global challenges together. Notwithstanding, work continues to at least accelerate implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 Goals during the Decade of Action which began in January 2020. This Agenda is a deliberately ambitious blueprint for all nations as it carries the true promise to alleviate global challenges across the peace and security as well as socio-economic pillars of the organisation. The UN system is therefore this framework and currently pondering on best ways to achieve progress including on the means of implementation, especially the dire insufficiency of needed finance to achieve the SDGs.
What key issues are you advancing for Botswana at the UN at the moment?
AMB: As we say, foreign policy is an extension of domestic policy. It therefore goes without saying that the choices of issues that I and my team are advancing at the UN at all times cannot be delinked from our national priorities as a country, as also encapsulated in our national development plan, Vision 2036 and other roadmaps seeking to address Botswana’s developmental challenges such as inequalities, economic diversification, impact of climate change and youth unemployment through innovation, science and technology. A key element in the approach I am using to advance national interests is the broader vision of making Botswana a respected and influential player in the international arena. Achieving this means that, first and foremost, we must matter at the negotiation table as a country among other nations. I have therefore since assuming my duties focused on ways to place Botswana and Batswana on the map and in positions of influence, both in intergovernmental bodies and secretariat entities as well as expert bodies. One of the next big things at the moment is that starting in July 2021 Botswana will assume the Presidency of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) for duration of one year. Other on-going measures include annual awareness raising initiatives such as recruitment and procurement seminars organised in partnership with the UN Secretariat to open opportunities for Batswana. Recently together with my team we have enlisted UN support for Botswana’s SmartBotswana Roadmap, among other initiatives.
What benefits does Botswana draw from being part of the UN?
AMB: Foremost Botswana, as peace-loving nation, was motivated to join the UN by her believe in the purposes and principles of the Charter geared towards advancing human progress and harmonious relations among nations. In an increasingly inter-dependent and globalised world, no nation can survive by going it alone or acting in a vacuum. There is greater value in Botswana acting together as a collective with other nations. As the epicentre of multilateral diplomacy, the UN in particular affords Botswana ample space to participate in intergovernmental transactions that underpin global norm-setting for the common good. If effectively leveraged, UN membership thus opens avenues for Botswana to inculcate its own values of democracy and good governance, and to also show case ourselves as a country while also benefiting from the wealth of peer-learning and experience-sharing opportunities that comes with interacting extensively with the 192 other Member States of the UN. In that way we can also learn from others. Of course, beyond that, the UN system as a whole is a significant source of capacity-building and advisory services that we require as a country to achieve our national priorities.
The reform of the Security Council has been a major concern for the developing and least developed countries – in particular African countries over many years – Your take on this matter?
AMB: From where things stand to date — some 20 plus years since an intergovernmental negotiations platform was set up by the General Assembly to find a consensual way forward (the so-called IGN process) – regrettably the tensions and stone-walling in this long overdue process makes me and many others believe that there is no end in sight in the near future on meaningful Security Council reforms. The bilateral pressure that in recent years has characterised the negotiations on this important issue carries the enormous risk – especially for a region like Africa that is susceptible to being divided – of not being able to remain united to sustain the continental position by the Heads of State, as contained in the Ezulwini Consensus and the Sirte Declaration. Surely, if there cannot be agreement to at least advance in phases the elements of the reforms that can easily be agreed upon, such as fixing immediately the unfair representation of Africa in the Council and continue working on other complex matters like the Veto Power, my take like many others is that it is highly unlikely that comprehensive Security Council reforms will be realised in our life time. A “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” approach means an indefinitely stalled process.
African countries are enduring Covid-19 vaccine nationalism – with the world’s leading nations prioritising themselves instead of ensuring equitable distribution/sale of vaccines. What is the United Nations doing about this?
AMB: Certainly, apart from it unleashing an unprecedented global health, humanitarian and development emergency the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed many weaknesses in the fabric of multilateralism including the very often exaggerated expressions of global solidarity in relations among nations. The imbalance in the vaccine distribution to date is characteristic of nationalist tendencies which some here at the UN have even labelled as “vaccine apartheid“. Yet it being known that, in such a globalised world with enhanced human mobility and interaction, no one is safe until everyone is safe. At the UN, from outset starting with the UN Secretary General himself, Director General of WHO and the groupings of developing countries such as the African Group and the G77 have not minced any words at the various intergovernmental platforms to argue emphatically that the vaccines must be a global common good. In June 2020 when Botswana was Chair of the African Group I personally did read on behalf of Africa a similarly strong-worded statement but in vain. In fact, sometimes in August last year the General Assembly adopted an Omnibus Resolution on the Global Response to COVID-19 with clear statements seeking to discourage discriminatory practices in the distribution of vaccines – which the developing countries including Africa believe should be a global common good that should be made available to everyone who needs it anywhere. Sadly, these repeated and still on-going calls have fallen on deaf ears while several developing countries, especially in Africa are yet to receive their first doses. Unfortunately, while the UN is an important forum for constructive dialogue, not everything that is said or sanctioned is considered legally binding on all nations.
What is the African block at the UN mainly agitating for?
AMB: Sadly, despite all efforts including by our leaders themselves to address African problems through African solutions, historically Africa as a region has been the main source of burden on the UN’s overall agenda across all pillars of the work of the organisation – peace and security, developed and humanitarian challenges. It is therefore not surprising that in the strategic framework of the UN the Development of Africa is identified as among the eight main priorities of the organisation – the only region singled out among all other regions. As a region in dire need, Africa’s priorities list has tended to be everything and the pandemic has just compounded an already long list of existing concerns. Beyond the visible severe impacts of COVID-19, lately African’s debt woes have deepened with many heavily indebted countries agitating for debt forgiveness to avert defaulting mainly as a result of the pandemic. Africa is also home to a huge population of the global poor and inequalities within countries are significant. Alongside unemployment, especially for a predominantly youthful continent, and the impacts of climate change, there is a lot that is presently a cause for concern for the African Group at UN. At institutional level, a number of African countries including Botswana are not well represented in the UN system and therefore this remains an on-going issue for Africa to seek redress and promotion of the principle of equitable geographical representation.
Look back at your tenure at the UN so far and pick out the highlights.
AMB: It is several things which to me, as the doer, may not seem highlights in the strict sense as they are part of my regular job as a diplomat. But since you asked I can just randomly pick some moments. Achieving a first in anything, as an individual or a Motswana, is an important highlight for all of us. For instance, making our country assume the Presidency of ECOSOC for the first time since the Council’s founding in 1945 is for me a great deal. Associated with that, initiating and getting support for the first ever international attachment of six interns to the ECOSOC Presidency is also an achievement, as this initiative speaks to a key objective of finding opportunities for Batswana in international organisations. In this case, the exposure and experience the young interns will gain from their one-year attachment is an important development for them to be competitive in the international job market. I can pick many other things from my brag book, but I want to look further back to the date of 7 November 2003 when I got elected into the UN’s Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ) – the way it unfolded and the person I was up against. This is a very significant Committee composed of 16 experts (recently increased to 21), which was established in 1946. Importantly, I was the first again Motswana and a national of the Southern Africa region to serve in ACABQ in its 57 years of existence then. To get there I ran against someone who had been in that Committee for 32 years! Challenging even more was that for 28 years and at the time of our contest he was the Chair. As a matter of fact, he joined the committee in 1971 when I was 3 years old!
He had over the years defeated several other African candidates, including Zambia just before me, until I stopped him in 2003. This was an election dubbed by many as the David (myself) and Goliath (my opponent) encounter, to the extent that in view of the attendance it attracted especially from the level of Ambassadors who wanted to be personally present the venue was moved to the General Assembly Plenary Hall for the first time ever because everyone wanted to witness this exciting moment. Normally these elections took place in a mid-sized Conference Room 3. By the time it was said and done, I emphatically defeated the opponent by 165 votes to 53. Ambassador Legwaila would call me “Dragon slayer” because my opponent had defied replacement for all the 22 years our Ambassador was in New York. What felt so special was that the atmosphere in the iconic Hall sounded as if a major revolution had occurred. I particularly felt so important, not just enlisting such a huge amount of support against a highly revered opponent, but also when the Hall erupted into a resounding applause and when delegations thronged our desk to hug and congratulate me and Ambassador Alfred Dube then. The presiding officer really had a hard time in calling the meeting to order so that he can announce the results for two other regions. I actually went on to become the eighth Chair of the ACABQ a few years later, occupying the very seat that my opponent had held for such a long time (28 years). Another first as a Motswana and an individual from the Southern Africa region! I have a number of other firsts and highlights, but I believe my future Memoirs will be worth a reference for those interested.
What have been the most serious challenges that you have endured in your diplomacy work?
AMB: Like any other career, mine has also not been a straight line. But whatever huddles and challenges one has encountered they were not insurmountable or anything one could not handle. The best trick is perseverance and keeping both eyes on the ball and seek to learn from any experience to draw good lessons. I want to believe that I am one of the living testimonies that persistence under any circumstances eventually pays. But at some point I thought that due recognition that one had long matured enough to assume a senior position of authority in our system was taking long to come. That became the reason I left and resigned from our Foreign Service to join the UN at even a higher level as Chief of Staff at UNECA in Addis in 2014. Thankfully, with my years of being involved in the UN system, the recognition has never lacked on the part of those in the UN system who know what I can achieve, even to date that has not faded. I must however take this opportunity to sincerely thank His Excellency the President for giving me the opportunity to come and serve our beautiful country as Ambassador to the UN, soon after he assumed office in 2018. That evening call came at a critical moment of the World Cup fever as I watched the game between Nigeria and Argentina, and I almost ignored it only to discover it was His Excellency himself.
Discuss the various projects and programmes that you have been engaged in at the UN?
AMB: The assumption of the ECOSOC Presidency elevates our leadership aspirations as a country to an even higher level, considering that the Council is a UN Charter-based Principal Organ. As we say, foreign policy is an extension of domestic policy. It therefore goes without saying that the choices of issues or projects I and my team are advancing cannot be delinked from our national priorities as a country as encapsulated in our national development plan, Vision 2036 and other roadmaps seeking to address among others Botswana’s developmental challenges such as inequalities and youth unemployed through innovation, science and technology. A key element in my approach to advance our national interests is the broader vision of making Botswana a respected and influential player in the international arena. Achieving this means that, first and foremost, we must matter at the negotiation table as a country among other nations. I have therefore since assuming my duties focused on ways to place Botswana and Batswana on the map and in positions of influence, both in intergovernmental bodies and Secretariat as well as expert bodies. One of the next big things at the moment is that starting in July 2021 Botswana will assume the Presidency of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) for duration of one year. Other on-going measures include awareness raising initiatives such as recruitment and procurement seminars organised in partnership with the UN Secretariat to open opportunities for Batswana. Recently I have been involved, together with my team, to enlist UN support for Botswana’s SmartBotswana Roadmap through UNECA. Other Government stakeholders, such as Botswana’s Counter-Terrorism, Fusion and Analysis Agency would confirm that we are in collaboration to get them support from the UN system to capacitate this important institution and I am very satisfied with the progress achieved so far, especially in light of threats in the region.
What will be your next vocation post diplomatic work?
AMB: A very important retirement planning question, which we sometimes take for granted and even forget. I would not be a typical Motswana if my answer did not include commercial farming which I had already started when I was based in Addis Ababa. I have done quite a bit of official travelling mostly, but I still wish to continue exploring some places around the world at my own leisure. Importantly, I will take a moment in my early bit of post-diplomatic life to document my multilateral diplomatic experience in the form of Memoirs and other research papers to benefit other aspiring and serving diplomats. In fact, I am at the moment affiliated with an Intergovernmental University known as EUCLID, where I am doing some online courses and based on my work experience I serve in their faculty (pro bono) as an Adjunct Instructor on International Relations, as the lead tutor on the course relating to the United Nations. Finally, I want to believe that post-diplomatic work as representative of government I should still have residual fire in the belly to contribute further in any available roles at the United Nations.
What alternative career would you have pursued instead of diplomacy and why?
AMB: Observing the nurse and a visiting doctor when I was attached to the local clinic during my Tirelo Sechaba in Sojwe, I almost got tempted to aspire to become a medical Doctor. As someone who is naturally compassionate for others in pain, seeing local residents — old and young — come to the clinic with all types of gruelling ailments and pains deeply touched me; and my immediate instinct was that it would not be a bad idea to be the person that alleviates their pain. But I shelved the idea eventually because after all I had not performed well in natural sciences like Chemistry and Physics at secondary school. I learned towards art sciences which I was good at.
How do you keep your personal projects in Botswana going when you have to spend years abroad?
AMB: Above all, the work of a devoted diplomat is defined by a strong spirit of patriotism and willingness to sacrifice by putting the country first and personal interests last. As a result of the sometimes prolonged posting abroad something must therefore give in the form of the possibility of being home to personally initiate and supervise projects. In my case, the longest time I have in fact lived in Botswana after graduating from UB in 1995 and before my first posting to New York in 1998 was three years. Following my posting in 1998, I spent 15 straight years at the UN in different roles (6 years at the Permanent Mission and 9 years in ACABQ). The last and second time I ever lived in Botswana was for 15 months after I finished my ACABQ term and briefly returned to Botswana and before I again took up a UN job at UNECA in Addis Ababa, in 2014. Now, since October 2018 I am back again in New York as Ambassador. All diplomats will therefore tell you that despite some of the joys that come with our profession it is a tough call to solely rely on others without being there to undertake major personal projects. There are opportunities lost and some decisions that have to be made also come at a significant financial cost which one could have avoided if one is personally present. But we just try to do what is achievable as we focus on representing our country abroad, hoping we will one day return home and play catch up.
People talk of side hassles – money generating projects that they get involved in while still working – are you allowed to do them and if so, kindly disclose them.
AMB: My understanding is that there is currently no prohibition as long as any such money generating projects are authorised and declared, and determined not to interfere or conflict with my official duties. Apart from all of us as diplomats being governed by the same frameworks that regulate the behaviour of Botswana civil service such as the General Orders and the Civil Service Charter and the requirement for asset disclosure, the diplomatic profession has its own additional layers of restraint to avoid engaging in outside activities that could compromise professionalism. As a diplomat I am therefore required to comply with the applicable laws of both the sending State (Botswana) and the host State (USA). I therefore do not engage in any “side hassles” or “money generating projects” in parallel with my official diplomatic functions, given that the host country regulations in particular would not even allow that anyways because of my residency status. But I must admit that as part of my on-going retirement plan, now that I am 53, I have started an aggressive process to move into farming and other future investments. There are still at infant stage, but required permission to engage in such will be sought from my employer at the appropriate time and I will also be accordingly declaring if such investments will fully materialise at the time I am still officially employed by government.
Are you married; to whom; and how many children do you have – their ages?
AMB: Yes, I am married to Cecilia Omale-Kelapile (Kenyan) and blessed with a now 18-year-old boy teenager called Edzani Mugeni Kelapile.
Don’t they yearn to experience your home country more than they do?
AMB: I married in 2000 when I was already posted in New York to a foreign spouse, who has never herself lived in Botswana apart from visiting. My wife works at the UN in New York after she had to leave her previous job at UN-HABITAT in Nairobi to be in the US. Our son was also born in 2002 in the US and has been studying here from childhood. As a result, he somewhat feels more of a New Yorker or American. Therefore, the above described circumstances make me possibly the only one with stronger home (Botswana) attachment among the two, while my wife possibly misses more her own home country (Kenya) and our son is almost an American. But the essence of the question is important for all diplomats.
How do you relax – book you are reading; your best holiday destination?
AMB: My New York duty station is kind of a beehive with just a lot to deal with at the UN, but my means to relax is largely in the form of social networking with fellow diplomatic community members mostly at organised events. Of cause, I do well with a glass of my favourite red wine in the process. I am someone who follows closely global developments as they affect my work, and I therefore tend to watch mainly major news channels. While the UN processes are already documents-intense, I do squeeze in some book readings such as lately the Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew “From Third World To First: The Singapore Story: 1965 -2000” which I was gifted during a trip to Singapore in January 2019. Recently a dear friend and former diplomat during my earlier days in New York who is from Honduras and is Head of Office of the UN Institute of Training and Research (UNITAR) Mr. Marco Suazo, game me a must-read book that I am on now: “Ask for More: 10 Questions to Negotiate Anything” by Alexandra Carter, Director of the Columbia Law School Mediation Clinic. Somewhat our diplomatic service is closer to being burnished to our duty station and thus, apart from the maximum of 30 working days given for our mid-tour leaves which we utilise mainly to attend to critical projects back home, I have occasionally used my 10 additional local leave days to either visit neighbouring Cities, especially in the New York tristate area or take advantage of being out on official missions to my other countries of accreditation like Cuba and Jamaica to stay an extra day. Basically a descent and real holiday in our diplomatic profession is almost none existent.