Diplomacy is changing radically. It is no longer the strict purview of governments and traditional institutions. Everybody can be an ambassador for their country. The Global Diplomacy Lab promotes this development with the aid of bold thinkers who we portray in this series.
Imran Simmins, a diplomat from South Africa, is one of them.
Ten minutes, and the clock is ticking. “Let’s go,” says Imran Simmins and reaches for a pen and a piece of paper. There is no time to think too long. Every idea is put forward, including ones that seem crazy or absurd. In fact, they are the ones in special demand. This is why an unusual team has assembled here. Imran Simmins, a diplomat from South Africa, shares the table with a graphic designer, a human rights lawyer, a criminologist, a journalist, and the head of the German Federal Foreign Office’s Foreign Service Academy.
Global Diplomacy Lab
The Global Diplomacy Lab (GDL) brings together academics, artists, journalists, entrepreneurs, and diplomats from all over the world. Together they reflect on what the foreign policy of the future should look like. The 6th Global Diplomacy Lab took place in Buenos Aires, Argentina. In this series, we present four members of the Lab. The GDL is an initiative of the Federal Foreign Office, the BMW Foundation Herbert Quandt, Stiftung Mercator, and the Robert Bosch Stiftung.
The question they deal with: How can we better prevent mass atrocities? A big and at first glance not so unusual question. What is unusual is how the participants search for answers in this room in Buenos Aires. The participants of the 6th Global Diplomacy Lab sit in an Open Situation Room, a moderated brainstorming format developed by Swiss-born Nicola Forster.
It is inspired by the Situation Room which was established by former U.S. President John F. Kennedy in the White House for discussing acute crisis situations. The only difference is that this Situation Room does not bring together government experts but is open to people from a variety of backgrounds and professions—including people whose advice is normally not solicited on these issues.
Representatives of governments and organizations from Africa and Latin America presented their biggest problems in the fight against mass atrocities and asked the participants for ideas on two problems in particular: How can we strengthen the political will, and how can organizations from Africa and Latin America enhance their collaboration?
No idea is too far-fetched.
The ten minutes are ticking away, and the colorful pieces of paper are piling up on the table in front of Simmins. There are so many ideas that some pieces of paper slide off the table. What about an exchange program? What about a tandem partner lottery or a social network complete with an app? How to overcome language problems? Perhaps one could use joint action teams, a model from police work? No idea is too far-fetched.
“This is what I love about the Global Diplomacy Lab and especially about the Open Situation Room,” says Simmins. “Sometimes people who are not so familiar with the topic provide the best input.” Simmins himself is very familiar with the topic of mass atrocities, having experienced apartheid in his native South Africa. He is proud that his country has managed to overcome apartheid peacefully, without a civil war, and likes to talk about it. “In fact, this was the reason why I wanted to become a diplomat.”
"My current job, too, has long been the domain of old white men who passed through a rigid system, but this is changing, and the Global Diplomacy Lab is at the center of this change."
Shortly after completing his studies, he went to London for two years, where he worked in a bar. “When the people at the counter asked me where I was from, I started to wax so lyrical that I realized this was what I wanted to do for a job: traveling the world and helping people gain a better understanding of my country.”
Today, he is sometimes bothered by the fact “that diplomacy, besides the military, is the most highly structured working environment.” For Simmins is used to breaking down structures. In 1995, he was the first black student to be elected to the student parliament at his university in Johannesburg; until then, it had been composed of white members only, despite the official end of apartheid. “My current job, too, has long been the domain of old white men who passed through a rigid system, but this is changing, and the Global Diplomacy Lab is at the center of this change. It breaks down this rigid system and gets other actors involved in foreign policy, loosening up many things. Here I, a classic diplomat, have the freedom to be different, to challenge protocol and traditions.”
The Open Situation Room in particular has changed the way he does his job, says Simmins: “I have gotten into the habit of generally thinking more freely and more creatively.”
In the meantime, the results of the ideas gathering are presented. Simmins is thrilled to hear that the Argentinian diplomat Fabian Oddone would like to continue with the idea of creating joint action teams from Africa and Latin America: “We have been looking for a long time for a format for how to organize temporary collaborations, and this could be the solution.”
Coming up next: Dilshad Muhammad, a political scientist from Syria, who fled to Germany two years ago.