Tackling the aftermath of Kenya’s worst period of political violence was a tough job for the most seasoned ambassador. But Ana Maria Sampaio Fernandes, Brazil’s envoy to the East African country, was not easily fazed, even if it was her first ambassadorship. “I was lucky,” she shrugs. “When I arrived the coalition government was ready to go,” she says, referring to the bloated cabinet deemed the answer to ethnic fighting that killed more than 1,300 people in 2008.
After more than 30 years in Brazil’s Foreign Service, spanning Chile, Washington and London, Sampaio Fernandes sits comfortably in the ambassador’s chair. Not that she planned it. “It’s like sailing,” she says. “You have principles, a compass in your career. But you have winds and currents and I never set myself a clear-cut objective.”
One of Sampaio Fernandes’ most important tasks is helping to find new markets in Africa for biofuels. Brazil wants to build an international biofuels market. Africa, she says, has the potential to be one of the market’s major players. “You need many producers to have an international market,” she says sipping on an espresso. “Already the US is an exporter. Already we export. But we need more producers.”
Much has been made of the push into Africa by Brazil and fellow Bric members China and India. Of the Brics, Brazil now ranks as the third biggest investor in Africa. But, its reported €15bn trade with sub-Saharan Africa pales in comparison to China’s €80bn. While the latter is often criticised in the West for exploiting Africa’s natural resources to fuel its own insatiable appetite for commodities, Brazil’s model of investment has been dubbed “China with a conscience”.
Sampaio Fernandes avoids the comparison. “Brazil is like most African countries, we are resource and mineral rich. We are not securing markets to feed our economy.” Instead, she points to a “familiarity” Brazilians feel when they set foot in Africa. It was a connection former President Lula da Silva was keen to entrench – and one the Chinese might struggle to emulate. “There’s an African presence in our culture, in the population and the way in which Brazil was formed,” she says, referring to the 16th century slave trade. “And the food and the music.”
- The embassy: After many years in downtown Nairobi, the Brazilian Embassy moved in 1998 after an al-Qaeda suicide attack on the neighbouring US embassy killed dozens of people. No-one in the Brazilian embassy was wounded but the mission shifted to the leafier, more secure Muthaiga suburb where much of the diplomatic community is based.
- The staff: Sampaio Fernandes oversees a staff of 24 people in the Nairobi embassy – eight Brazilians, five of whom are on the diplomatic team, and 16 local Kenyan staff. There is also an honorary consulate based in Kampala.
- The challenges: As well as being resident ambassador to Kenya, Sampaio Fernandes is non-resident ambassador to Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda – countries that have all been through turmoil in recent years. According to Sampaio Fernandes, the more recent the “interruption [civil war for example] to the political process the more challenging it is to work with that country – levels of education are poorer, government structures are less mature”.
The UK’s Foreign and Commonweath Office has long had to play a balancing act between ensuring security at its missions and presenting an open and architecturally inspiring vision of Blightey. In francophone Algiers, not traditionally Britain’s sphere of influence, architects John McAslan + Partners masterfully extended and adapted the neo-Moorish 19th-century ambassador’s residence at its prestigious central address.
“Algiers welcomed us with open arms,” says project director Simon Goode, and since 2009 this British corner of the city has been returning the pleasantries by becoming an architectural focal point.
Several US embassies could be without an ambassador in 2012, after the US Senate blocked a number of appointments. Posts currently held up include those for Russia and India. Senators are able to veto appointments secretly, making it tricky for state department officials to work out who has blocked whom – and, crucially, why.
While most western governments are cutting the budget for their diplomatic services, the European Union’s new External Action Service wants to raise its budget by 5.8 per cent in 2012. Whether member states will give the EEAS its rise is another matter.