Estonia, Africa countries can cooperate on green transition and digitalisation
Estonia is one of the three Baltic States in Europe comprising Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. The Foreign Affairs Ministry of Estonia was founded or established in 1919 after the declaration of independence of Estonia on Saturday, February 23, 1918.
Ambassador Ingrid Amer joined Estonia’s Foreign Service in 1995. According to the veteran diplomat’s profile, she has worked at Estonian embassies in Warsaw in Poland; Helsinki in Finland and Prague in Czech Republic. Also, in the State Protocol Department and the Political Department of the Foreign Ministry of Estonia. Furthermore, Ambassador Ingrid Amer has led the Central Europe and Balkans Division and the divisions of southeast Europe, general affairs of the European Union and enlargement.
Between 2013 and 2018, Ambassador Ingrid Amer was the deputy head in the Estonian embassy in Paris (France) and between 2016 and 2018, she was the Estonian Ambassador to UNESCO. Amer is currently the Director of the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America Division at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Estonia.
On Monday 8 February 2021 in Bamako, Mali, Ambassador Ingrid Amer, Estonia’s Ambassador to the Republic of Mali presented her credentials to the President of Mali Bah N’Daw as Estonia’s non-resident Ambassador to Mali.
Ambassador Amer led Estonia’s Senior Officials’ Meeting delegation to the African Union European Union’s Ministerial Meeting which took place from Monday 25th before the Ministerial Meeting of Tuesday 26th October 2021 in Kigali, Rwanda. I sat down with Ambassador Ingrid Amer for an interesting and extensive interview on themes varying from Estonia, AU-EU relations, e-Governance and much more. Do read the excerpts of the interview.
Ambassador Ingrid Amer, you are welcome to Rwanda. Your first time in Rwanda?
Yes, that’s right.
Okay, so, let’s get down to the crux of the matter. What is Estonia’s foreign policy about? What are its objectives? What is Estonia’s foreign policy towards the Africa Continent?
Well, to put it briefly, for Estonia, the most important objective is to keep Estonia secure and wealthy, and that our neighbourhood would be also secure and wealthy. So, we are working to keep Estonia safe and secure. This means that we have to work for that ourselves and we belong to organizations like EU and NATO. And this membership of these organisations gives and affords us guarantees. Our priorities are to keep our neighbourhood. As you would know, our direct neighbourhood is Eastern Europe.
So, with the Eastern Partnership, we work very closely with them. But to go further, you know, we come to Europe’s Southern neighbourhood. And this means Africa. This means the Eastern and Southern Mediterranean, but also Sub-Saharan Africa. Our interest plus main priority is that our neighbourhood is safe and secure. And we work there. And you know that one thing to enable one to keep this neighbourhood safe, secure and wealthy is to have very good economic relations.
And the other aspect in which we work with and alongside Africa, is missions (military missions) because there are countries still out there which are experiencing military conflicts on the African continent. Sadly, the African Continent has the most of the military conflicts that are ongoing presently. And Estonia gives her share and contributes to the military mission. So, our biggest military mission is in Mali, where we participate in the UN mission (MINUSMA: The United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali). We also participate in the EU Training Mission in Mali (EUTM) and we also participate in the French-led counterterrorism operation called Operation Barkhane and its task force called Takuba. We give our share to security in Africa security. And apart from that, we also participate in the United Nations Mission to Libya (The United Nations Support Mission for Libya: UNSMIL) and some missions in the Middle East.
Interesting. On Estonia’s foreign policy strategy 2030. Do shed light on this policy.
Well, as I said, we have those timeless goals and they are timeless things, it is security of Estonia; it is also our wellbeing; which also means economic diplomacy and then you have consular; that is Estonians abroad. Basically, we are working on those spheres to make Estonia more strategically placed and known.
Estonia is fully digital and is known as a start-up nation. And the country is known for her E-governance stance, drive and approach. Why did Estonia decide to go fully digital way before it was even fashionable? And why this futuristic approach to digital technology?
Actually, there is an explanation because Estonia regained its independence in 1991, after fifty years of Soviet occupation, and at that concrete moment, in 1991, our economy was in a very bad shape, we had to do reforms, reforms that were quite painful for the people. Basically, we had no money. But we had ambitions.
We had a goal and we had a young government full of young people, and who really had a vision of Estonia as part of the Western world. We needed to regain our place there. We had really educated people and we had this tradition and knack for very good Information Technology education in Estonia and we had to be very creative. So, we had to run very fast to really achieve our goals. In was exactly in 1991, that we moved into this IT direction.
As I said, we had dedicated people, we had ambitions, and this for us was also a necessity, because we saw that actually while going digital and implementing those digital reforms, we could also save money because we did not have a lot. And, we did it step by step. There was the political vision, and there was that consensus in the society that we needed to do it. So, we started to build our E-government from the mid-1990s in a very comprehensive way; meaning that it also had to begin with educating the children.
We had a programme called Tiger leap which had computers practically to every school and internet everywhere; as (Tiger Leap Program was launched in February 1996 by Estonian President Lennart Meri to adjust the education system to the needs of rapidly evolving information society by equipping schools with modern information and communication technology, linking schools to internet, providing ICT education to teachers, promoting development of teaching/learning software, etc.
In order to achieve these goals Tiger Leap Foundation was created in 1997 by the Ministry of Education and private sector ICT firms.) we taught school children which ensured that a whole generation grew up with IT skills and computer knowledge. We also did not leave out our older generation from this digital transformation. We created courses for retired people.
Interesting. And this has paid off right?
Yes. Actually, this was not done at once. We did it step by step because building an e-government as you know, demands legislative changes. We had to do everything from the scratch. It had to be a vision, political will and then, it had to be a priority. Also add educating people into the mix.
And then, as we were implementing all those changes, Estonia had to also create her own new banking system. And why are those banks, e-banking systems? Because we just had to do it. We started to develop those e-services which were the first e-services.
As the Director of Middle East, Africa, Latin America of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Estonia, and also the non-resident ambassador to Mali; how would you describe the relations between the Baltic State of Estonia and the African Continent in general?
Well, I can tell you about Estonia. Probably, if you would look into history, you know, historically, that our relations with African countries have not been very deep. Actually, the relations started around the end of 19th century with our missionaries, because we had missionaries (Christian missionaries) in Southern Africa, Eastern Africa, and also Northern Africa.
And with those missionaries, we gained knowledge and interest and probably our first works and written articles were gotten during those early expeditions and interactions. This was sort of the start of the Africa-focused interests by Estonia (Estonian Africanistics interests towards Africa).
When Estonia became independent in 1918, of course, our first worries were mostly concentrated on us, and also on our immediate neighbourhood. But in the 1920s and 1930s, when Estonia was independent, then, we began to look towards Africa and during that period, the interest was mostly steered towards maritime, majorly because Estonia is a maritime country and we had seamen.
So, we had those who regularly made trips to Africa and at some point, our biggest diaspora in Africa was in Congo (which was then ruled by Belgium). Furthermore, for example, the government then, was discussing establishing an Estonian consulate there, but it did not materialise and then, we lost our independence during the Soviet times. So, yes, I would say, our first contact with Africa was through Estonian seamen. But in the early 1990s, when we re-established our independence, the relations commenced gradually (step by step) and in a very logical way because we had to manage ourselves, we had to concretise our reforms. Our goal was to become member of the EU and NATO.
And so, with this EU accession process, we also started looking towards Africa, because a lot of work in EU’s neighbourhood is goes also to this African direction. And, we opened our embassies, not in Africa then, but for example, we nominated our first non-resident ambassador to the African Continent, it was to Morocco. We commenced from Northern Africa and after that to Egypt, and then we opened our first embassy, and still our only embassy on the African continent in Egypt in 2010. We cover African Union and also Ethiopia. But in 2020, we became a member of the UN Security Council, and then we decided also to open an office in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia). It is still an office of our embassy in Cairo, but we have charges d’affaires working in Addis Ababa.
So, growth has been organic?
Yes. The growth has been very organic. And in relation to the question, you posed about our digital transformation. I would say that what really brought us closer to African countries was what happened in the beginning of 1990s. Why?
Because all those reforms we implemented and the way we went digital step by step and from the scratch, doing everything in an organic way, actually brought us closer to Africans and the African Continent because at some moment, we just understood that there was and still is, a huge interest of many African countries towards what we did and have been able to accomplish digitally and because our digital transition experience has proven to be very successful. I would also add that about ten to fifteen years ago (2006-2011) our companies mostly IT companies began looking towards Africa and our first IT projects on the African Continent were implemented and executed. It has been a step-by-step process and it has been very logical and detailed.
What are the strategic and beneficial plans in the pipeline between Estonia and the African countries where Estonia has a presence or sort of a presence?
We have a diplomatic presence and still only in Cairo (Egypt). We have a diplomat in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia.) We have Honorary Consuls in several African countries, but we want to enlarge and expand the network of Honorary Consuls because Honorary Consuls also represent Estonia (they help us). And we wish to go forward in the spheres where Estonia has a strong footing and where there is an African interest, which is mostly digital transformation, green transformation, cooperation in education.
And as you know, we are a very small country 1.3 million and we are talking about relations with a huge Continent of 1.3 billion. Invariably, it means that whatever we do, we have to be more creative.
Yes, strategic and more creative. As mentioned, there is this concrete interest towards digital transformation and we plan to do it as long as there is interest of Africans. Also, I would say that there is a lot that we can learn from Africans and Africa because in the 1990s, we leapfrogged but now, you are doing this.
For example, in Rwanda or Kenya, there are so many interesting mobile solutions these countries are using; we could learn from you because I believe any cooperation is the best when it goes two ways. There is interest to work with Africans and Africa in the field of education, Estonia is pretty strong in education, if you know about PISA tests of OECD countries: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (PISA is the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment.
PISA measures 15-year-olds’ ability to use their reading, mathematics and science knowledge and skills to meet real-life challenges) we are one of the top countries in the world and this has definitely attracted attention. We are also strong digitally and holistically speaking, e-learning and presently due to COVID, it has brought this up as a necessity and brought Estonia to the forefront. So, we have good solutions too. We can cooperate mostly in digital transition, green transition, digital education etc.
The Africa EU partnership is cemented through various programs and facilities, funds such as the Pan African program, the African peace facility, the EU emergency Trust Fund to Africa, investments platform and the EU Africa Infrastructure Trust Fund. What are the current updates with these programs?
Well, as earlier stated, Estonia is a small country and we are concentrating on our strong points. And I mentioned those priorities that are bilaterally important for us, like digital and green transformation, education, but also security. Those are priorities for us also in the EU-Africa cooperation. We are working for that also in the EU. For example, we are active in Digital for Development (D4D) Hub (a global digital cooperation between EU Member States such as Germany, France, Belgium, Estonia and Luxembourg who are at the forefront of promoting new international partnerships on digital transformation as Team Europe.) As I previously mentioned about security (our military missions), we are active there as well.
Estonia is active in Mali, right? Why Mali?
Why not? Militarily, there is a logic there. We have very good bilateral military cooperation with France. It started in 2010, when I first worked with France and it was in Somalia during Operation Atlanta (Operation Atalanta, formally European Union Naval Force (EU NAVFOR) Somalia, is a current counter-piracy military operation at sea off the Horn of Africa and in the Western Indian Ocean, that is the first naval operation conducted by the European Union (EU). T
he operational headquarters is currently located at the Spanish Operation Headquarters (ESOHQ) at Naval Station Rota (NAVSTA Rota) in Spain, having moved from London as a result of the British withdrawal from the EU. It is part of a larger global action by the EU to prevent and combat acts of piracy in the Indian Ocean, and it is the first EU naval operation to be launched.)
Then in 2013, we went to Mali and we were again with France, then, for one short rotation of four months, we were in Central African Republic, also with France. It kind of developed and we are in Mali, also with France. We are mostly participating in all missions, all military missions there. But the biggest number of our military is bilaterally in the French counterterrorism operation Barkhane and its task force Takuba. We are there in Mali, because we have had a very good tradition of military cooperation with France. But it’s not only France, it is Europe’s security.
The African Union, European Union ministerial meeting taking place in Rwanda is focusing on several themes. From your own perspective, how can these themes be achieved?
If I got you right, I would say, Europe and Africa, we say we are sister Continents and we are connected to each other. It is only the Mediterranean that is a divider. Our wellbeing and security are connected. So, it is in Europe’s interest and it is in Africa’s interest for our partnership. In 2020, the EU came to us (Estonia) with a communication because of our strategic partnership with Africa, it was kind of our input to EU Africa strategy.
And we (EU) would like to have a dialogue with African countries and want to have your (Estonia) input. We need to have these discussions on strategic priorities, about the work we have to do together. There are many different fields and we need to work together for our better economic relations. We need to work more together for political aims, definitely. We need to work together for security because this is important too.
For every big goal and aim, we have sub goals and aims or spheres where we are working. For example, as I said, I’m still coming back to what is important for Estonia, digital and green transformation. We need to do those jobs. This is the future and we have to work together for that and possibilities, aplenty.
As the Director of Middle East, Latin America and Africa (quite a handful of portfolios) when should we on the African Continent have the next Estonian embassy?
Well, it is in the hands of our government to decide on that and so I can’t really elaborate on that. We have thoughts but right now nothing can really take place due to COVID etc.
Any possibilities or any pointers to the countries that might get the next embassies or that is still under wraps?
Well, we have closer cooperation with East Africa.
Interesting. So, that basically points to something.
What is the title of the book you’re currently reading?
It is a book by the British author William Boyd and it is titled; Good man in Africa.