The Ambassador – filming diplomacy in failed states



Foreign Policy ranks 177 countries according to their degree of state failure. Based on thirteen criteria, the 2012 rankings list Somalia as the most and Finland as the least failed, (one and 177 respectively); Canada ranks at 169. The criteria determining failure include:


  • Mounting demographic pressures.
  • Massive displacement of refugees, creating severe humanitarian emergencies.
  • Widespread vengeance-seeking group grievance.
  • Chronic and sustained human flight.
  • Slum creation in poor areas.



  • Uneven economic development along group lines.
  • Severe economic decline.



  • Criminalization and/or delegitimization of the state.
  • Deterioration of public services.
  • Suspension or arbitrary application of law; widespread human rights abuses.
  • Security apparatus operating as a “state within a state”.
  • Rise of factionalized elites.
  • Intervention of external political agents.


While Foreign Policy uses a semi scientific approach, a visual and more entertaining one is The Ambassador, a film made and acted in by Danish journalist and documentary film producer Mads Brugger.  Posing as Cortzen, a white man, Brugger goes to the Central African Republic (CAR) and to Liberia with the aim of securing diplomatic credentials from Liberia to become one of its representatives in the CAR. His aim is to show how blood diamonds can be smuggled out of the CAR by diplomats in pouches and various body cavities, with the aid of corrupt officials and entrepreneurs, both European and African, who make money by linking persons with officials. Diplomats tend not to be searched when leaving a country.

(I am grateful to Gerry Schmitz for bringing this film to my attention).

The film, a black comedy produced as cinema verite, illustrates how the market for diplomatic credentials works. It is run by Europeans and others, who for a price put those desiring the credentials in touch with Liberian and CAR officials to provide the necessary papers, and to get them accepted in the CAR. Brugger films his meetings with the entrepreneurs, officials and politicians. He poses as a diplomat and in addition to money (cash in envelopes) offers to build a match factory in the CAR in order to create employment. As an added incentive he offers to employ pygmies who are a minority and somewhat oppressed group in the country. During the production, he hires two pygmies who appear with him throughout most of the film.

Surprisingly, while filming The Ambassador, none of those who met with Brugger bothered to ask who he was, and why a white man would be representing Liberia. He did little to disguise himself, and a background web search was never made. If  it had, it would have revealed that he had made films with similar themes including one in North Korea called The Red Chapel where

…The Danish filmmaker and two friends posed as a pro-socialist comedy troupe called The Red Chapel to gain entrance into North Korea. Under the guise of cultural exchange, Brügger filmed his two-week stay in the country, and the result is a rare glimpse into a closed society that is part satire and part political screed. The film is thoroughly fascinating, and just won the World Cinema grand jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival….

In public discourse, the concept of failed states is widely discussed but seldom seen in such an open way. In The Ambassador, it’s as though criminals have agreed to have their actions filmed for public distribution.

 Those taking or teaching courses on developing countries, aid and the conduct of diplomacy should view this film, as should practicing diplomats and officials. It would be interesting to get the reaction of the aid and diplomatic communities. The film deals with a serious issue, is presented in a clear and amusing manner and reinforces the view that so-called sovereign states are vastly different from each other, although often there is a pretense that they are equal.


The Ambassador reminds us that while state failure is pervasive in certain places, it is present in all countries. Perhaps this type of failure is studied in law courses and by those who study criminal behavior, but it receives scant attention in economics. Economists study market failure, opportunistic and criminal behavior in connection with markets as well as transparency surrounding transactions, but the functioning of the underground economy, of which this film illustrates one part, is not a primary focus of the discipline.

Since 1999, Transparency International has published a Bribe Payers Index. The first report covered 14 emerging market economies and the 2011 report includes 183 countries and territories.

“The Corruption Perceptions Index ranks countries according to their perceived levels of public-sector corruption. The 2011 index draws on different assessments and business opinion surveys carried out by independent and reputable institutions. The surveys and assessments used to compile the index include questions relating to the bribery of public officials, kickbacks in public procurement, embezzlement of public funds, and questions that probe the strength and effectiveness of public-sector anti-corruption efforts.”


In this index, a high ranking denotes high corruption and a low ranking low corruption.  Somalia leads the list at 183, the CAR 154 and Liberia 91; New Zealand ranks 1 (as least corrupt) and Canada 10. The Ambassador reflects more aspects of corruption than it does state failure although one is part of the other.

There is a risk of saying that signs of failure are not present in one’s own country. I think this is a mistake. Rather it could be argued that all countries show signs of failure which may include corruption and bribery. Like health where some are healthier than others, failure occurs in varying degrees, for example:

  1. He (Madoff) founded the Wall Street firm Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities LLC in 1960, and was its chairman until his arrest. Alerted by his sons, federal authorities arrested Madoff on December 11, 2008. On March 12, 2009, Madoff pled guilty to 11 federal crimes and admitted to operating what has been the largest Ponzi scheme in history. On June 29, 2009, he was sentenced to 150 years in prison with restitution of $170 billion. According to the original federal charges, Madoff said that his firm had “liabilities of approximately US$50 billion”. Prosecutors estimated the size of the fraud to be $64.8 billion, based on the amounts in the accounts of Madoff’s 4,800 clients as of November 30, 2008. Ignoring opportunity costs and taxes paid on fictitious profits, half of Madoff’s direct investors lost no money.  In comparison the actions of Conrad Black are small potatoes (source Wikipedia).
  2. The Gomery inquiry in Canada addressed issues of failure in federal government contracting. Specifically requested of Gomery were the following: to prevent mismanagement of sponsorship or advertising programs in the future, taking into account legislation to protect “whistleblowers”; to recommend changes to legislation to change the governance of Crown corporations to ensure that audit committees are strengthened, that public access to information is increased, that there is a consistent application of the provisions for each organization, that compliance and enforcement be enhanced, and finally that respective responsibilities and accountabilities of Ministers and public servants as recommended by the Auditor General of Canada. A similar inquiry is underway re public sector contracting in Quebec.
  3. Riots took place recently in Greece concerning legislation addressing the current fiscal situation where successive governments have failed to enforce tax legislation and collection.
  4. Street riots, often involving students, have taken place in London, Paris and Montreal with police having difficulty in controlling them.
  5. China restricts the ability of persons to run in elections against the ruling party
  6. Malaysia limits the publication and distribution of newspapers – this is now largely bypassed by the Internet.
  7. Terrorism occurs to various degrees in parts of the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Peru, and Ireland for example, and was part of the 1970 FLQ crisis in Quebec.

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