Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Prime Minister's Office: A Critical reform Area

Published in The Daily Star, May 31, 2008

THESE days we are talking of reforms in governance and institutions of governance and very rightly so. We hear of reform of the Public Service Commission, the Election Commission, Police administration, etc. Yet one office at the nerve centre of governance that attained a great deal of notoriety under elected governments and added significantly to the deterioration of governance, the Prime Minister's Office, or the PMO, has so far escaped attention. To bring the point home, this is what happened to the top PMO officials under Khaleda Zia's premiership. She sent her own secretary to jail. At present her principal secretary is accused for corruption; another secretary is in jail for corruption; one of her political advisers is also in jail while another has been convicted and at present a fugitive from justice.

A friend, former officer of the Pakistan Foreign Service cadre, was cleared for promotion to the rank of a Grade B Ambassador/Additional Secretary in 2003 by the SSB chaired by the cabinet secretary. Just after the conclusion of the meeting, a phone call came from a PMO official asking the cabinet secretary not to proceed with the promotions. The case was stuck for the next 3 months. When it was cleared, my friend had retired! Scores of such promotion cases duly cleared by SSB and sent routinely to the PMO for signature were by-passed by low functionaries at the PMO for political reasons. Under the last BNP Government, a political adviser with his staff ran a parallel office at the PMO as an extension of the party office or the 'Hawa Bhavan' often rendering the principal secretary and PMO officers innocuous and silent spectators. We have read in newspaper reports about the principal secretary and a private secretary to a political adviser “fighting” over the latter's alleged corruption but unable to take action against this gentleman for his political linkage. The charge against this official was that he had acquired property illegally at Gulshan worth crores of taka.

The PMO was established in 1991 when Bangladesh adopted the parliamentary system. It replaced the President's Office where two Presidents with military background had created a very powerful secretariat. It was expected that with change of system, the PMO would lose a lot of power with Ministers sharing executive authority with the Prime Minister. That did not happen because the Prime Minister assumed almost all the powers of the President, helped by the failure of the Parliament to evolve as a meaningful branch of Government. Also, unlike other parliamentary governments, Article 55 (2) of Bangladesh Constitution stated that “the executive power of the Republic shall, in accordance with this Constitution, be exercised by or on the authority of the Prime Minister “that in effect made the system Prime Ministerial instead of a truly parliamentary one where the Prime Minister is ”the first among equals”.

The Prime Minister's dominance was reflected in an un-healthy manner in the way the PMO became a government within the government, to the exclusion of the rest of the government. The Rules of Business and Allocations of Business were suitably amended to legalize the dominance that ran contrary to the parliamentary system and kept the ministers from playing their role in governance. Ministers were vying for attention of not the Prime Minister but bureaucrats at the PMO and were busy building their “power base” by closeness with those bureaucrats who found key posts at the PMO for political reasons as the elected governments politicized it.

In a parliamentary system, political parties play a crucial role in getting a government elected. However, once it is chosen, they are not expected to have any role in governance for once in government; the party in power has to appeal to the nation that has to include everybody, including the supporters of those it has defeated in the elections. In Bangladesh, this did not happen and the parties even when in power seldom overcame narrow party interests to appeal to the broader national constituency. Thus bipartisanship and consensus around national issues never evolved in our politics. At the PMO this play of narrow party interests over broader national interests was played out in the worst ways imaginable. Party officials were brought into governance as political advisers and given offices at the PMO to perform functions “relating to Political Affairs” as entrusted by the Allocations of Business. Career bureaucrats were brought to the PMO on political considerations rather than on merit. Between the political advisers and the bureaucrats, it was just not the PMO that was politicized; together they spread the virus to the entire administration. In the last BNP era, the political advisers with the politicized bureaucrats helped the party take over the PMO and through the PMO, the entire government. Ministers were spending more time to get attention of one political adviser in particular and the “political” bureaucrats there who worked as the party's men at the PMO. The Prime Minister's son at the party office or the Hawa Bhavan encouraged the nexus and the PMO became the front for the party. This nexus became the real power at the PMO leading the ministers to seek the attention of this political adviser more than her secretariat staff including the principal secretary because the blessings of Hawa Bhavan decided most crucial issues of governance. During the last BNP government, a private secretary was the PM's nephew that helped him gain influence way out of proportion to what he deserved and helped in the PMO to evolve as an obstacle to good governance.

During the AL Government, when the PMO had not fallen to such low depths, a senior retired CSP officer who was entrusted to review the administration had called for dismantling it. In a BBC talk show a few years ago, the editor of TDS had said something extremely valuable. While acknowledging that Bangladesh had made good strides towards democracy he felt that for further evolution down the road of democracy Bangladesh would have to find ways to make the Prime Minister accountable in between the elections. That would need a lot of things falling into place, like making the parliament truly functional. If we are seeking to restrain our Prime Ministers from assuming dictatorial powers, as they have done, we could also look into whether we can amend Article 55 (2) of the Constitution and re-invest executive powers in the cabinet. Those issues notwithstanding, the reform of the PMO has become essential and critical for achieving good governance of future elected governments.

The reform of the PMO must start by addressing a major issue, drawing a line between the party and the government. The Prime Minister's role as party leader and his/her need to lead it is undoubtedly very important. But that function must be performed at the party office and not at the PMO. ROB should then be amended and the PMO should be relieved from its role in dealing with political affairs. That would not allow the political advisers to sit at the PMO and free it from party interference. The provisions under schedule V of the Allocations of Business that sets aside cases that ministries must refer to the Prime Minister should also be trimmed so as not to burden the PMO with cases that are routine. As an example, cases of promotion of Deputy Secretary should not be referred by the Establishment Division to the PMO. In trimming schedule V, the spirit should be to free the Prime Minister to concentrate on more serious affairs of the state at the policy level and correspondingly allow the Ministers to play their proper role in governance. The personnel at the PMO must be chosen strictly on merit and the chain of command there under the principal secretary should not be broken by outside interference. On the conflict of interest issue, no close relative of future PMs should be appointed to any post at the PMO.

The most important objective of reform of the PMO must be to free it from political interference and bring professionalism to it. Towards the end of the BNP Government, public confidence in government was all but shattered because of the unholy nexus between the PMO and the Hawa Bhavan. That nexus should not be allowed in the next elected government. The reforms would create that environment but whether the nexus would not be repeated would depend to a large extent upon the next Prime Minister who we hope would come reformed as a consequence of developments in our politics since 1/11. While the PM's choice would be made by the election, the principal secretary would be selected. That selection should be made with great care keeping in mind that he would be the individual on whose personality and leadership qualities a reformed and professional PMO would like to make a new beginning where it would be the cause of removal of people's sufferings instead of being the cause of it.

Bangladesh's potentials are immense; we are the envy of our neighbours because of our history and our homogeneity. Yet we are languishing, hovering between hopes and despair because we have failed to establish bipartisanship in our politics. The PMO is not a party office, and by re-establishing that through the reforms suggested, Bangladesh could make a long awaited start towards bipartisan politics whose impact on the country could be the beginning of the realization of the dreams for which we had established Bangladesh through immense sacrifices.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Our foreign policy and the foreign ministry

Published in The Daily Star, May 17, 2008

RETIRED Ambassadors were unanimous on two issues in a Round Table (RT) organized by The Daily Star (TDS) and the Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies (CFAS) recently. First, foreign policy is not important in governance in Bangladesh. Second, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) of Bangladesh is “the weakest in the world”. It is not that these apprehensions are new. People informed on these issues have known these for a long time.

What is new and important is that this RT has brought foreign policy and the MFA into focus at a time when it is in our national interest to do so. Since the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, international relations are being rewritten faster than most nations can keep pace. Globalization and 9/11 have added new dimensions in international politics that nations have to adapt on a continuous basis for furthering national interests, making successful conduct of foreign policy crucial to all Governments. As a consequence of it all, Foreign Ministries all over the world have gained more power and influence. The TDS-CFAS RT in this context is a timely warning that Bangladesh is harming its own national interests by going against the trend.

It is a pity that we find ourselves in this situation today. We were liberated by blood in 1971 at a time when international law did not favour liberation by exercise of the right of self-determination. It was sheer merit of our cause, heroism of our people and the genocide of the Pakistani Army that swept world opinion in our favour when such was not the case in similar efforts in Sri Lanka and Nigeria where the Biafran struggle dissipated. Immediately after our liberation, it was because of our successful foreign policy that we swiftly became members of the UN, OIC and other world bodies, and established bilateral relations with most of the countries of the world. The MFA successfully charted the course for the nation that allowed Bangladesh safe landing and acceptance in the committee of nations. By 1979, we won a seat at the UN Security Council defeating Japan. In 1981, we came close to becoming the President of the UN General Assembly, a position we lost to Iraq by a coin toss after a tie on the votes cast.

By the time President Ershad usurped power, foreign policy and MFA were on the decline. One major reason for this is interesting; in the period immediately after liberation, when foreign policy was important, MFA officials led by the ex-Pakistan Foreign Service (PFS) officers were enjoying both recognition and prominence. The elite members of the ex-Civil Service of Pakistan (CSP) were at that time in particular threat from the politicians. Some of the senior members of this service made an informal proposal to the ex-PFS officers in the MFA to form a Foreign Service Cadre together that was snubbed by the latter on the principle of inter seniority. That was a mistake for by the time Ershad came, these ex-CSP officers were very powerful. In fact, some senior ex-CSP officers helped Ershad overthrow the elected Government of Justice Sattar and became very close to him. Ershad disliked the Foreign Service that these ex-CSP officers used to full measure. They systematically destroyed the MFA, dividing the entire gamut of foreign relations into diplomatic, aid, trade, consular and other components, and distributing all except the diplomatic to a number of Ministries, Division and agencies and incorporated the changes into the Rules of Business.

The MFA and foreign policy had thus been relegated to the backseat by the time Ershad fell. Elected Governments that returned in 1991 carried forward the trend although our national interests required greater attention and importance to foreign policy to adjust to the new and emerging realities of a post Cold War world. While other countries strengthened their Foreign Ministry to meet new challenges that also opened new opportunities, we weakened it. We just did not allow foreign affairs to be shared by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs together with a number of other Ministries; no effort was made to set up any mechanism for coordination. As one retired Ambassador commented at the TDS-CFAS RT, our foreign policy had become a hydra-headed creature without focus. Those in charge were happy to weaken the MFA and did not care or consider they were harming our national interests.

MFA under elected Governments thus was captain of a ship where its crews owed it no loyalty. It was therefore only logical that during this period we really had no foreign policy but a series of reactions to situations, mostly initiated at the instruction of the Prime Minister's Office. In the Missions, Ambassadors were as helpless as MFA in the country. As Ambassador to Japan, I was picking a lot of information from newspapers that I read on the internet on what the ERD or other economic Ministries were doing with Japan so as not to be embarrassed with the host Government as it was seldom that these Ministries kept me informed on developments. Left without substance in formulating and implementing foreign policy, MFA came up with high sounding policies like Economic Diplomacy during the AL tenure from 1996-2001; the so called Look East policy of the BNP Government and now the Ten Points Policy of the Caretaker Government. These policies have no concept papers. They have not been formulated through consultations with stakeholders and just been drawn out of the hat! To complicate matters, MFA often tried to first guess the mind of the Prime Minister and important officials at the PMO to deal with foreign policy issues. As Foreign Minister, Morshed Khan was aware that the Prime Minister had reservation about India. Instead of attempting to remove these reservations, he built upon it to be on her right side. In a now well-known tirade, he humiliated India at a Seminar in 2004 in unbelievable language to win the PM's attention. It is therefore no wonder that while India is for geopolitical and other reasons our most important neighbor; we do not have an India policy. In fact, substantive matters with India are not dealt by the MFA and often Ministries who deal with these issues, keep the MFA in darkness! We have not demarcated our maritime boundary with India. We have failed to uphold our best interests in multilateral economic negotiations where our performance at WTO negotiations, led by the Commerce Ministry, was so miserable that we were officially extended support by the UN to develop the negotiating skills of those who represent us there, skills available to MFA officers but not used. The sum total of neglect to foreign affairs and weakening the MFA has marginalized Bangladesh. We have no articulated and coordinated policy on issues as critical as climate change and global warming, on our interests in the WTO, on how to deal with India, etc.

The MFA, sadly, has helped this process rather than stand against it. Those in leadership role in the Ministry opted for their personal interests, like promotions and postings instead of opposing the efforts of those in power to relegate foreign affairs into the back drawer and make MFA weak. They allowed influx of army officers whose seniority destroyed the morale of the directly recruited officers. They also failed to oppose for fear of upsetting the Prime Minister and the PMO, wrong decisions taken at the latter's behest like the NAM Chairmanship in 1998 and Salauddin Qader Chowdhury's nomination for the OIC Secretary General's post in 2004 which given to any other candidate of MFA's choice could have won Bangladesh the post.

The need now is to reverse this process and allow the MFA to play a major role in formulating and implementing the country's foreign policy for the sake of Bangladesh. This is the trend worldwide and therefore is nothing new. An example of how MFA functions elsewhere was given at the TDS-CFAS RT. One Ambassador who was High Commissioner in India said at the RT that after he and the then Indian Finance Minister had fixed the latter's visit to Dhaka, the Finance Minister called the High Commissioner to inform him that he was embarrassed to cancel the visit because the Joint Secretary of the Bangladesh Division at the Indian External Affairs Ministry thought the dates were not suitable. Another retired Ambassador gave the example of Brazil where their MFA is the government within the government, a trend that most nations are now following in one degree or another.

It is simply our national interest that requires functions of aid, external trade and expatriate welfare to be given to the MFA together with the coordinating role for foreign policy related functions now being handled by other Ministries. The former NBR Chairman Badiur Raman made a very good case of this by stating in a talk show that with less than one digit dependence on foreign aid in our development needs, it is a disgrace that we have a Division called the ERD. In arguing the case of the Foreign Ministry, it may help us to bear in mind that in implementing foreign policy, diplomacy is of essence. Diplomacy is a specialized profession; the longer time one spends in this profession, the better that individual gets and the better that individual serves the country. The diplomatic cadre in Bangladesh works under the MFA. By bringing foreign policy related functions to the MFA, the country will have professionals dealing with such matters. Why would we do otherwise?

The Foreign Ministry has deteriorated over the years of neglect in its cadre potentials. To take the extra functions, the diplomatic cadre must be expanded by inducting officers from other Ministries and also from the private sector. Efforts must be made to attract people with special qualifications. Our expats in developed countries could be a potential source. Training, specialization and language skills must be made the key elements of the expanded Foreign Service cadre. Within these parameters, we should pursue clearly set out foreign policy goals that are achievable.

The biggest challenge to evolving a foreign policy of Bangladesh to serve the best interests of the country will be to successfully bring the stakeholders such as the political parties, business groups, and civil societies into the loop in the process of formulation of foreign policy. Once Parliament is in place, the Parliamentary Committee for Foreign Affairs should be given a major role in foreign policy formulation where bipartisanship of political parties in approaching foreign policy issues should be made indispensible. Finally, under the elected Government, the country must have a Foreign Minister with background and qualifications for the job that we did not have in the 15 years of elected Government for which the country has suffered. The icing on the cake must come from the Prime Minister who must be the country's number one diplomat by taking a proactive and knowledge based interest in foreign policy for which the bureaucratic walls that the PMO has created in the last 15 years should fall in favour of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.