Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Minister and the Media

Published in The Daily Star, June 29, 2008

I had an interesting argument recently with a former adviser of the caretaker government on the excessive indulgence of the advisers with the media. This was at a typical Dhaka dinner party. As soon as I explained my views on the issue, he dismissed them summarily. He argued that transparency required ministers/advisers to interact with the media regularly because people have a right to know about government policy from the horse's mouth. He further argued that for the CTG, the importance of advisers talking to the media is indispensable because the parliament has been abrogated.

I held my ground that neither transparency nor policy dictated that ministers/advisers should be so excessively involved with the media. I based my arguments on practices elsewhere, suggesting that ministers/advisers nowhere interact with the media the way they do in Bangladesh. I cited Japan where ministers deal with transparency of governance in parliament while bureaucrats deal with the media, unless a national crisis requires the minister to talk to the media.

I also argued that policies were not black and white issues upon which ministers/advisers could talk to the media without creating confusion and compromising on secrecy and confidentiality. I further argued that when a minister/adviser erred before the media, he would be unable to backtrack without embarrassing the government, which was one strong reason why media specialists in bureaucracy interact with the media instead. The ex-adviser was not at all satisfied with my arguments.

He is not alone in his point of view. On any given evening, advisers or ministers have had a difficult time following their media appearances on newscasts of private TV channels. Such indulgences have not served the need of transparency or explained policy to the people, but have landed ministers and advisers in trouble. With all the advisers talking to the media constantly with no holds barred, the government appears like a hydra-headed creature, without focus or sense of direction.

Things were not like this when we became independent. A minister in 1970s used to make an urgent call to the Establishment Ministry upon assuming oath of office. The reason was to get an ex-CSP officer as a private secretary for his pride and prestige. He would then make another important call to the Information Ministry for the best information officer (IO), the official spokesman of the ministry. The information officer acted as the link between the media and the government on all issues of media interest, with the secretary and/or the minister speaking to the media only when issues were of national importance. Today every ministry has an IO, who is still the official ministry spokesman but his job has been unofficially taken over by the minister/adviser, leaving him doing personal chores for his boss. In the process, our ministers/advisers have become the most visible in the world -- like media stars in constant media glare. That visibility has, unfortunately, not improved governance; hampering it instead. Something is amiss here.

It was during the decade-long Ershad tenure that the information officer's job was usurped gradually by the minister because of the president's interest in the media for personal reasons. As a usurper, he needed legitimacy. He knew that the media could give him great assistance there. So he interacted with the media both overtly and covertly, but not for reasons of transparency or desire to explain his government's policy. His intentions were more sinister, where the underlying belief was that the more he could motivate the media in his favour, the greater would he have legitimacy for himself and his government. The ministers followed Ershad, and turned the government into propaganda machinery, where they depended less on bureaucrats to deal with the media. Thus the minister unofficially took over the job of the information officer to a large extent, although the information officer still disseminated some information to the media.

Ershad's fall ushered in the parliamentary system. In a parliamentary system, the government remains in power as long as it has the confidence of the majority members in parliament. The parliament collectively or individually quizzes every minister, the prime minister included, on any policy matter. The committee system further allows the parliament to look into the working of all ministries in a manner where complete transparency can be achieved. Thus, very little is really left for the public that would require the media to knock at a minister's door, apart from routine functions of governance that could and should be left to the bureaucrats to handle.

However, in the case of Bangladesh, ministers continued with their media indulgence although the change to the parliamentary system did not require it either for transparency or for bringing the public on board on policy. The ministers' interaction with the media increased a great deal with the gradual expansion of the media, climaxing in the private TV explosion during the last BNP era, which have treated the ministers as media stars. These factors notwithstanding, the ministers loved their media role for one of the major reasons that had motivated Ershad: a desire to see their names in print and their faces on TV.

The advisers of the CTG have the added excuse to indulge with the media because the parliament is not in session. The consequences, nevertheless, are the same: transparency or public needs remain mere excuses, while the government is embarrassed through such indulgence for no good reason. The excessive media appearances of the advisers give the impression that they are running this government through the media. In doing so, they do not realise that they are causing themselves and the CTG embarrassment, because they often end up contradicting themselves and one another. To complicate matters, the media often, intentionally or otherwise, covers these interactions in a subjective manner.

A lot of us former diplomats were disappointed to see the foreign affairs adviser appearing together with the outgoing British High Commissioner in front of the media, after the latter had met him for his farewell call that was a routine diplomatic event. By appearing together, the adviser had to watch the BHC talk on our internal affairs in direct contravention of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, something the adviser could and should have easily avoided. A simple statement by director general of external publicity or the information officer of MFA about the farewell call would have been both appropriate and professional.

Advisers often talk to the media in the corridors of the Secretariat, at the airport, in fact, where not? This is not the picture of a professional government, for governance is a more serious business, and has to be conducted behind public and media glare. In the absence of the parliament, there is perhaps the need for them to interact more with the media. They have, however, gone overboard with this interaction. In place of transparency and awareness of policy, the people end up utterly confused by these excessive interactions, where professional bureaucrats with media experience could have served the government and the people's needs much better, as they do in all other governments.

Our governance has many problems. A lot of that arises from the tendency of the people at the top acting for personal interests by breaking rules and procedures and then using catchy phrases such as transparency and people's rights to justify some of these egotistic actions. As we look towards the next elected government, we also need to try to make our governance professional. We need to seriously make efforts that the ministers in the elected government do not follow the indulgence of the advisers with the media. Towards that objective, the next parliament should deal with concern for transparency and awareness about policy.

The ministers should concern themselves with the serious task of implementing government policies and goals. The bureaucrats should handle the media regarding the work of the ministers and the ministries. Let the elected government give the information officer his job back, with some changes. Taking into view the media explosion and increased media interest in governance, perhaps it would be wise to consider upgrading the status of the information officer, whose rank now is that of an assistant secretary, to that of a deputy or a joint-secretary.

It also does not show this government in good light to see on TV screens, for example, three or four advisers talking to the media day in and day out on the political dialogue, where they look amateurish and also end up contradicting their statements from one day to the next. A professional media spokesman from the bureaucracy could have spared the advisers embarrassment, while allowing them time to concentrate on the dialogue.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Export Targets for Bangladesh Embassy and Economic Diplomacy

Published in The Daily Star, June 7, 2008

HE Commerce Secretary recently announced a number of stern measures including closing down or relocating commercial wings of Bangladesh Embassies for failure to meet his Ministry's export targets. This reminded me of my own experience with export targets as an Ambassador. My first tryst with export targets came in Egypt when the Commerce Secretary expressed disappointment in a letter after my Embassy failed to meet the target. That depressed me but not for too long for soon I learnt that the Embassy that topped the list as the most successful Embassy was one in the Middle East that was headed by a non-career Ambassador, a former private college Principal, whose main concern was politics with the Bangladeshi community. In Japan, in the space of a few months, I was once “congratulated” by the Commerce Secretary for surpassing the “target” but “reprimanded “the following quarter when the Embassy fell short. In four years in Japan, I was “congratulated “and “reprimanded” on export targets without realizing why my Embassy “failed” or "succeeded!” The strange fact was that there was really no tangible reason for such failure or success.

I hope readers do not get any wrong impression because the issue is a very serious one for Bangladesh. We either export more or perish. We are just on the wrong track. When I was in Japan, I was very interested to know the reasons behind Thailand's dramatic inroads into the Japanese market. In the 1970s, Thailand's export to Japan was a few hundred million US dollars. By 2002, Thailand was exporting to Japan in just poultry alone, more than US $ 2 billion. The Thai Ambassador in Japan who became a good friend explained the reasons. He said that the dramatic expansion in Thailand's export to Japan was the result of nearly 3 decades of painstaking work of the Thai private sector. Since the early 70s, the Thai private sector had targeted Japan by participating regularly in trade fairs there in the areas where they had potentials. By such participation, the Thai private sector won the confidence of the Japanese private sector in commodities of comparative advantage and expanded its exports that are now worth several billion US dollars. The Thai Foreign Ministry and its Embassy in Japan created the favourable field for its private sector by providing critical market information; negotiating favourable bilateral trade deals through which import restrictions were relaxed/removed; and backed its private sector in a manner that created confidence of the Japanese importers. In actual export, the Thai Embassy or its Government did not come into the scene directly for that was not their business.

The Thai experience is relevant for us to understand that we are on the wrong track. Our export targets are set arbitrarily. The Commerce Ministry does not consult the Embassies in setting targets. Embassies are given figures and a list of commodities without the platform to interface with the actual sellers, the exporters. They are thus “shadow” sellers who never see the goods they are asked to sell. To complicate matters further, they often find items in their list that they alone know would just not sell within the year for a variety of reasons as lists are prepared not just arbitrarily but also without professional market survey. When I was in Japan, pharmaceutical was one item in my mission's list. That was an impossible task for achieving in a year for import requirements for pharmaceuticals into Japan was and still is a very complex issue. Our pharmaceuticals have good prospect in Japan but it would require many years of coordinated efforts of the Embassy, the Foreign Ministry and the Ministry of Commerce to achieve the desired result.

Another questionable aspect about export targets is the importance it places on the officers of the Commercial Wing to achieve it given their background. A Commercial Counselor/First Secretary is chosen from non-BCS (FA) cadres, often a District Commissioner or a Customs/Income Tax officer. To expect such an officer to be able to deliver the export targets in a foreign environment, sometimes where language is a barrier is a fond wish and the weakest link in the entire process of setting export targets. There is also a very serious misperception about how diplomacy and diplomats work.

The most serious flaw, however, is the fact that export targets for Embassies are unrealistic. In a post cold war globalized world, governments are no longer directly involved in international trade. Today it is entirely a private sector matter where governments create the right environment for such trade. Rules and regulations for it are set in forums such as the WTO and bilateral trade negotiators. Governments and diplomatic missions today concentrate all their efforts to get the maximum advantage for their private sector for exporting commodities across national frontiers through such negotiations and with professional market information/assistance which automatically enhances exports.

There is thus a serious disconnect in both policy formulation and its implementation in the way we are trying to increase exports. All governments have export targets but as a part of that country's economic diplomacy. Unfortunately, we have no economic diplomacy except slogans and vague notions. In the 15 years of elected governments, a lot has been said about economic diplomacy. Yet nowhere in government is there a concept paper about what this means to our overall diplomacy. More vague still is the operating mechanism for achieving the goals of our so-called economic diplomacy that are often set arbitrarily and in an ad-hoc manner. The dangers of this are all around but no one takes notice while the country suffers. When BNP came in 2001, the Industries Ministry cancelled two agreements that were signed with China and Japan by the AL Government disregarding the views of the Foreign Ministry and international law! It upset China and Japan and stalled bilateral relations till the projects, DAP 1 and DAP 11, were reactivated a year and a half after cancellation. This is just one example in a long list of serious flaws in the implementing mechanism of a nonexistent policy of economic diplomacy. While posted in Japan, I felt that Japan could be extremely important for Bangladesh as an investment destination, the way it was in the case of the Malaysian economic miracle. As a result of historical problems between Japan and China, hundreds of billions of USD of Japan's investments in China have become unstable in recent years. Many Japanese investors are seriously considering relocating their investments in China in a new destination where Bangladesh can and has figured seriously to the Japanese given our large population, being a bridge between South and Southeast Asia and the prospects of South Asia being a free trade area under SAFTA. I tried my best to impress the government about this prospect by the only means available, addressing letters that interested nobody at home as there was no single authority to take lead in such matters. When Prime Minister Khaleda Zia visited Japan in 2005, her address at an investment seminar was attended by some 250 Japanese businessmen and investors, a few corporate giants among them, but did not lead to anything substantial as she was unable to impress them with any clear vision of what Bangladesh could do to attract Japanese investment. Our oft-repeated cliché that Bangladesh is the best investment destination in our region is a stale one and has no takers. Khaleda Zia failed to take advantage to impress her Japanese audience because her government then had no policy on economic diplomacy. It still does not have one.

No crystal ball is needed to predict that the stern warning of the Commerce Secretary will have no impact; it will merely have a Que Sera Sera outcome. Given the importance of exports for Bangladesh, however, it is imperative that we develop very urgently our so-called economic diplomacy into a detailed and professional one; streamline the mechanism for its implementation; and fit our need to increase exports as part of it. We have a very vibrant private sector today that has turned our exports from almost nothing to a multibillion US dollar industry with very little help of the government. It needs the government and embassies now to make the playing field for international trade favourable for them by protecting their interests in multilateral and bilateral trade negotiations; with in-depth information of the market abroad for access; and helping them establish contacts with business abroad to achieve the success of Thailand. If they are professional in helping the private sector, exports will increase much faster. The need to set targets for Embassies would become totally redundant, as it should. Unfortunately, most Bangladesh Embassies are not assisting the private sector pro-actively, partly due to their shortcomings and partly due to lack of pro-active direction from home. Half of Bangladesh Missions have no website and those that have are not professional websites that would meet our private sector's requirements. Finally, here is a question for the Commerce Secretary. Suppose an Embassy in a developed country failed to meet the so-called targets. Where would he re-locate that mission's commerce wing? Timbuktu? Economic diplomacy, exports included, is a serious matter that does not work by threats and arbitrariness!