Thursday, November 19, 2009

Poor coordination, bane of Bangladesh missions abroad

A timely subject was covered in The Independent – it is edition of November 18th captioned “poor conditions bane of missions abroad.” Recently the Foreign Minister while speaking to a group of Labour Attaches of Bangladesh Embassies who were brought to Dhaka on a sponsored trip by an international organisation said that she was sad and frustrated at the lack of coordination in our Embassies that was adversely affecting the country’s manpower export.

The report in The Independent placed the blame on both the career diplomats and other officers in the embassy for the serious lack of coordination. It quoted the Foreign Secretary extensively. The Foreign Secretary said categorically and correctly that so far the Ambassador is concerned, the legal position is absolutely clear; that he/she is the unquestioned authority in the embassy. It is as the Foreign Secretary has said embedded in the Rules of Business (RoB) that is the only source from which Ministries/attached offices, etcetera of the government derive their powers and responsibilities. He did not see the need to frame new rules ”to harmonise work in the mission” as the RoB unambiguously gives the Ambassador that power that is not being exercised. He said that soon the Foreign Ministry would ask all Ministries to instruct their officers in the Embassy through the Ambassador. The Foreign Secretary appeared convinced that once this is done, the problem of coordination will vanish.

The Foreign Secretary did not have to fall back on the RoB to underscore the universally acknowledged role of the Ambassador. In every government, the Ambassador holds a position that has no parallel. In the embassy, the Ambassador has unchallenged authority and an officer can only in a fit of insanity think of holding a position or even an opinion that could run contrary to his/her Ambassador because the job demands it. It is only in the Bangladesh case that it has managed to make coordination a problem in its Embassy where the Ambassador cannot always be sure that his/her authority would not be challenged.

The Independent report also held the attitude of the career diplomats in the embassy responsible for the “poor coordination “in the embassy. It reported that a Press Minister in a High Commission complained that when the High Commissioner was away, he was not made the acting High Commissioner as the seniormost official during a highest level state visit and that another officer of junior rank of the diplomatic wing was given that position instead. For someone not conversant with details of the working of an embassy, this may seem queer because normally in all offices, such matters are dealt by seniority. However, in this instance, it would have been the queerest thing that could have happened if the Bangladesh High Commission had made its Press Minister the Acting High Commissioner during a high level state visit. The host country’s Foreign Ministry would have fallen flat on its face if that had happened for in normal diplomatic practice that would have been most unusual and undiplomatic!

In the period after independence, the Foreign Ministry played a historic role in establishing Bangladesh as an independent nation after its brutal war of independence. In fact, the Ministry enjoyed the confidence and the blessing of Bangobandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman who in those days knew many of the officers by their first names and held some of them in great affection. Foreign Secretary Enayet Karim was one of them. AKH Morshed and Abul Ahsan, both toppers in their respective CSS examinations, at that time Directors-General in the Foreign Ministry, were frequently called by him for consultation and discussion on foreign affairs issues that were at that period very critical , like for example the issues of recognition, membership at the UN and the OIC. Both became the Foreign Secretary later. After the change of government in August 1975, the Foreign Ministry started to lose its position in the government. The erstwhile CSP officers took the lead in taking away from the Foreign Ministry a lot of its powers under the RoB. In the name of foreign aid; foreign trade, the rest of the civil bureaucracy took away one by one many of the major functions of the Foreign Ministry. The deterioration began when the External Resources Division, the Ministry of Commerce and the Ministry of Labour started appointing the Economic Ministers, Commercial Counsellors and Labour attaches respectively where earlier such officers were first deputed to the Foreign Ministry that issued them their appointment letters. Later the Education Ministry started doing the same while appointing the Education Attaches. By the time President Ershad emerged, the Foreign Ministry was very much cornered and when the President’s lack of confidence on the Foreign Ministry became well known, the goose was more than well cooked for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The Foreign Secretary’s confidence on the RoB is thus misplaced because while keeping it in place, the other Ministries have succeeded in bringing the Embassy partially under their control by posting and controlling their officers posted in the Embassy. He did not take into consideration the reasons why the problem exists in the first place. Even the official car that most of these officers are given are, by office order of their Ministries, kept outside the authority and control of the Embassy and the Ambassador. These facts would suggest a very unhealthy environment in the Embassy. In fact, however, that is not the case because the officers of the other wings in the Embassy more often than not, show better sense of not taking the fighting in the country between the Foreign Ministries and the other Ministries into the Embassy. The Ambassador by his seniority and personality also manages a working environment despite the prescription for disaster brewed for the Embassy from home.
The problem created in the Embassy is the direct consequence of the conflict that has existed in the country between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the other Ministries; a conflict that came to surface after 1975. Before that, the RoB was there but was not required to be quoted to give the Foreign Ministry its authority. After 1975, that authority waned, the RoB notwithstanding. As Foreign Minister, Anisul Islam Mahmud was close to resolving it by placing all work of the government that related to dealing with foreign governments/organisations under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He had a summary ready for this purpose but did not last in the Ministry long enough to get the President’s signature on it. The BNP in its 1991-96 tenure also looked into this problem and the Morshed Khan Committee came out with a Report to deal with it. In The Independent report, former Foreign Secretary Shamsher Mobin Chowdhury mentioned that the Committee’s recommendations would be useful to deal with the problem of coordination although it is a mystery why the BNP government in its 2001-2006 tenure, when Morshed Khan was the Foreign Minister, did not even take a look at the Committee’s Report.

In the present context where globalisation has brought nations into much greater interaction, the role of a country’s Foreign Ministry and the Embassy have assumed tremendous importance. In case of Bangladesh, its seven million expatriates make the role of the Embassy even more significant. Therefore it is urgently necessary to restore the Ministry of Foreign Affairs the role it had played immediately after independence ; a role that Foreign Ministries all over the world play today as they have played in modern times where diplomacy has become a major instrument for the betterment of the fate of nations. Only in Bangladesh have we created a situation where coordination in an Embassy has become an issue. Realistically, the Foreign Secretary’s optimism that the coordination problem would be resolved by requesting the Ministries to instruct their officers through the Ambassador is very optimistic for such a request will not even be taken seriously by the other Ministries. The Foreign Ministry would need the Prime Minister and the PMO behind the request for a realistic chance of result, which is another story.

Published in The Daily Independent, November 20, 2009

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