Friday, July 30, 2010

My Foreign Service Years: Allowances and Permanent Embassy

Published in The Independent,July 30th.,2010
M. Serajul Islam

In terms of foreign and entertainment allowances, the Bangladesh Government has been miserly. However, in case of spending money on house rent for the diplomats and in hiring the Embassy and Residence of the Ambassador, the Government has been much better. In fact, a major part of money that the Government pays for maintaining an Embassy goes in hiring accommodation. At the time of my first posting to Canberra in 1980, the Government did not practically own any property abroad. Since then, there are now e a few places where Bangladesh owns the Embassy and in a few stations, also the Residence of the Ambassador.

In Canberra, my High Commissioner AK Khandker felt very strongly about the need of the High Commission and Residence owned by the Government. The Australian Government was also quite positive to the idea. The High Commissioner even succeeded in getting a local bank to agree to finance the construction of a permanent chancery on a plot of land that the host government was willing to give us close to the US Embassy in Canberra. Unfortunately and very surprisingly, the High Commissioner’s effort was turned down by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the plea that in its scheme of things, Australia was not in the list where it would be interested in constructing a permanent chancery at that time!

When I was Ambassador to Japan, the issue of buying a permanent chancery and residence was very high on my agenda. The reason was a simple one. In Tokyo, we were then paying almost US$ 0.75 million a year in renting the Chancery and the Residence and both the buildings were modest. In fact, in Cairo where I was Ambassador before Tokyo, the government was paying 1/4th of what it was paying for the Ambassador’s residence in Tokyo where the Residence in Cairo was three times larger than the Residence in Tokyo. On my request, the Government allocated a good amount, Taka 12 crores to be precise, for a permanent Embassy. My efforts were first stalled by undue interference of the wing of the ruling party in Tokyo that wanted to be a party in the acquiring process to make quick money. The government backed me against this undue influence and the President was removed for his role but that delayed the process and we missed out buying an Embassy when we were close to clinching a deal. When I started the process again, I looked at buying both the Chancery and the Residence. With the money placed in the account of the Embassy as down payment, I managed loan from a local bank that in Tokyo was quite an effort to buy the Embassy and the Residence. I sent the final proposal to the Ministry hoping that it would not just accept it but also pat me in the back for a great effort. Unfortunately, the Foreign Minister turned it down on the plea that the Government would like to by property located in prime areas close to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Imperial Palace.

In my proposal, we would have owned the Chancery and Residence in 8 years and we would have, after the initial down payment, not required to seek any extra amount from the Government and could have met the bank’s advance from the monthly rent we would have paid on the hired premises. In fact, that amount we would have to pay to the bank monthly would have been less than the monthly rent. The properties were almost tailor made for us and we could have moved in immediately after purchase. Four years have gone by since I left Tokyo and in four more years, we could have had both the Chancery and the Residence owned by the Government. Recently, the Government has purchased land in Tokyo, something that should have been done decades ago.

Our High Commission in Delhi when I was posted there in 1983 was located far from the diplomatic enclave in Chanyakpuri and in Lajpat nagar, not a particularly good area for a High Commission. If we needed to showcase a High Commission or an Embassy, then that station was undoubtedly New Delhi. Soon after our impendence, the Indians had offered us both land in Chanyakpuri and to construct the Embassy at their cost given the fact that the Bangladesh’s coffers were practically empty at that time. We turned down the offer. One cannot but agree with the decision in declining the Indian offer but we should have at least looked into the issue of acquiring land in Chanyakpuri on a deferred or payment by installments. We eventually bought land long afterwards in Chanyakpuri at a much higher price. In return, we gave India access to abandoned properties in Dhanmandi at throw away prices for decades.

In Washington, we sold a prime property that we had purchased from the Daughters of the American Revolution, a conservative group, to Chile on a request by President Allende because it was near to Chile Embassy. But Allende died shortly afterwards and his military successors felt little need to appreciate the gesture. We gave to Bhutan its Residence in Dhaka but we never received reciprocity in Thimpu for it.

One could say that because of the tumultuous nature of our independence and politics in the first couple of decades, such issues as purchasing property abroad was not handled with the vision that was necessary. Unfortunately, the attitude of the Ministry of Finance was also responsible for very little property being acquired at a time when such properties were available at affordable prices. The under the surface conflict between the erstwhile Pakistan Foreign Service Officers and the erstwhile Civil Service of Pakistan officers in the 1970s and 1980s was also responsible for things not happening rationally in the Foreign Ministry. On their part, these ex-PFS officers at leadership role in the Foreign Ministry also did not pursue the issue seriously enough. They were content with their own postings and positions. It was only with the return of democracy in 1991 that successive governments took up the issue of acquiring property abroad with some seriousness and in the last 2 decades, we have been able to own some of our Embassies and Residences abroad. Today we own the Embassy and Residence in New Delhi; Washington; London, Pretoria; and the Embassy in Brussels. In Riyadh and Islamabad, the Embassy and Residence are under construction while in Tokyo; the Government has purchased a plot of land. We have 46 Embassies and a number of Consulates/Deputy/Assistant High Commissions. Thus, in terms of acquiring property abroad, we are still far behind. The Government needs to focus on this seriously because in many capitals, it is a buyer’s market these days.

There are also the houses of the diplomats and staff of the Embassies/High Commissioner for which the government is paying huge sums of money. It is also appropriate time for the Government to buy property for residence of the diplomats and staff members. All the government needs to do is allocate extra sum of money for the initial down payment and then the mortgage payments can be made from the rents and over a period of time, these residence would be owned by Bangladesh. If only the Government had taken such a view immediately after independence, we would now have owned many of the property we now rent for which we pay huge sums of money.

In my previous articles, I touched upon the allowances of diplomats. In my time, we were paid foreign and entertainment allowances to which educational allowance was later added. There was no medical allowance because all diplomats/staff members and their families were provided medical treatment by the Government at actual. During the first BNP Government, Finance Minister Saifur Rahman injected an amendment and made it mandatory for everybody to pay to the Government 10% of the medical bills. It was introduced to stop misuse of medical benefits and had a positive impact. Unfortunately, it has also meant that in the developed countries, many are denying themselves and their families much needed medical attention because of their inability to pay the 10% of the bills. In the late 1990s, a young officer died in a mission because his Ambassador did not send him for treatment to a third country as permissible under the medical rules because he thought the medical budget was not enough.

In my early years in service I used to hear stories aplenty of officers/ staff members and their families suffering through the cold weather in countries with severe winter because of the prohibitive heating charges. In the Washington Embassy, there was a joke among the expatriates about parties in winter in the residence of a Bangladeshi diplomat. If the diplomat lived in an apartment where heating charges were built into apartment rent, guests used to dress lightly and carried the overcoat only for the short distance to the car. Inside the house, a guest could not even keep a sweater on. In a house where the diplomat was paying the heating charges, guests would invariably have a sweater and a coat or something warm to keep the cold away! In Washington, the staff members were in fact better off on the heating issue because most of them held a second job and their wives worked too and thus they had more financial ability than the officers to deal with financial problems. But in stations where there was no opportunity for a second job or for wives to work, there were horrific stories of how staff members and their families suffered through the winter and generally also because they were paid just pittance.

Although things have improved, these and other sad things happen in our lives in the Embassy because issues such as pay/allowances/owning property, etc have never been approached rationally. Most countries have an Inspector-General for Embassies or its equivalent for dealing with these issues. Our government has always approached these issues in an ad-hoc manner.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt

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