Friday, July 16, 2010

My Foreign Service Years: Life in a Bangladesh Embassy

Published in The Independent, July 16th;, 2010
M. Serajul Islam

Serving Bangladesh as a diplomat in a foreign country is a difficult task. However, the general perception in Bangladesh about the work of our diplomats abroad is quite the opposite. People tend to think that our diplomats spend a life in luxury contributing very little to the country while being allowed to spend the taxpayers’ money for their own sake.

On the point of luxury, the difference between reality and perception cannot be further apart. For the sake of dignity of the diplomats, it would be unwise and embarrassing to quote any figure about their pay and allowances. It is often said in a lighter vein that a diplomat is sent abroad to lie for his country. On one issue however, a Bangladesh diplomat has to lie through his/her teeth is when a fellow diplomat from another country or foreigners he/she has befriended asks about his/her pay and allowances in the post. Generally, we avoid answering such a question, and muster all our diplomatic skills to do so. When we are forced to quote a figure, we invariably double or treble the amount we are paid by the government to save our own face and that of the country. On my first posting in Canberra as a Second Secretary, I dreaded when this issue was raised with me which was quite often because I had a good number of diplomats from other countries as close friends and in our informal gatherings, it was quite common to discuss our work and work environment.

In New Delhi, where I was posted after my tour of duty in Canberra, we were asked to run an exercise by the High Commissioner on foreign and entertainment allowances diplomats were paid from South Asian countries and countries on the same scale of economy as Bangladesh. The High Commissioner was Air Vice Marshal AK Khandker who went there from Canberra in 1982. When a paper was placed to him, he could not believe the figures he saw. As a High Commissioner, his foreign allowance was less than the Counsellor of most of the Embassies we surveyed and a First Secretary of a South Asian country that is better left un-named! Over the years, the Government has very grudgingly enhanced the foreign and entertainment allowances of the diplomats but such allowances in Embassies of other countries have also increased, keeping the gap which in fact has increased. To suggest that diplomats paid such level of foreign and entertainment allowances live in luxury is a travesty of the truth.

Those who criticize us for our so-called lives of luxury never consider that our diplomats are paid the barest minimum. One of the reasons why the allowances of our diplomats have never been approached rationally has been the fact that those who can do so are government servants themselves. They can never get over the fact that as diplomats we receive a pay package that is a few times more than what they receive at home. It must nevertheless be said that since my Canberra days, new perks have also been included in the allowances package that makes a diplomats’ life more acceptable at present. These days, diplomats receive educational allowances that were not paid when I was posted to Canberra. In the absence of educational allowances those days, diplomats were forced to great hardships in educating their children. Some of us who were educating our children in the best educational institutions at home were forced to either keep our children at home or send them to educational institutions inferior than those at home because we could not afford to send them to good educational institutions in our posts.

The other issue that critics fail to consider while evaluating the work of a Bangladeshi diplomat is how difficult it is for him/her to succeed in representing the country’s interests. Bangladesh is not exactly the most sought after country in stations where our Embassies are located where the interest for spending time for a Bangladesh diplomat is less than if the diplomat seeking the time is from India, England or the United States. In fact, the hosts are lukewarm most of the time when a Bangladeshi diplomat seeks to meet them. It is only by perseverance that we eventually succeed in making the contacts necessary to further the country’s interests. A Bangladeshi diplomat thus has to work much harder for making the contacts and achieving the results that diplomats representing countries that are important to the hosts have it readymade for them. However, once we make the contacts, we have always found the hosts both eager and impressed with Bangladesh because they seldom think about Bangladesh or look at it the way we are able to represent it to them. In representing Bangladesh, our history, particularly the sacrifices we have made for our liberation, our sacrifice to establish our language; and our rich culture and cuisine are always extremely useful.

Unfortunately, we are just not constantly criticized as diplomats by our own people; those criticizing us are most of the time oblivious to the fact that we are not given the support we require to represent the positive sides of Bangladesh in countries where we have representation. Bangladesh practically spends nothing on external publicity and image building and seldom sends cultural delegations/exhibitions abroad to expose the rich culture and traditions of the country. On my first tour of duty to Canberra, I would regularly be invited by embassies of countries in South Asia to performances of cultural troops and exhibitions from their countries but was never able to reciprocate that often embarrassed me. Such visits allow the diplomats to represent his/her country’s culture, history and traditions as well as make the important contacts for furthering national interests. We are deprived of this support that makes our work of representing our country more difficult. In the absence of such support from home, our Embassies manage cultural events/exhibitions with their own resources and with the assistance of the expatriate Bangladeshi community which does not even scratch the potentials that cultural troupes/exhibitions coming from home can achieve for Bangladesh’s image and its interests. During my Canberra days, we did a lot of such locally arranged functions, exhibitions, etc. I always felt sad that at our Government’s total lack of interest to assist the Bangladesh Embassies in such efforts as other countries did for their Embassies. In fact, it is strange but true that our Government feels that money spent in such efforts is a waste!

Such a view has been one reason why Bangladesh has not succeeded in countering its persistently poor image problem which has not always been based on facts. Bangladesh Embassies can effectively counter part of the problem if they are given the assistance and the resources needed to market Bangladesh’s rich culture, history and traditions. There are countries all over the world, including in our own region, that spend more money and resources on external publicity and image building alone than what Bangladesh spends in running its Embassies abroad. It is indeed a pity that those responsible for our foreign policy fail to see the importance and potential of marketing Bangladesh’s rich culture and traditions through the Embassies.

The High Commission did not have any press/economic/ commercial officer while I was posted in Canberra. Majority of Bangladesh Embassies have no press officer. All such work in Canberra fell on my lap. I found that the press in Canberra had little interest in Bangladesh except when calamity struck the country. I found the same to be true in all the other stations to which I have been posted in later years. Such lack of interest notwithstanding, personal contacts sometimes made it possible to get positive news and articles published in the host country’s media. For such efforts to succeed, positive developments in Bangladesh are always a great help which is unfortunately seldom the case. In my Canberra days, we were able to receive extremely positive press coverage in the Australian media when Bangladesh announced its Drug Policy early in the Ershad years for which Dr. Zafarullah Chowdhury had worked a great deal. In Canberra, we also formed a press and information corps of diplomats from a number of countries that we named the Press and Information and Cultural Corps of Australia (PICCA) through which I was able to represent Bangladesh to some extent in Canberra. In one event of PICCA, we were able to bring then Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser that was a major media event in Canberra.

In those days, the Australian National University used to run a master’s degree programme for Bangladeshi government officers in development economics. Government officers also attended the ANU under other programmes. During my stay in Canberra, officers of the erstwhile CSP cadre AKM Jalauddin, Abdul Haroon Pasha and Ezaz Ahmed (sadly, now no more) were studying in ANU. They were good company and made life in the lonely city of Canberra a little more fun than it was otherwise. There was also a steady flow of many others from the Universities whom I knew who came to Canberra during my tenure and added spice to life in an otherwise dull post.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt. He has a blog

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