Saturday, July 17, 2010

Opening new embassies: The reality

Published in The Daily Star, July 17th., 2010
M. Serajul Islam

THE Ministry of Foreign Affairs is seriously contemplating to open a few new embassies. There are also pressures from the country's vibrant private sector for opening new embassies for economic reasons. Sources in the Foreign Ministry have said that the Government has decided to re-open the Embassy in Brazil and open a new one in Sierra Leone.

Bangladesh is a nation of nearly 160 million people. It has an economy whose GDP is now getting close to US$ 100 billion. Nearly 7 million Bangladeshis now live abroad. They have remitted over 10 billion US dollars last year to the country. Its exporters are making significant inroads into the international market. Bangladesh is now a major player in the international RMG trade. To consolidate such gains and make these sustainable, the private sector that is literally leading the engine of the country's economic growth needs all the help it can get. They would surely benefit from the opening of new missions because of the assistance they can provide in their endeavours overseas.

At present, Bangladesh has 46 Embassies/High Commissions. While Bangladesh's GDP has grown many times since the country became independent and the population has more than doubled during this period, the number of Embassies abroad has remained more or less static over the last few decades. Past governments felt no need for increasing the number of Embassies with the massive growth in the size of the GDP and increase in number of Bangladeshis living abroad. In fact, a few embassies have been closed during this period.

Instead of opening new embassies, existing embassies have been systematically weakened over the years for unexplained reasons. In 1996 the AL led government made economic diplomacy the priority in its foreign policy that the BNP government also pursued. It escapes comprehension why both have failed to see the inherent contradiction between weakening an embassy and success in economic diplomacy where a strong embassy is unquestionably held worldwide as a precondition for effective economic diplomacy.

The point would be clear to the reader only when a few facts about how a Bangladeshi Embassy is structured and allowed to operate are examined. Bangladeshi Embassies are grossly understaffed and those serving there are underpaid even when compared to embassies with economies on the same scale. The Embassies are also the most ill organized on a comparative scale for handling economic diplomacy, meaning assisting in expanding exports, enhancing manpower and providing services to expatriates. In the past, the Ambassadors used to be largely drawn from the Foreign Service cadre. They were thus naturally loyal to the Foreign Ministry as were the small number of non-cadre Ambassadors. These days, people outside the cadre are being made Ambassadors in larger numbers and sent to the major diplomatic missions who may not feel inclined to give the same degree of loyalty to the Foreign Ministry. As a consequence, the control of the Foreign Ministry over the Ambassadors, which is necessary for success of diplomacy in general, and economic diplomacy in particular, that is assured everywhere, has been weakened.

There have been recent newspaper reports that henceforth the Cabinet Division would recommend the appointment of Ambassadors, which the Government has not contradicted. If this information were correct, then it would be disastrous for the conduct of diplomacy of Bangladesh in general and economic diplomacy in particular. If it is not, the Foreign Ministry should have contradicted it because the news directly undermines its role and importance.

The above about the Bangladeshi Ambassadors are not the only disturbing news for a Bangladesh Embassy. The officers in the commercial, economic, labour, consular, and press wings in the Bangladesh Embassies come from cadres other than the Foreign Service cadre on a onetime posting. They are sent over without training in diplomacy or language skills, and represent their respective ministry. They often bring to the embassy the well-known conflicts of their respective ministry with the Foreign Ministry, thus creating an environment that does not in any way help in the rational functioning of the embassy. The career diplomats who have the professional diplomatic skills are not allowed to perform economic or commercial functions: they write useless political reports that no one reads and perform protocol work for visiting VIPs and their relatives and friends that serves individual interests but are farthest removed from the interests of the nation.

Today, Bangladesh embassies function according to a prescription for chaos. To expect such an embassy to deliver on the demands of economic diplomacy would be unrealistic. Only the foolhardy would dare to post an officer, untrained in diplomacy, who has been working as a Deputy Commissioner in the District, a Deputy Secretary in a Ministry or as Deputy Commissioner in the Income Tax Department as a Commercial Counsellor to Washington, Tokyo or Beijing and expect the officer to enhance the country's exports. If diplomacy would have been that easy, then countries would not have brought together in their Foreign Service cadre some of the best talents and spent huge resources to train them to become professional diplomats.

Something is seriously amiss. A lot of it come from the way foreign affairs and diplomacy is perceived outside the Foreign Ministry in Bangladesh; that conducting foreign affairs and diplomacy is anybody's job. This is also one reason why conducting foreign affairs in Bangladesh has been fractured and distributed across a number of ministries where the Foreign Ministry does not have a major role. In no country would it seem normal as it is in Bangladesh for the Commerce Minister to say publicly that the Joint Communiqué, which was signed after the Prime Minister's official visit to India in January this year, and which was heralded by the Foreign Minister as a paradigm shift for the betterment in Bangladesh-India relations, has now run into trouble because of inefficiency of the bureaucracy in both the countries. The Commerce Minister would have been somewhat within his territory to criticize his country's bureaucracy; his criticism of the Indian bureaucracy was way out of line in the way diplomacy is conducted between nations. It only reflects the poor standing of the Foreign Ministry in matters of foreign affairs. It is now a routine matter in Bangladesh for other ministers to publicly discuss both major and minor issues of the country's foreign affairs as if the country does not have a Foreign Minister.

The systematic weakening of the Foreign Ministry and the state of affairs in the embassies are very serious issues. Where globalisation has increased the importance of the foreign ministry everywhere, it is not rational that in Bangladesh it is being marginalized. It must first be corrected. Simultaneously, the irrational environment in the embassies must also be corrected. All officers working there must be brought under the unquestionable authority of the ambassador. The ambassador, his/her background and way of appointment notwithstanding, must be brought under the control of the Foreign Ministry. Before these steps are taken to bring Bangladesh's way of conducting foreign affairs and diplomacy in line with principles and norms established in rest of the world, opening new Embassies anywhere would not serve the nation's interests.

The author is a former Ambassador to Japan and Director of the Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies.

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