Saturday, October 2, 2010

Money saved or money spent?

Published in The Indpndent
October 2nd; 2010
M. Serajul Islam

The Prime Minister recent visit to New York for addressing the current session of the United Nations General Assembly was a memorable one as she was the recipient of the UN award for achieving MDG goals. At the time she left for the trip, there was an interesting news item that had attracted quite a deal of public attention. Three poets of renown who were in the Prime Minister’s delegation as “eminent persons” were lauded for their decision to forgo travelling business class in favour of the economy class to save money of the people. Of course one has to commend the poets for their care and concern for public money.

There are serious issues here though outside what the media tried to convey. The newspapers reported that the Prime Minister’s entourage to New York was indeed a large one; nearly 100 members in all. The Deputy Speaker, Ministers; senior government officials and 30 businessmen, besides a good number of “eminent citizens”; security personnel and members of the media were in the VVIP delegation. There has always been concerns in the public mind on why our Prime Minister has to travel with such a large delegation where only a very few members of such a delegation are extended official hospitality that covers hotel accommodation and food costs but not travel. In case of VVIP visit to a multilateral destination, such as the one the PM took to New York, even that hospitality is not extended where all expenses are paid by the tax payer. The Prime Minister’s recent visit has reactivated that public concern.

A Prime Ministerial delegation is divided into a few components. First, there are the officials who accompany the Prime Minister to assist her in her official meetings. Second, there is the Prime Minister’s personal staff that includes officials at the PMO. Third, there are the security officials. Fourth, there are those who are included in a VVIP delegation as “eminent citizens”. Fifth, the VVIP delegation also includes a media team. Finally, there are businessmen who are also made a part of the VVIP delegation. Except for the businessmen, the Government bears the expenses for all the members of the delegation.

The Prime Minister’s foreign trips are of two types. The one to New York is a visit to a multilateral forum. Then there are visits to countries that are bilateral visits. In case of both visits, the hosts limit number of members in the VVIP entourage to be with the Prime Minister in her official meetings; events and engagements. Depending on the country/international organization and the ability of the Ambassador, the number accompanying the Prime Minister when attending her official events is very limited; usually in the lower single digit. Hence, apart from a very few again in single digit number, the Prime Minister has no need for advice/assistance from the overwhelming number of people who accompany her. They just make the trip for their own pleasure and there is no way even if one wants to be flexible on the issue to suggest that they play any role in the success of the mission for which our Prime Minister undertakes her official trips abroad.

The issue of the security men accompanying the Prime Minister is even more interesting. When a Prime Minister visits another country, her security is the responsibility of the hosts from the moment she disembarks from her aircraft to the time she again boards it to return home. Yet we just do not see these security men accompanying the VVIP delegation in fairly large number; they are the only ones who also travel in advance to oversee security arrangements of the hosts. At our insistence, the hosts allow our security to accompany the Prime Minister but they nevertheless make it clear that it is their security arrangements and their security personnel who would be responsible for the safety and security of the Prime Minister.

That leaves the businessmen in the delegation to consider. They pay for their travel. Yet after those very few in the delegation who are actually involved with the Prime Minster in her official work, the businessmen are the only people whose inclusion in the VVIP delegation makes sense. It helps the businessman get the credibility and focus to do business abroad. The Prime Minister’s presence brings to her meetings in a host country, its top business executives that allow our businessmen in her delegation to interact with them, develop contacts, in some cases strengthen contacts and increase business.

Therefore with all respect to the three poets whose gesture was indeed noble, and who had nothing to do the way the reporters carried the news, it needs to be stressed that there is a great gap between perception and reality. The real issue is not the gesture of the poets but whether there is a need for a resource poor country like Bangladesh to let such a large number of people travel at tax payer’s account where they have no role to play as a member of a VVIP delegation. We have a pro-people, democratically elected Prime Minister with responsibilities far more important to attend to than deciding about the members of her delegation. She cannot be expected to look into these aspects but those who are supposed to tell her the facts never care to tell her that the majority of her entourage are merely tourists who have no role to play in the outcome of her visit. It is not that the poets have saved money; the fact is they have spent the people’s money that could and should have been saved fully; not just the balance between a business class and economy class ticket. If facts are put across in correct perspective, there is no doubt that she the Prime Minister will see the need to do the correct thing which is off loading the “tourists” from her delegation.

There is a postscript on the eminent persons on the trip. The only events to which they were perhaps invited were to the reception given to the Prime Minister by the local Bangladeshis and the diner hosted by the Permanent Representative in New York. I do not have first hand information whether indeed there was a Bangladeshi reception or a dinner by the Ambassador but in the past for all VVIP delegations such events have been an integral part of a VVIP trip and I assume so was the case with the New York visit that would mean the tax payers have paid for the 3 poets and the other eminent persons to travel at their cost just to attend these two events!

The writer is a former Ambassador of Bangladesh to Japan

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