Tuesday, June 5, 2012

On prime minister’s advice to diplomats
Defence and Diplomcy Page (first issue) 
Daily Sun
Wedday, 6th June, 2012
M. Serajul Islam

As a retired career diplomat, a part of my existence lies in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) where I have spent 30 years of my life. I was very happy and encouraged that the prime minister paid a visit to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently. To me, it meant that the prime minister is finally giving the ministry some of the importance it deserves.

Diplomacy has changed over the years. In recent times, the changes have been both extensive and dramatic. Globalization had a major impact in bringing these changes. It has brought down national barriers and has led to the need of countries to watch and observe the international environment manifold. This has in turn brought foreign affairs into the centre of governance all over the world. In the changes, everywhere, the head of government has emerged the country’s number one diplomat.

In these contexts, it is therefore very heartening that the prime minister recently went to MFA to address the officers/staff there, the first time in her second term. She had visited MFA a decade ago in her first term. In her address, the prime minister stressed upon two themes in directing the MFA officers/staff on what the country required and expected of them. She asked them to be mindful of the 8 million expatriates who send the foreign remittances to help the country’s economic development by literally putting their lives on the line. The prime minister also stressed upon the need of the officers/staff of the ministry to help build the image of the country.

Quite evidently, the prime minister played the political cards. The issue of our expatriates is a very sensitive one. With 8 million expatriates, the issue touches almost every home in the country. Thus any good thing said in favour of the expatriates has political mileage. Then there is the issue of remittance. Everybody knows about the importance of remittance to the economic development of the country. Hence there is always great political value for any politician when he/she speaks favourably on remittance. Likewise, the country’s pitiable image abroad is also an issue with which everybody is worried and concerned. Therefore talking on the need of helping remove the country’s negative image also has significant political value.

Unfortunately, on the two themes that the prime minister stressed, the diplomats of MFA cannot do much even if they wanted to lay down their lives to make her happy. In her approach on the issue of expatriates, there is a major error in perception of the role and function of the MFA by the prime minister. In the whole issue of sending our expatriates abroad, the MFA has little role to play. It is the Ministry of Expatriates’ Welfare and Overseas Employment that is responsible with almost everything to do with sending our people abroad for employment.

Likewise in the missions too, the diplomats of MFA have limited role to play. That role becomes even more irrelevant when the head of mission happens to be a non career diplomat. The visa and consular functions in the Embassy are carried out in accordance with rules and regulations of the Ministry of Home where there is immediate need for reforms for giving the type of service that the prime minister has demanded. In most missions, these functions are performed by officers sent from other ministries. These officers go on a one time posting and thus are unaccustomed to working abroad where diplomatic skills and training that they do not have are indispensable.

The image building issue is equally a huge ask that the prime minister has placed upon the rather weak shoulders of the MFA diplomats. In pursing this objective, the MFA would require finances and the diplomats, adequate allowances to even scratch what the PM is asking of them. Readers would appreciate the context if they knew that it is a fact that we do not spend as much on maintaining our diplomatic missions as for example India spends on projecting its image building abroad through its diplomatic missions.

The major issue in building a positive image abroad is domestic. The EU in a recent address to the media laid it all with the Italian Ambassador bluntly underscoring why his country’s investors would not come to Bangladesh. The government’s handling of Dr. Yunus and GB are ironies because if the prime minister is serious in building good image of Bangladesh, taking the Nobel Laureate and the GB on its side would have greatly helped in what she has asked from the diplomats.

One wonders what went through the minds of these diplomats when she was talking to them on the image building issue. Surely, they must have been wondering why the prime minister was allowing her ministers to humiliate Dr. Yunus who could help remove the negative image the PM is worried about in a major way!

Despite her best intentions, the prime minister has not touched the core issues to gear the ministry for playing its expected role. The prime minister seems to have concluded that the main function of an Embassy/High Commission is consular. This is not the case for the Embassy/High Commission’s main role is diplomatic; to build and strengthen bilateral relations. Consular assistance is just a small part of the Embassy/High Commission’s role. Here, if the prime minister would like MFA and its diplomats to play the major role in consular assistance, she would need to give them the leading role which currently is in the hands of other ministries and their officers.

One of the core issues to bring the MFA back from outdated times in terms of its role in a modern government is to give it within the country the major coordinating role in building national consensus on issues the country needs to pursue in the international environment.

There is no research wing in the Foreign Ministry. The MFA partly finances two think tanks jointly, the BIISS and BILIA. Of late, its influence over both has declined. The MFA officers are therefore left to research, evaluate and provide policy options almost without any research assistance. It is another core problem that needs to be addressed immediately.

The mother of all problems facing MFA is of course the fact that today it has been deprived of most of its legitimate role in foreign policy formulation and implementation. In fact, its name is beginning to haunt its officers for most elements of foreign affairs are these days the domain of just any minister or adviser of this government. The most important elements, the bread and butter of MFA, are no longer its functions. The MFA no longer even issues diplomatic passports! We saw this much to our regret when our relations with India was taken from MFA and given to the prime minister’s advisers. Thinking of the MFA without India as its responsibility is like thinking of Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark!

The country desperately needs a strong Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Unfortunately under this government, the prime minister’s visit to MFA notwithstanding, the MFA has been systematically weakened. The result is palpably evident in the way it has messed up relations with its major development partners like USA, Japan; the international financial institutions. With China, it has set its sail away from it, putting into jeopardy decades of successful diplomacy with a country that is emerging to take the place of the Soviet Union as the next Super Power, if not one already. This government’s firm belief in India has also back fired, leaving the country facing international odds almost alone.

Therefore, while building good image and looking after expatriates are important issues, these are insignificant ones compared to what requires to be done with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. A strong MFA is the need of the moment for the country’s sake. With a strong MFA, not only will the country be served better; the issues that the prime minister raised in her meeting at MFA would be automatically achieved.

The writer is a retired career diplomat and ambassador

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