Thursday, February 24, 2005

BANGLADESH: Our image and our diplomacy

The missions generally function as the protocol outposts for anyone who is someone in this country. In some of the stations, the heads of missions as also other officers are always on their toes lest a visitor takes umbrage. And you have the cover-post officers from the National Security Intelligence and the Defense wing. They are constantly on the prowl checking on their colleagues and superiors, rather than doing their assigned jobs - a legacy of the authoritarian days of the early Bangladesh times and the latter times of military governments.

Our image and our diplomacy

The parliamentary standing committee on foreign affairs is not exactly happy about the way the Foreign Office has been conducting itself. The unhappiness is quite understandable, seeing that over the past many years the nation?s diplomatic establishment has not been playing the role the country has expected of it. To a very large extent, therefore, the feeling that the national image has not been adequately served by our diplomats abroad makes a good deal of sense. But, at the same time, one must recognise the fact that the very principle of national image depends eventually on the kind of conditions which obtain within the country itself. Given that political turmoil and an absence of tolerance between the major political parties have been regular features of politics in Bangladesh in the last fourteen years, that is, since the return of elected civilian government, it must be acknowledged that the steps which our diplomats take abroad to project our image before the global community need to be appreciated. They work, as it were, under a great deal of strain.?

Having said that, let us add that the quality and the performances of our diplomatic missions in foreign capitals are generally way below most of the comparable South Asian countries. The missions generally function as the protocol outposts for anyone who is someone in this country. In some of the stations, the heads of missions as also other officers are always on their toes lest a visitor takes umbrage. And you have the cover-post officers from the National Security Intelligence and the Defense wing. They are constantly on the prowl checking on their colleagues and superiors, rather than doing their assigned jobs - a legacy of the authoritarian days of the early Bangladesh times and the latter times of military governments.

Much of the foreign office's built-in problem lies in its culture in the head office. The foreign office hierarchy is incestuous, and that too divided within its own breed on the lines of personal, though not necessarily political, loyalties and connections. There is also a transparent lack of skill-training on the job, or in some campuses after induction or in the course of the career. Hence foreign postings are either deemed as hand-outs, or a respite from Dhaka's drudgery. The beneficiaries, therefore, stick together and cover their backs more than doing their work.

A lot of a diplomatic mission's prestige and standing outside, which helps both what is known as image-building or advancing the country's economic interests, on the head of the mission. For some reason or the other, the appointments in those positions have no predictability and do not always go by the rules as well as merit. Secondly, the political regimes since 1991 have put premium on loyalties more than merit on most in most cases as had happened under the authoritarian systems. While political appointments are excepted because it is a done thing in every country, the structure and norms of a cadre service must not be undermined. But governments or even powerful people can and do interfere with the structure and the quality of the members of the service, which in any event under the post-Bangladesh circumstances, have been devalued.

While the integrity of the Foreign Service needs to be strictly monitored and maintained, constant training of personnel at all levels must be introduced. Such trainings will entail both language skill and comprehension. And image building will come next. After all, a diplomat profiles the country with his. The foreign ministry at the top needs to be thoroughly reformed, restructured, and, if we may say, re-educated.