Diplomacy: Time For A Rethink?

In a dynamic world where change is the only constant and today’s best practice can become obsolete tomorrow, it is imperative to keep updating our knowledge, and sharpening our expertise through refresher courses

Soon after the PMSD withdrew from the Lepep Government (GM), there followed the usual spate of resignations of several heads of parastatals as well as municipal councillors and mayors. All of them PMSD candidates. We didn’t hear much of the lesser cadres, but I guess there must have been some there. However I must admit the one big surprise to me was the resignation of three ambassadors. But then again I don’t follow GM appointments that closely.

It has been going on for so long now that we find it quite normal to have “unqualified” persons parachuted in as chairmen of parastatals and other bodies. Their counterparts in the private sector would normally have been groomed through years of experience in the company. But GM is GM and GM decides otherwise. For the state-owned company, the only criterion seems to be that the candidate should be a party faithful – turncoats are welcome. And then we feign shock surprise when — of all businesses — casinos lose massive amounts of money, taxpayers money!

Still I had naively assumed that at least our Ambassadors would be hand-picked from the best of the Minister Councillors working at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) and who would normally have had many years of experience as First and Second Secretaries in our foreign missions. Not so, it would seem.

The Diamond Ceiling

Every 4-5 years the MFA recruits about a dozen of the best, the crème de la crème to man our embassies. De facto these recruits have to be the best of the very best because they are the future representatives of the country at all four levels. That is First and Second Secretaries, Minister Councillors who should normally end their careers as Ambassadors. This is a legitimate aspiration.

However what do we find? Currently the majority of our embassies are headed by political appointees. The ratio of diplomats to political appointees is 1:9 which, in a saner world, would be the converse. Thus in the USA there was a huge outcry when, at one time during President Obama’s term of office, political appointees represented 53 percent of all USA ambassadors. On the other hand in Mauritius, we just accept the disproportionate bias in favour of political appointees with our usual apathy.

Professionalize

If the MFA was run along private sector lines, it would be inconceivable to place anyone as head of mission unless he had been through the mill, learning the ropes by working at different levels for a good many years to become a “Masters in Diplomacy.” Yet like the parastatals, it seems we have gotten inured to “unqualified” persons manning these important, sometimes sensitive positions. The result is a glass… no, a solid diamond ceiling for the career diplomat. Unbreakable, impregnable!

Consequently it would not be surprising to find that apathy and frustration were high among the diplomatic personnel at the MFA. And yet we expect them to stoically perform here at home base and more particularly when posted overseas. All for a princely starting salary of Rs 26k. Contrast this with Rs 140k+ that a MP earns, but is not under any obligation to attend Parliament even on the one day a week, because he has his private job/business to attend to.

With “untrained amateurs” at the helm, one may wonder what kind of service our embassies are able to provide. Not top-notch, it would seem. Radhakrishna Sadien is of the view that placing non-career diplomats as ambassadors may not be the best option. “Nous devons promouvoir au plus haut point la professionnalisation des Affaires étrangères si nous voulons vraiment améliorer nos services et promouvoir les intérêts du pays……” he concludes (see Le Mauricien 21-Feb-2017). As President of the GSEA, he is in an ideal position to know!

Rethink

Thus it would seem that a fundamental rethink is overdue. Professionalization can only come through proper training, experience (and lots of it!), career planning, and reward for effort and service.

Around the world, many countries have a Foreign Service Academy (FSA) which provides training courses for their diplomats. These can vary from six months for new recruits to a year for specialization later. Shorter refresher courses are also provided. In Mauritius on the other hand, new recruits receive an induction course lasting around one month, and then proceed to the MFA for on-the-job training. Surprisingly there are no further formal structured courses for the rest of the diplomats’ careers. Ongoing training, if any, is received courtesy of foreign governments on short term attachments lasting no more than a couple of weeks, rarely longer.

But if we wish for a better performing, more professional foreign service, it may be worth setting up a FSA which can provide longer induction courses as well as ongoing training for senior staff. In a dynamic world where change is the only constant and today’s best practice can become obsolete tomorrow, it is imperative to keep updating our knowledge, and sharpening our expertise through refresher courses. Of course this is common practice in the private sector. And the contrast in public/private sector delivery is telling!

A Foreign Service Act

As the international environment evolves towards a more complex set-up, diplomacy — and Economic Diplomacy in particular — will need to place itself at the forefront of international relations. In this brave new world, the diplomat will need to be ahead of the game if he is going to be able to deliver the kind of professional service the country expects of him. Yes, it is possible!

Looking around the world, we find that many countries have a Foreign Service Act on their statute books. Among other things, the Act articulates the services that the MFA is to provide and situates the responsibilities of the Minister and his officers. It encompasses career planning and contains guidelines on the proportion of political appointees as ambassadors, which ideally should be kept to a minimum.

The emergence of a more professional foreign service staffed by career diplomats at all levels can only result in a win-win situation for both country and operative!

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