Whither Bangladesh foreign office?

Ashfaqur Rahman

The Bangladesh Foreign Office has been under attack by various interest groups during the past 41 years. Sometimes it has been politicians, sometimes the military, at other times the entrenched bureaucracy that had never left this office at peace. There have always been issues that have been against the officers and the remit of the work of the foreign service that have led to its troubled existence. An unending tug of war takes place, which corrodes the vitals of this government office.

In 1971, when Bangladesh came into existence, the government did not have to create many new ministries. Basically two new ministries were started — Ministry of Defence and Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The rest were just re-organised, funded and run. The Ministry of Defence had to be created as it was to protect the territorial integrity of the new nation state. It was mandated to lay down policies and programmes, and commission defence forces like army, navy and air force to do the job.

The other ministry that had to be created was the Bangladesh foreign office. This was mandated to establish and maintain bilateral relations with all the countries round the world barring one. It was also required to contact and develop relations with multi-lateral organisations in order to derive benefits for the country. It had to see that Bangladesh was accepted as an honourable member of the international community and was able to maintain a reasonably high-profile presence there.

So, from day one, the officers of this ministry had to show a high degree of professionalism. Their first task was to obtain recognition of Bangladesh from all the countries round the world. The second major task was to see that the war-stricken country got all the international help it could to provide succor to the victims. Slowly but surely, Bangladeshi diplomats inched their way to clinch not only recognition of all countries, but could also get Bangladesh elected in the seventies as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council. The story of the glorious history of Bangladesh diplomacy therefore unfolds like a slow motion movie.

Ever since Independence, this highly professional group of diplomats crafted and implemented, of course under the guidance of politicians, Bangladesh’s foreign policy. The officers were recruited through a highly competitive examination, trained abroad and served in various capacities both at the Headquarters and in missions abroad.

However, they operated under separate service rules. Their pay and emoluments were also different from the compensation received by the rest of the civil servants. This was a matter that irked many in the civil service. But they were a few civil servants who openly collaborated with the senior officers of the foreign service in order to get a posting abroad. The foreign office therefore came under pressure from all sides. In the course of time it even made powerful enemies within the government. Frequent political changes also made these professional diplomats bow to greater pressures.

The interesting part of the story about the Bangladesh foreign office is that whoever or whenever politicians, the military or the entrenched bureaucracy wielded power, they took their slice of the pie in terms of posting, privileges, etc. They cared two hoots whether the national interest suffered. At one time the foreign office was an assorted amalgam of officers from various backgrounds who had come more to enjoy or pass their time rather than to work.

Outsiders always used two tools to keep the foreign service in check, so that it did their bidding. They would see that the foreign office was starved of state funds so that it had little or no oxygen to breathe. A shoestring budget was always allocated. Second, the cadre strength was kept at a bare minimum. Thus, even today after 41 years, the total cadre strength of the foreign service is just 250 officers. What the interested quarters would do was induct officers from other cadres into a Bangladesh mission abroad. Thus, officers coming from the External Resources Division, or the Commerce Ministry or the Labour Ministry would be seconded to work in a mission against the post that these interested parties would create.

Recently, it is understood that the government has given clearance to create more than 360 posts in all our missions abroad in order to post officers from the Ministry of Home Affairs to oversee the conversion of Bangladeshi passports into machine readable passports. It is not clear whether these are temporary posts. But if they are permanent posts then it is cause for serious concern. These posts will be manned by immigration officers or by the internal security people.

Such initiative has already prompted other ministries to seek posts in our missions abroad. It is known that the Ministry of Culture has requested the government to create 70 posts in various missions in order to propagate Bangladeshi culture abroad. Likewise, Ministry of Information has asked for 90 posts and Ministry of Commerce 226 posts. A veritable Pandora’s Box has been opened.

So how is the foreign office reacting to this development? No one so far has dared to protest. The head of administration in the foreign office is an officer from the administrative service of the government. It is not in his interest perhaps to point out the anomaly and the chaos that it is likely to create. In any case, an officer from the administrative cadre has no business to be posted in that sensitive position in the Foreign office.

One wonders what the foreign minister was thinking when she allowed this to take place. Only once before, during the time when the military was in power, did the government post a non-cadre man to such a post. It is necessary that this post be held by someone who has vast experience of how a mission operates and what difficulties it faces so that he is able to understand the implications of administrative actions like the one of creating so many posts in our missions abroad.

There is no doubt that the government must have a free hand in creating posts and finding the right personnel to man these posts in order to have its mandate carried out. But then it may be urgent now to constitute a government commission to recommend changes that need to be made to meet the requirements of the 21st century. These recommendations must be examined by the parliamentary committee on foreign affairs to determine if they meet the needs of the time and our national interest. The prime minister must have the final say on such matters. We must not take decisions now for which we may regret later.

The writer is a former Ambassador and is a regular commentator on contemporary affairs.
E-mail: ashfaque303@gmail.com

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *