Over the past 42 years the total number of posts and the cadre strength of the Bangladesh foreign service have not expanded significantly. Hence, on many occasions it has been difficult to post officers against the vacant posts. The work of the Foreign Office, especially in the political sections of embassies, has suffered. Many attempts had been made in the past to recruit more foreign service officers through the Bangladesh Public Service Commission. But there is an utter lack of brilliant candidates who can occupy the posts in the foreign service -- the total intake has always vacillated between 10-15 officers each year. This is not enough to meet the requirements.
But the more difficult challenge is to send officers to those stations where the country needs their presence. Every officer, since his induction, seems to be keen to join in those few posts available in English speaking countries like the USA or the UK. There are, therefore, few takers of posts in non-English speaking countries like Russia or China or even Brazil. Perhaps the main reasons are the unfamiliarity of the language of the country and the fact that schools for children and hospitals for treatment of the older family members are not always available. If this is the trend, then it will be very difficult for the government to develop a diversified and knowledgeable foreign office. It is often difficult to find senior officers to be posted as ambassadors and high commissioners in non-western countries.
So the need of the hour in the Foreign Office is to consider career planning for officers when they begin their assignments, both at headquarters at Dhaka and in the missions abroad. One of the first requirements is to send specific officers for language training in certain countries around the world. Thus, we may send young officers for Chinese language training or German or French or Arabic or even Portuguese as the case may be to take up posts when vacancy arises in our missions in the countries where those languages are spoken. Today, there are only a small number of languages offered to our young officers and so there are a few officers who do not seem to be eager to build up a career surrounding a certain language and culture. The other aspect is that there is hardly any repeat posting of an officer to a country or countries where he is adept in the language. An officer, after an initial assignment in a country whose language he has learnt, is sent to other countries. Subsequent postings are also far away from the countries where he could use the language he has learnt. So his learning of the language soon goes to waste. There is no career planning for him.
As the world is becoming globalised, an argument is heard that English is increasingly being used the world over for conduct of foreign relations. But this is so only in multi-lateral negotiations and in tripartite talks. But in bilateral negotiations, knowledge of the host country's language still has great value in understanding the mindset of the counterparts. For Bangladesh, there is now a growing importance of diplomacy in developing relations. Unlike the past, aid and grants are no more the need of the hour. Our interest now is to access new markets and also to find employment opportunities for our people. Unless our foreign service personnel are good in the local language and culture they would be at a disadvantage vis a vis other countries that are doing the same but with a team of diplomats who are very adept in the language and have a better understanding of the culture and of how the people and their leaders think. Besides, the growing geo-strategic position of Bangladesh has brought forward the need to understand how other countries, especially where a diplomat is posted, use their geo-political position to take national advantage.
In this context, it is important to reshape the posting policy of our diplomats. The new policy should be time befitting and should not be unfair to an individual officer. The top brass at the foreign office enjoy full discretionary powers to post diplomats. They post an officer to western capitals if he has been especially loyal and obedient. A new dispensation has to be introduced where the discretionary power is reduced. The decision making of a posting must be based on a set of criteria which includes the history of his past postings as well as the officer's requirements. For example, if an officer needs to be posted in a developed western country because of his personal or family's medical needs, this must be given some weight in the decision making. Also, if there is a special educational need that must be taken into account for giving him at least one posting in a western country, this too must be taken into account. But it must be remembered that the high official of the Foreign Office must be the ultimate decision maker. On the other hand, an officer who has enjoyed a number of consecutive postings in a western country must be given a tour of duties in Asia, Africa and Latin America. He must acquire the skills to run a mission in different environments.
Bangladesh diplomacy is on the threshold of a new era, where new problems and challenges are to be faced. With a population of 160 million and on the way to being a middle income country, we cannot but have extremely professional diplomats to run the affairs of the country. We are likely to be a developed country by 2040. We cannot rattle along with policies and methods of the past.
The writer is a former Ambassador and a commentator on current affairs.
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