By Gitanjali Marcelline
Colombo, August 14 (newsin.asia): It is with interest that I read in the Sunday Times of 8th August 2021, that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is looking to the private sector to recruit mid-career diplomats through a Public-Private Partnership (PPP) arrangement.
This arrangement is being considered apparently because of the lack of expertise in various areas of diplomacy which now include highly specialized technical, scientific, trade and investment matters. Professional diplomats are trained in the art of diplomacy but not necessarily in the nitty gritty of the subjects they deal with. Hence, the bid to recruit to the diplomatic corps, at least on a temporary basis, professionals from the appropriate companies in the private sector.
But I have mixed feelings regarding this move. Let me first run through the history of Sri Lanka’s Foreign Service, before I state the reasons why the government should weigh the pros and cons of doing this before taking a decision.
The Sri Lanka Overseas Service (SLOS) was established on 1st October 1949 as the Ceylon Overseas Service (COS) with the recruitment of its first batch of cadets. Upon Sri Lanka becoming a Republic in 1972, it was called the Sri Lanka Overseas Service. In the good old days, selection and training went through a rigorous process, following an exam carried out by the Department of Examinations. Many of the earlier members of the service were experienced officials in the home civil service, who knew the island’s issues first hand. Some of them were top professionals with degrees from Oxford and Cambridge and many had distinguished themselves in other fields.
However, over time, it was felt that specialized training in international affairs and diplomacy was needed to infuse professionalism. The Bandaranaike International Diplomatic Training Institute (BIDTI) was established in September 1995 due to the initiative of the then Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike for the purpose of offering advanced training courses in diplomacy and international relations. The institution was the first of its kind in Sri Lanka. The first Director General of the BIDTI was Deshamanya Dr. Vernon L. B. Mendis, who had joined the island’s newly formed diplomatic service way back in 1949. He was the first entrant to the COS.
It is generally recognized that from the 1950s to the 70s, Sri Lankan diplomats were second to none in the world. It was indeed the “golden period” of Sri Lankan diplomacy. Among the leading lights were: Sir Edwin Wijeratne, Ambassador to France and Switzerland; Dr. G. P. Malalasekara, Academic, Scholar and Ambassador to the Soviet Union, High Commissioner to Canada, UK and Ceylon’s Permanent representative to UN in New York; Dr. T. B. Jayah, Academic, politician and Ceylon’s first High Commissioner in Pakistan; Sir Claude Correa, like Dr. Jayah, was a political leader before he took up the post of Ceylonese Representative in the United Kingdom in 1946, two years prior to independence. In 1956, after independence, he was appointed High Commissioner in the UK. e is remembered as a diplomat par excellence among the cognoscenti. Upon independence Sir Claude served as envoy to the US; Deshamanya Gamani Corea, was a well-known Economist and Civil Servant, Ceylon’s Ambassador to the EEC, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, Secretary-General of UN, Conference on Trade and Development and Under Secretary-General UN; Jayantha Dhanapala made a name for himself in the UN as a disarmament campaigner; and Dr. Vernon Mendis United Nations Special Envoy to the Middle East and Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to UK, Canada, Ambassador to France, also known as ‘Sri Lanka’s Father of Diplomacy.
Sadly, in later years, successive governments appointed kinsmen and kinswomen, friends, henchmen and persons with political clout, leaving professional members of the foreign service to languish.
Getting back to the question whether it is a good idea to recruit mid-career diplomats through a PPP arrangement, the way I see it, the answer is both yes and no. Yes, because corporates such as MAS, Brandix, Hayleys and John Keels do have professionals qualified and trained in the areas identified in the Sunday Times article. But they do not have knowledge, training and experience in protocol and an understanding of the affairs of state, especially in the current context of geopolitical tensions between countries, specifically the US and China. Can they handle that without messing it all up? Can they play a moderating role? Do they have the tact and patience to do it? The answer is no! They are not knowledgeable, qualified, trained and experienced enough in international relations to carry out the role of a diplomat, which in my opinion, has its own requirement of skills which are acquired by years of experience.
In most developed countries, when they appoint an Ambassador, apart from being qualified in international relations, they must know the language of the country they are being posted to, and have a thorough knowledge of its political, economic and socio-cultural environment.
I took a good look at MAS’ area of expertise and criteria outlined for selection of recruits for diplomatic postings: They included International Trade, Finance, Investment Promotion (for posting at Dhaka, New York, Shanghai, or Tokyo); Environment and climate change (for posting at Nairobi); and Renewable/Sustainable Energy (for psting at Stockholm); “Innovation and Skill Development (for posting at Berlin or Beijing).
Whilst there’s no denying that these corporate companies bear very high levels of compliance in the areas of ‘Environment and Climate change’ and ‘Renewable and Sustainable Energy’, the question remains as to whether those are enough to handle diplomatic postings? With regard to the area of ‘International Trade, Finance and Investment Promotion in New York and Shanghai’ some of the corporate recruits may have their corporate interests to pursue at the expense of the overall Sri Lankan interest. Both the US and China are important for Sri Lankan trade and investment sector. Balancing those countries’ clashing claims and yet advance Sri Lanka’s interest could be a challenging task.
Besides, corporates often think of “what would happen if governments change?” Would change in governments lead to instability in PPP arrangements? Will instability in the cadre due to political changes at the top, not affect the stability of the diplomatic corps?