Foreign Policy-How the foreign service lost its way

For the foreign service to fulfill its mission of promoting friendly relations, fostering conditions for economic development and protecting the country from adversaries it must find its way out of the wilderness of mediocrity and return to the path of professionalism.

Minister  of Foreign Affairs  Carolyn Rodrigues
Minister of Foreign Affairs Carolyn Rodrigues

The recent appointment of Mr Harrinarine Nawbatt, a retired public servant and former minister, as ambassador to Brazil perpetuates the pattern that started nearly seventeen years ago. From its assumption of office in October 1992, the People’s Progressive Party-Civic administration’s attitude to the foreign service was clear. Appointments in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would follow a path leading further away from professionalisation and towards increased politicisation.

The most distinguishing feature of that course of action has been the sudden and successful removal of several experienced diplomats and foreign service officers in 1992-93. Their only offence was to have been appointed by the previous People’s National Congress administration. As far as possible, they were replaced by PPP political appointees, remarkable exceptions being Mr Rudy Insanally and the now retired Marilyn Miles. Once political loyalty supplanted professional competence, however, the effects on the foreign service were predictable. Vacancies could not be filled easily by competent newcomers and the quality of foreign representation and internal research declined.

The diplomats
Guyanese know little of how their country’s foreign service functions. Basically, those functions may be summarised as representing Guyana through its foreign missions; reporting accurately on developments in the country of posting which are likely to influence the formulation of Guyana’s policies; protecting Guyana’s national interests; promoting friendly relations and extending consular facilities to foreigners and Guyanese nationals in the country of posting; and negotiating agreements on various issues with the authorities there.
For these tasks to be achieved, the representative of the state must adopt a ‘diplomatic identity.’ Arguably, such a process is essential for the international system today as states must interact with each other. The system requires exponents of the state‘s policies to be steeped in their nation’s culture and values. It is therefore desirable for ambassadors to be nationals who have lived, worked and studied in their home countries and to be educated or have experience in the practice of international relations and diplomacy.  For these reasons, émigrés, non-nationals and foreigners are always a poor substitute.

Focus on training
Focus on training

In a poor country such as Guyana, foreign missions are few and ambassadors are accredited to several states and international organisations simultaneously. Missions are small in size, qualified staff is in short supply and the tasks of representing the national interest are large. Hence, the foreign service must also be multi-lingual, multi-talented, multi-tasked and highly motivated.

The 1992-93 purge of the foreign service by the new Minister of Foreign Affairs Clement Rohee was easy to accomplish. That done, he had to face the difficult task of rebuilding a new service but there was a long period of indecision and inactivity. The administration seemed not to understand that an effective foreign service cannot be built overnight and, as in every serious professional field, competence comes more from higher education and long experience than from political enthusiasm. It also seemed not to have comprehended the crucial role diplomacy could play to advance the interests of a small state, especially one which was obliged to safeguard its immediate territorial integrity and, in the longer term, to emphasise its economic interests.

President Bharrat Jagdeo (left) in a meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (GINA photo)
President Bharrat Jagdeo (left) in a meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (GINA photo)

For several months after the purge was over, the new PPP/C administration failed to appoint new ambassadors to the three frontier capitals – Brasilia, Caracas and Paramaribo – and, for several years, there was no one to represent the country in Brussels, headquarters of the European Union. Of the five career foreign service officers left standing in charge of the missions overseas – Beijing, Havana, Brussels, Brasilia and the UN in New York – only two, Ivan Evelyn in Brasilia and Rudy Insanally, held the rank of ambassador.
Four of the earliest ambassadors to be appointed – Laleshwar Singh in London, Odeen Ishmael in Washington; Satyadeow Sawh in Caracas and Karshanjee Arjun in Paramaribo – were activists in the Association of Concerned Guyanese, an overseas-based branch of the PPP. They had not lived and worked in Guyana for several years and they certainly had no education or experience in diplomacy.  Mr Brindley   Benn, a former chairman of the PPP was appointed High Commissioner to Ottawa.

When the administration did move, it stumbled, controversially appointing Satyadeow Sawh as Ambassador to Caracas.  That did not go down well in the sophisticated Latin American chancelleries and galleries.  Mr Sawh soon had to be recalled to Georgetown where a special ministry was created for him and, in keeping with the practice of appointing prominent party members without diplomatic experience to ambassadorial positions, Bayney Karran replaced him.

The purge, inevitably, had triggered the unanticipated consequence of inducing feelings of fear and loathing even among those who were not immediately targetted.  When the career officer Ivan Evelyn, for example, was briefly appointed ambassador to Brasilia but was recalled to Georgetown after a few months, he quit the service. Made to feel unwanted and unwelcome, and without respect for their exertions or prospects for advancement, experienced and essential middle-ranking officers – a development economist; legal adviser; linguist; and a Caribbean and Latin American specialist among them – also started to leave. Several other officers at the missions in Brasilia, Caracas, London, Paramaribo and Washington, resigned. These departures forced major changes in organisation of responsibilities, but also        weakened, the Ministry.

Staff demoralisation became contagious and serious. Sidelining and firing officers, appointing untried, unqualified and mediocre persons to major positions, and reducing spending on the foreign service rattled the older staff. Repatriated officers became anxious over protracted delays in the payment of various overdue emoluments, outstanding promotions, and the perception that their careers may have hit a wall as a result of the administration’s decision to fill top-level diplomatic posts with non-career, political appointees.

Realising belatedly the grave  problems caused by the purge, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs adopted three stop-gap expedients. The first was a programme to retain or recall selected retirees – including persons such as Donald Abrams, Rudy Collins and Lloyd Searwar – in the hope of replenishing the pool of talent. The second was an attempt to recruit what was called a ‘fourth generation’ of foreign service officers, including a few from abroad who were employed under special contracts and paid super salaries. In so doing, however, the Minister of Foreign Affairs alienated several of his more experienced second and third generation officers who felt that their careers would be blocked. There was little need to worry, however, as many members of the so-called ‘fourth generation’ departed to pursue more satisfying careers  out of the country.

The third measure, laudably, was the establishment of the Foreign Service Institute which, properly managed and resourced, could have become an important asset in the ministry. But, after a promising start, the Institute became a victim of the same political mindset that poisoned every function in the ministry and that soon foundered.

The missions
Guyana’s choices of capitals as diplomatic missions have been influenced by the needs of securing its borders, developing its economy and interacting effectively with the    international community. Inevitably, the high cost of maintaining an effective diplomatic presence abroad has been a major limitation.

The presence of diplomatic missions in Brussels, London, Ottawa and Washington – four of the most valuable sources of economic assistance – and those in Brasilia, Caracas and Paramaribo – three continental neighbours, have the obvious advantage of favourable economic ties and maintaining close relations with frontier states. Those in Beijing, Havana and New Delhi – important enough during the Cold War and the heyday of the Non-Aligned Movement – remained consistent in providing assistance and scholarships in the areas of agriculture, industry, science and technology.

Today, only ten missions are occupied by diplomats of ambassadorial rank. Of these, seven are political appointees – Laleshwar Singh, London; Rajnarine Singh, Ottawa; Bayney Karran, Washington, DC; Odeen Ishmael, Caracas; Harrinarine Nawbatt, Brasilia; Karshanjee Arjun, Paramaribo; and Jairam Ronald Gajraj, New Delhi. Three others – Patrick Gomes, Brussels; Timothy Critchlow, Havana, and Rudy Insanally, United Nations, New York – can be considered professional.

The cost
The cost of sustaining even a sclerotic foreign service is high. The temptingly cheap solution of recruiting émigrés residing in their countries of posting and retaining diplomats at posts for periods in excess of a decade has eroded their effectiveness and reduced representation to a sham. Although this practice is due largely to the cost of reposting, it would be impossible to persuade diplomats who have served for several years in metropolitan countries to return to a country they and their families hardly know.

Thus, the quality of the foreign service has declined and this has been reflected in many missed or mangled opportunities and blunders, the most egregious examples of which occurred in 2000. In the first, the mission in Paramaribo seemed to have missed the signals of Suriname’s impending confrontation over the CGX petroleum exploration project off the Corentyne. Similarly, the mission in Caracas failed to warn Georgetown of Venezuela’s likely reaction to the Beal Aerospace Technologies project in the Essequibo. No comprehensive internal inquiry was instigated to investigate those diplomatic débâcles. These are but two of the more blatant examples of the political culture that is intolerant of self-examination, while resisting the rigour of external scrutiny.

The degree of dysfunctionality evinced by these disasters, nevertheless, made it clear that the Minister of Foreign Affairs had to go. Appointed in 2001, the new minister Rudy Insanally, cautiously commissioned a study of the ministry by the United Nations Monitoring Mission. Its report simply confirmed the extent to which eight years of maladministration had decimated a talented foreign service team, eviscerated the ministry and debilitated its performance for years thereafter. That report was an epitaph to a foreign service that was no longer capable of performing the functions for which it was established and that seemed to have  lost its way.

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