A couple of weeks ago, in noting that former Foreign Ministers Sir Shridath Ramphal and Rashleigh Jackson had turned 80, we waxed a little nostalgic about the brain power they had at their disposal, the likes of which the foreign service, if not Guyana, appears to have lost. In so doing, we perhaps raised more questions than answers regarding the state of our diplomacy, foremost among which would be, whither the legacy?
We are, of course, all aware of the effects of the brain drain on Guyana’s development. The foreign ministry is not the only institution to have been afflicted. Indeed, the public service in general and the country as a whole have suffered from the loss of senior and middle management professionals. And we all know the problems associated with attracting bright, young people, training them and retaining them, in order to replenish our dwindling human resource stocks. The foreign ministry is, in this respect, but a microcosm of a wider national syndrome.
When Dr Cheddi Jagan and the PPP/Civic assumed the reins of government in October 1992, it was amidst much public goodwill, notwithstanding the violent protests of a disgruntled minority. Many who had endured the rigours of the Burnham regime and the hard guava season of the 1980s believed that it was time for change and that, at last, there was a light at the end of the tunnel. Guyanese at home and abroad were encouraged by the promise of transparent and accountable government and development and progress for all. For many, however, the promise of a new dawn flattered only to deceive, and Guyanese have continued to emigrate over the past 16 years.
But in October 1992, the foreign ministry still appeared to offer the prospect of a fulfilling career in serving the national cause and there was another crop of accomplished diplomats already in place to continue the legacy of Ramphal, Jackson, et al.
Bridging the generations were Ronald Austin, James Matheson and Cheryl Miles, our Ambassadors in Beijing, Brussels and Caracas respectively. David Hales was the Director General and Ivan Evelyn, the Chief of Protocol. Dr Tyrone Ferguson had been seconded to head the Presidential Secretariat under President Hoyte and, all things being equal, was available for a return to diplomatic service. And others, such as Dr Timothy Crichlow, Rawle Lucas, John Murray and June Persaud, were but a step or two away from assuming their place in the forefront of our national diplomacy.
These in turn were being understudied by the next batch of blooded and proven foreign service officers, who would in time have expected the baton to be passed to them. Unfortunately, very few of these remain in harness, though it is somewhat reassuring that one who has stayed the course is the long-serving and exemplary Director General, Ambassador Elizabeth Harper.
There are today still bright minds in the ministry, but anecdotal evidence suggests a shrinking talent pool, with the dismantling of systems for ensuring job satisfaction, such as decent pay, regular promotions, predictable and transparent postings, and adequate training and travel opportunities.
Moreover, there is a glass ceiling of sorts. With the recall of Dr Critchlow and Mrs Miles from Havana and Brasilia respectively, all substantive heads of mission are now political appointees. No one has yet been named to Havana, and the top posts in Beijing and at the Permanent Mission to the United Nations remain vacant. Paramaribo also needs to be filled and from all reports, our man in London is past his ‘sell by date.’ Such appointments are of course subject to presidential approval and one fears that the trend of making these based on political loyalties rather than professional competence will continue. This does not augur well for the future health of the foreign service.
To be fair, there are hopeful signs. The incumbent Foreign Minister Carolyn Rodrigues-Birkett, has begun to address one particularly vexed question by making some 21 promotions last December. Postings are reportedly next on her agenda.
However, there are also signs that the road ahead will continue to be uphill and rocky and that the longest and most difficult stretch is the short step across the road from Takuba Lodge to the Office of the President, where all decisions, including whether an officer should travel abroad for training at no financial cost to the government, have to be referred.
We have repeatedly argued that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs needs to be allowed to hire the best and the brightest, to rebuild its cadre of diplomats by investing in training and appropriate incentives, to ensure that we can once again pursue an integrated and coherent foreign policy, such as we did following Independence and up to the early 1990s.
This should not be an impossible task and it should not be beyond Mrs Rodrigues-Birkett, who came into the job with previous ministerial experience and a ‘can do’ reputation. Now, almost one year into her job, as she tries to rebuild the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, she must also contemplate reunification with the Ministry of Foreign Trade and International Cooperation. She clearly has her work cut out for her to restore a demoralised and under-resourced ministry to its former glory.