The marginalization of the Foreign Ministry

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Foreign Service in particular have not grown or prospered under the PPP/Civic administration. The decline of the ministry has been both glaring and profound. Over eighteen years the government has done little if anything to rebuild the structure of experienced professionals, the post-December 1992 erosion of which was partially its own doing. Another obvious disappointment has been that the promised creation of a strong regime of trade and commercial representation at the level of our strategically important overseas missions has simply failed to materialize. There have been other failures too, like the oft-stated removal of a sense of structure from the Foreign Service.

Not that the practice of foreign policy has come to a grinding halt over the past eighteen years. Rather, it has proceeded with a vastly reduced substantive input from the Foreign Ministry. One can argue that this is not altogether surprising. Long prior taking office in 1992 the government had set its face against a Foreign Service which, it argued, had proven adept at traipsing the international cocktail circuit at the expense of the taxpayers and that the returns from those efforts had not been worth the expenditure. Cutting the Foreign Service ‘down to size,’ both literally and figuratively, was one of the more predictable post December-1992 pursuits of the new administration. That meant both reducing the size of the service and retiring those PNC-appointed heads of mission who, as one government supporter put it during a period of heated public debate over the future of the Foreign Service, had been “enjoying the sweet” for far too long at the taxpayers’ expense.

The transformation of the Foreign Ministry under the government’s first post-December 1992 Foreign Minister, Clement Rohee was carried out amidst a mix of rancour and high drama associated mostly with the settling of outstanding liabilities to diplomats who were being sent packing. Some claims actually led to litigation. Simultaneously, the PNC took deliberate aim at the Foreign Ministry, charging witch hunts and political purges. In those days there was hardly a dull moment at Takuba Lodge. It was a time of trial and trauma, driven by a politically empowered Minister who had thrown himself into his task with a level of zealousness that frequently generated ill-will and sparked low-intensity confrontations between the Minister and some officers.

The objective of ridding the ministry of officers deemed to be politically ‘suspect,’ or at least neutralizing them was manifested in a bewildering series of administrative changes that saw some senior and experienced officers reduced to sinecure positions which left them with little of substance to do. The Orwellian environment that had been created was in fact a precursor to the condition of rut that followed.

Over time there has also been evidence of a balkanization of the Foreign Ministry, as reflected in the creation of the Ministry of Foreign Trade – clearly a ministry within a ministry – and the shifting of environmental matters (one of the more prominent portfolios on the contemporary international relations agenda) from Takuba Lodge to the Office of the President. Here, it has to be said that, President Jagdeo has made the environment his personal foreign policy pursuit with a measure of success for Guyana’s international profile as a ‘Champion of the Earth’ that would not have been possible under a severely depleted Foreign Ministry. The downside of this, however, was the exclusion of foreign service officers from a critical area of foreign policy specialization.

At the overseas missions, some officers below the rank of ambassador – who have characteristically demonstrated a reluctance to return to Guyana after having spent a number of years at an overseas mission – hurriedly sought to pursue options aimed at circumventing what they saw as their inevitable recall. Those who had opted to return from overseas to work with the new political administration found, in many cases, that they were decidedly unwelcome.  Clement Rohee was particularly effective in disseminating the message among returning foreign service officers, who he perhaps felt were coming back to Guyana with grandiose illusions, that things had changed and that they would now be playing by new rules. One can think of half a dozen or so experienced officers who, having responded to their recall to Guyana either immediately prior to or shortly after December 1992, eventually either left out of frustration or else were unapologetically forced out, their departure having been preceded by constant ‘run-ins’ with the Minister.

The real error which the new administration was making in the process was in not recognizing that the ensuing transformation within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was, in fact, precipitating the erosion of both its image and its capabilities.  In other words, the government, in the process of fashioning what it perceived to be a politically pleasing Foreign Ministry,  was simultaneously presiding over the destruction of a structure which it would find difficult to put together again – the Humpty Dumpty syndrome, if you will. By 1996 a number of skilled diplomats and capable and experienced middle-ranking officers had long left or been dispatched from the ministry. A few survived including, notably, former UN Ambassador Rudy Insanally who was to succeed Clement Rohee as Minister, Cheryl Miles who, prior to retirement served first as Director General in the Ministry then as Ambassador to Brazil, and Dr Timothy Critchlow who served as Head of Mission in Havana before his retirement. These, however, have now all ridden off into the sunset and the current Director General, Elizabeth Harper, is now the longest serving member of staff of the ministry having been there for a period in excess of thirty years.

What remains of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is a cadre of mostly young and relatively inexperienced officers whose training, mostly at the University of Guyana, has probably not equipped them as thoroughly as one would have liked, to respond to the challenges of a global international relations agenda. This, of course, probably has less to do with their innate capabilities and more to do with the fact that they remained undertrained for the demands of a job that has grown more specialized in recent years.

Efforts to create a training regimen of sorts through the setting up of a Foreign Service Institute coupled with the limited overseas training available to officers mostly in India and Brazil have proven to be patently insufficient to meet the ministry’s training requirements. Historically, much of the training in the Foreign Ministry had been accomplished through an informal but highly effective system of mentoring. You joined the Foreign Ministry, learnt from your more experienced colleagues and then at some point in time became experienced enough to guide the others who followed you. Mentoring, however, cannot be effective in the absence of a corps of mentors. In that respect too the Ministry of Foreign Affairs continues to suffer.

Much of the attraction associated with joining the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is linked to a desire to pursue a successful diplomatic career. This is nothing new. You hope that one day you might even become an ambassador. Those hopes are no longer harboured by young officers in the ministry. The notion of the career diplomat rising to the rank of head of mission has, under the current political administration, been supplanted by ambassadorial appointments based primarily on political affiliation. It appears that the best that the current crop of professional foreign service officers can hope for is a low or middle level posting to a mission abroad where, hopefully, they might be forgotten there for a sufficiently lengthy period to allow them to make arrangements for themselves and their families to remain abroad permanently. It is not the kind of environment in which you can expect to breed professional diplomats.

Worryingly, the continued decline in the quality of Guyana’s Foreign Service is occurring at a juncture when international diplomacy requires specialists rather than generalists to cope with what are often the complex issues of the environment, international trade and in the case of Guyana and the Caribbean, issues such as the realization of the objectives of the Caribbean Single Market and Economy  and the pursuit of regional food sovereignty. The preoccupation with political appointments at the level of ambassador has also meant that ambassadors too are less than adequately equipped to respond to the contemporary international relations agenda.

The losses resulting from this deficiency have been evident. Our overseas missions have, for example, been unable to play a really meaningful role in the pursuit of economic diplomacy. Overseas trade, economic and other missions, often led by the President himself, rarely see the inclusion of foreign service officers for purposes that go beyond logistics and protocol. Nor have our diplomatic missions and, more specifically, our ambassadors, been able to create any particularly high level of interest in the country’s tourism product abroad, or generate a meaningful level of external interest among either Guyanese or foreigners in Guyana’s investment potential. It will be recalled that these were among the priorities which the administration had set for the Foreign Ministry and, more particularly, the Foreign Service during its early days in office.

In sum – and while it is worth repeating that there have been some foreign policy gains during the period, the strengthening of bilateral relations with China and Brazil, high level involvement in the global discourse on the environment and more recently, a measure of strengthening of diplomatic relations with South America (principally at the multilateral level) and the Middle East being some of these – the Ministry of Foreign Affairs   and the Foreign Service in particular have remained largely at the periphery of these developments. It is an indication of a decline in the institutional practice of professional diplomacy for which the incumbent political administration must take responsibility.

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