Broken Foreign Service

During the course of the past week Foreign Affairs Minister Carl Greenidge finally got around to setting up the new political administration’s stall as far as foreign policy is concerned. There were some things that came as no surprise. Economic diplomacy will be a major pillar of foreign policy. In fact, the Minister made it clear that the realization of the administration’s overall economic aspirations will depend heavily on the outcomes of the diplomatic effort. Setting aside the traditional bilateral and multilateral bedrocks of economic diplomacy the government has also said that as part of the diplomatic effort it will be looking much more to foreign expatriate investment and to creating space for Guyanese in the diaspora to play a role in its quest to build the country’s economy.

Then there is the issue of the preservation of the country’s territorial integrity. That goes without saying. As Venezuela’s most recent absurd claim poignantly illustrates, the Foreign Ministry will also need to continue to carefully ‘manage’ relations with countries with territorial claims against Guyana as well as to considerably accelerate relations with other countries in the hemisphere, the latter having been, over the decades, a much ignored aspect of the country’s foreign policy.

There is too relations with Caricom, a point touched on by Minister Greenidge during a recent interview with the Stabroek News. Not only does he appear to feel that having accomplished quite a bit for the region Caricom can do more, but that particularly in the area of fulfilling its commitment to the regional single market it is high time for the region to forge ahead.

There are also the many and varied aspects of what Minister Greenidge calls “political diplomacy” that have to do with Guyana strengthening its social, cultural, educational and other linkages with friendly countries as well as expressing itself on the international stage – individually and through participation at the levels of regional, hemispheric and multilateral organizations − in deliberating and pronouncing on socio-economic and political issues of global concern. This latter pursuit, it will be recalled, lay at the very centre of Guyana’s foreign policy thrust particularly during the decades of the 1970s and 1980s when issues like the liberation struggle in southern Africa and the embodiment of Third World self-determination in the concept of Non-Alignment were high on the international agenda.

In his recent pronouncements, Minister Greenidge was nothing if not candid in his assessment of the condition in which the Foreign Ministry finds itself as far as its capacity to effectively execute the country’s foreign policy priorities is concerned. He alluded, for example, to the dearth of professional diplomats at ambassadorial level, a circumstance which now compels the administration to look to the diaspora to find persons sufficiently qualified and experienced to function at the level of heads of mission in our key diplomatic locations. Below the level of head of mission, skills are so scarce that it will be necessary for the ministry to embark on an aggressive regime of training in order to address the considerable lack of capacity that currently exists both at our overseas missions and at Takuba Lodge.

Here it should be pointed out that the capacity deficit that currently confronts the Foreign Ministry is both a reflection of the limited emphasis which successive political administrations had placed on continuous institutionalized training as well as the absence of any sort of coherent policy in terms of overseas postings, matters on which the new Foreign Minister has commented and which he has said will be regularized.

What, primarily accounted for the higher calibre Foreign Service under the People’s National Congress (PNC) administration was the fact that during the post-independence era and up to the 1980s the Ministry of Foreign Affairs attracted a significantly larger number of experienced, academically qualified and talented Guyanese, some of whom had worked in overseas academic institutions, whose skills, collectively, created what Minister Greenidge asserts was “the best Foreign Service in the Caribbean.” Those who followed them into the ministry, sat at their feet and were expected to succeed them at the apex of the Foreign Service, but scattered to the winds in a witch-hunt executed by then Minister Clement Rohee at the behest of the new PPP/C administration, which entered office with a ‘beef’ with what it saw as a PNC Foreign Service that did little else but traipse the diplomatic circuit. It was at that point that the decline in the Foreign Service began in earnest.

Working in an environment of skilled and experienced superiors can provide a useful training ground for junior functionaries, though there is also a role for institutionalized training. The truth is, however, that under the PNC administration the highly touted Foreign Service sustained itself much more on the strength of the quality of officers who had been recruited and then had grown through practical exposure and experience, than on account of any systematic and sustained regime of institutionalized training. This is not to say that some Foreign Service officers did not benefit from courses at UWI, Cambridge University and elsewhere, but the qualitative growth of the Foreign Service was due primarily to officers’ self-development efforts.

Going forward, that will clearly have to be remedied – and quickly – if we are to create a Foreign Service that meets the needs of the new administration’s foreign policy outlook. There is perhaps something to be said for reviving the ministry’s in-house training regime under the auspices of the Foreign Service Institute. Properly coordinated the Institute can offer a curriculum delivered mostly by members of the diplomatic corps, visiting diplomats and locals qualified in various fields.

Beyond the opportunities that exist at home, it is high time that the Foreign Ministry ceases to offer formal training to its officers in dribs and drabs. Over the years far too few opportunities have been provided for Foreign Service officers to take advantage of professional courses offered by the University of the West Indies or, through bilateral cooperation agreements, with countries like the United States, Canada, Britain, India and neighbouring Brazil. Indeed, a point has long been reached where there is need to create an assembly line of Foreign Service Officers, moving in and out of local and overseas training institutions, pursuing courses of study that are relevant to the effective pursuit of the country’s foreign policy priorities.

Whatever claims it might make to the contrary, the fact of the matter is that the PPP/C administration badly mishandled the changing of the guard at the country’s overseas missions in 1992. By the time Mr Rohee had finished cutting a swathe through the country’s overseas missions the only experienced head of mission left in place was Rudy Insanally at the United Nations. Their replacements were political appointees with no previous Foreign Service experience. At lower levels too Foreign Service officers – some of whom had been posted abroad for several years – were recalled home then systematically marginalized, leaving them with little option but to resign.

Minister Greenidge also has had quite a bit to say about the long-standing practice – of which successive political administrations have been guilty – of allowing Foreign Service officers protracted overseas postings, in some instances eventually losing them to their countries of post and in effect limiting the number of persons who, over the years, have benefited from the training and experience acquired through posting. While as said above, it is true that Guyana, up until the early 1990s had enjoyed a crop of highly capable diplomats, the truth of the matter is that overseas postings on the whole – particularly to metropolitan capitals – have always been used to a greater or lesser extent to ‘reward’ officers (of various ranks), who are perceived, for one reason or another, to be deserving of the privilege of living and working abroad. While much of this occurs in other Foreign Services around the world, the aggressive assertion of political rationales for overseas postings here in Guyana, meant that the system went wildly out of control.

During the earliest days of the previous administration’s purge of the Foreign Service sober heads warned that it was a course of action that could cost the country dear. The recent revelations by Minister Greenidge as to just how much rebuilding now needs to be done to create a Foreign Service capable of serving Guyana effectively in all of its various facets, would appear to suggest that those earlier warnings have now become cold, harsh realities. We are likely to have to pay a high price for this particular lesson.

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