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A leap of faith

By Syed Saadat | From the Newspaper Dawn

‘GIVE me a place to stand and I will move the world’ were the words of Archimedes who worked out the principle of the lever.
Though Archimedes never managed the feat he did make his mark in history. Finally, we have a foreign minister and since Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto none has been nearly as young.
Given our economic and security situation the new foreign minister has not much in her own hands and hardly a place to stand vis-à-vis foreign policy. She may simply not get much to work with even if she is talented. However, she can still make her mark. Generally what is expected of a foreign minister is to reach out to the world. The very nature of this expectation tends to sweep under the carpet matters at home, and in the foreign service.
I do not claim to be an authority on foreign affairs but I would like my readers to consider an ordinary comparison between a Dutch diplomat and a Pakistani diplomat at the very outset of their careers and make up their own minds. To be eligible to enter the Dutch foreign service a person must have a degree in international relations, should be proficient in at least one foreign language other than English and must have two to three years’ working experience, preferably overseas, with any organisation or think tank concerned with international relations, law or political science.
Now come to Pakistan. When the Dutch diplomat was studying 195 countries of the world and the relationship of important ones with each other, our diplomat was may be studying the 206 bones in the human body and their relationship with each other.
This is no satire, it is an example. A brief look at the educational qualifications of the young diplomats making up the strength of our Foreign Office would indicate a majority of doctors, engineers and MBAs.
If the above scenario is not enough to make you wonder at the sanity of our recruitment process for the Foreign Service of Pakistan, consider another real life example where captains from the army are directly inducted into the service. Somebody who has been trained to know all about G3 rifles from the age of 18 is suddenly required to know all about G8 countries at the age of 26. The irony is that his colleagues at least take the competitive exam, whereas he being a member of the privileged
uniformed lot is exempted from even that.
No matter how intelligent or skilful you are and howsoever much the government invests in your training once you are part of the foreign service, the gap in the competency of our diplomats and someone like the Dutch diplomats is not going to be plugged. Within a decade, if our man is really good, he would get to where the Dutchman is today but still the Dutchman would be far ahead as he is today because he is moving along as well.
The whole scenario has nothing to do with individual capacity; it has to do with the capacity building of the individual. Dutch diplomats are not an exception, just to state one more example, the US also has a very specific criterion for the induction of candidates into its foreign service. So much so that the candidates already having overseas working experience are preferred for entry in the US Department of State as foreign service officer. Therefore, it is a convincing argument to revisit the eligibility criterion for joining Pakistan’s foreign service, especially because being a good diplomat is not everybody’s piece of cake. It is, in fact, a way of life.
The career path for the better qualified lot should also be revamped. Consider the following:
Why can’t career diplomats be appointed ambassadors when they are young and energetic and still have a lot of years of service left in them? Why not bring in an era of Pakistani diplomats who are young, dynamic, energetic and, most importantly, have the relevant qualification to represent Pakistan at the highest level across the globe? Why leave them to rust at different levels of bureaucratic hierarchy or wait for them to find better positions elsewhere or simply to have enough grey hair?
Once the induction process is refined and customised according to job requirements, the diplomats thus inducted would already have the requisite skill set and aptitude. But to attract and retain such talent one would have to promote them fast enough. When our foreign minister can be 34 years why can’t career diplomats be appointed ambassadors by the age of 40 at the most? After such extensive sifting, they deserve a fast-track and also, you would have to do away with ‘non-career’ diplomats like Maleeha Lodhi who remained high commissioner to UK for years or Hussain Haqqani who continues to represent Pakistan in the US, because such appointments undermine the morale of career diplomats. And last but not least, there would not be any need to give extension upon extension to someone like Shahid Malik, our high commissioner in India, even after his retirement, because somehow a good enough replacement is not in sight.
This small step regarding the selection and training of our diplomats, if taken, would definitely be a giant leap forward for the Foreign Service of Pakistan, forgive me for distorting Neil Armstrong’s famous line about his first step on the moon.

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