Foreign Ministry shake-up and clean-up
NEW YORK -- When 10 long-experienced career diplomats take up their new overseas assignments next January, there will be half a dozen empty chairs left behind in the Foreign Ministry in Colombo.

Which reminds us of the anecdote once circulating in the corridors of the Finance Ministry in a bygone era. When a change of government took place somewhere in the late 1960s, the permanent secretary was so unsure of holding onto his job that every time he went to the toilet, he left his handkerchief on his chair -- just to remind everyone that the seat remains occupied. But that did not prevent him from being transferred out of his plum job.

The situation in the Foreign Ministry, however, is different. The chairs may not be suitably manned -- handkerchief or no handkerchief. The 10 career officers who are getting ready to fly out are mostly divisional heads. And since only about three career diplomats are returning to base, there is going to be a big vacuum.

One official quips that the ministry will be so desperately short of senior officers that the departing directors-general may have to be replaced by drivers and peons working in the ministry.

But that joke was a reality last year when a driver in an overseas Sri Lankan mission was promoted to a diplomat while the diplomat was downgraded to a driver. The job switch, needless to say, was an incredible feat even by Sri Lankan standards.

The leap in promotion for the driver was not on merit but a political payoff for services rendered. When a request was made for a switch in the visa status of the two Sri Lankans, even the visa authority in the foreign capital was so outraged that it responded with a letter of protest.

Clearly, these were some of the political shenanigans of a former foreign ministry that degenerated to its lowest point in history. The traditional rule that the Foreign Service is to be staffed by career diplomats and political appointees on a 60:40 equation was also reversed.

As a result, more than 60 percent of our diplomats overseas were ex-politicians, lawyers or businessmen whose only claim to fame was that they were party loyalists -- or they hailed mostly from the Moratuwa electorate or its neighbourhood.

The current Foreign Minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar, who was once responsible for streamlining the ministry, has now been tasked with turning it around. A formidable job, which he has undertaken with his usual diligence.

For starters, the traditional equation is being restored, with career diplomats getting 60 percent of all overseas appointments. But the gap in the middle remains because of non-recruitment to the Foreign Service over a long period of time. However, Kadirgamar expects to have "a first class foreign service" in the next 10 years as new recruits mature into senior diplomats.

"The damage that has been done cannot be undone ad hoc,'' Kadirgamar said during his visit to the UN in September."If you are undoing, you have to rebuild again -- and you have to rebuild on a scheme," he says. "You cannot say: this guy is a bad appointment and take him out. And then what do you do? You have to do it across the board -- and that takes time".

A closer look at what went on in the Foreign Ministry during the last two years brings in more and more sordid revelations. Kadirgmar says that some of the non-diplomatic staff, including clerks, stenographers, messengers and drivers, have been appointed "without even a piece of paper". "There are no files, and there is no authority whatsovever for the appointments".

The "illegal appointments" to Sri Lanka's overseas missions have been made mostly with "no examinations, no interviews -- nothing". The bottom line, he says, is that "so and so was from Moratuwa." The ministry had also abused the concept of "local recruits" because they were hired in Colombo and sent overseas.

As Kadirgamar explains, local recruits are mostly interpreters, translators and receptionists (who speak the local language). In Japan, the interpreters are Japanese. In the Middle East, they are expected to be Arabic speaking. It is primarily for the head of mission to decide on these recruits.

But during the last two years some of the overseas missions have been filled with so-called local recruits who speak only Sinhala. In one English-speaking country, the driver working for the Sri Lanka mission has to be given directions in Sinhala (with transliterations of road and highway signs) because he does not speak English.

How the ambassador survived in fast-moving traffic with a driver who couldn't read road signs is another miracle in the annals of the Foreign Ministry.

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