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