Foreign Service: Time to recruit the best

By Bernard Goonetilleke

A veritable can of worms was opened when news items appeared critical of the Cabinet Memorandum submitted by the Minister of External Affairs with the intention of admitting a group of young men and women directly to the Foreign Service, without going though the established recruitment process stipulated in the Foreign Service Minute.

An English language newspaper reported on Tuesday that president Rajapaksa in his characteristic aplomb decided against the Cabinet Memorandum. An assurance was given by Secretary to President that no recruitment will be made direct to the Foreign Service, outside the established process. This swift action by the President would have undoubtedly pleased thousands of unemployed graduates, who sat the examination early this month. We certainly hope that was a policy statement and not an attempt to whitewash something sinister that was to take place.

Those who follow foreign relations of Sri Lanka would no doubt wonder why the Minister resorted to bypass the established recruitment procedure, which is designed to provide equal opportunities to all successful university graduates to enter the Foreign Service. Circumventing the well defined procedure, is an injustice done to unemployed graduates, majority of whom hail from rural areas of the island. Given a fair opportunity, some of them would have proven themselves to be eminently suitable for recruitment to the Foreign Service.

What were the compelling reasons for the Ministry to bypass the established recruitment process immediately following an examination held early March? Is it because this handpicked group, if subjected to the normal selection procedure, would not have survived the filtering process of a competitive examination and a transparent process of interviews? The purpose of a competitive examination is to enshrine the principle of equity, while the arbitrary selection is to recognize the infallibility of the Minister or the Ministry officials.

SLFS is a distinct service
Two distinct services were established in 1948, at the time of our independence viz. the Ceylon Civil Service and Ceylon Overseas Service. Affairs of the two services were governed by two separate Minutes. These two services later came to be known as Administrative Service and Foreign Service and applicants had the freedom of selecting the service of their choice, which they wished to make their future career.

With the change of the language policy in the mid 1950s, doors were opened for increasing number of graduates to enter the Foreign Service, whose medium of instruction were either Sinhala or Tamil. Consequently, intakes in to the Foreign Service saw an increasing number of graduates from rural areas. Yet, there is a mistaken assumption that those who come from elite schools in Colombo, Kandy etc., are admitted to the Foreign Service. However, facts on the ground indicate the majority of Foreign Service personnel come from rural areas as demonstrated by the batches of 1992 and 1994. The view that the Foreign Service personnel represent the upper middle class of our society is a display of gross ignorance, just as much as the mistaken notion that they spend most of their time attending cocktail parties engaging in idle talk.

Despite the myth that the Foreign Service personnel are a privileged lot, having retired after serving the ministry for nearly four decades, I can categorically say that our lives have not been a bed of roses. Foreign Service personnel get moved from country to country like gypsies at regular intervals, which at times could be a traumatic experience to their children. At times they are subject to difficult circumstances, such as being away from their families and loved ones. They have to educate their children under trying circumstances. Particularly the female members of the service undergo considerable personal difficulties, including having spouses, who are forced to be housebound as they are not permitted to engage in vocations they are qualified in while serving in foreign countries. Such situations lead to domestic turmoil, some ending in tragedy.

What were the compelling reasons for this decision?
How can the ministry justify its decision to bypass the recruitment procedure of the Foreign Service and reassure the graduates, who had toiled for their university degrees under difficult circumstances? Those graduates are articulate and intelligent youg men and women whose desire to remain in the social trajectory of upward mobility is as firm as that of the chosen few, who are named in the cabinet memorandum with one difference. They have accessed knowledge as much as the chosen few. Sadly, they have no access to power.

In trying to explain the rationale behind the failed exercise, will the ministry tell them that there are 97 vacancies with the result of not having sufficient number of officials to fill the vacancies in our missions abroad or maintain that its effort was to recruit a handful as a stop gap measure to meet exigencies of the service? Surely the unemployed graduates, who may have even gone to the extent of following postgraduate courses in the hope of entering the Foreign Service, will not accept such lame excuses. The ministry should explain to these aspiring graduates, why it waited so long until vacancies reached the century mark and then decided to change the rules of the game. The ministry should have realized that competent officers cannot be materialized through Cabinet Memoranda, but have to be selected through the well established and tested process.

Having selected the candidates through the established process, the ministry should have known they have to be trained locally as well as abroad, so that they would acquire necessary skills to rise to any occasion and meet myriad challenges while serving the interests of the country. Meeting challenges posed by the LTTE lobby in the past and even in the post conflict era, working below radar seeking to proscribe the LTTE in certain foreign countries, rising to situations such as invasions of Kuwait and Lebanon and more recently during the unrest in Libya, in which tens of thousands of stranded Sri Lankan workers had to be repatriated, did not happen in a vacuum. There were indeed many Foreign Service personnel as well as others, who worked day and night to make such operations a success.

One shortcoming of the foreign ministry officials may be that, in keeping with the age-old traditions of a professional service, they do not go public or crow from rooftops about their achievements. This may be one reason for the jaundiced view about the Foreign Service, even when officers of the service rise gallantly to meet such emergency situations. These vacancies did not pile up overnight. If the ministry had followed the usual practice of holding examinations at regular intervals, the current Minister would not have been forced to give flimsy excuses for the sorry state of affairs in his ministry. It is regretted that the ministry had failed to recruit for years, at a time when graduates languished without jobs and been baton charged when frustration and desperation drove them to public protest.

If the ministry is so concerned about the existing vacancies, it should arrange with the Department of Examinations to release the results of the examination, so that recruitment can take place without delay. Having waited for so many years, what jolted the ministry to go on a recruitment binge outside the system, after holding an open competitive examination early this month is something the ministry will find hard to explain. Surely the ministry cannot plead the doctrine of necessity to justify its intention of serving sons and daughters of a privileged group of persons.

The Cabinet Memorandum that has been reportedly submitted by the ministry has a list of 7 women and 3 men, who according to the Minister, had been identified for their academic qualifications and cultural awareness as eminently suited for admission to the Foreign Service! Those unemployed graduates surely would like to know the qualifications of these ten aspirants. More importantly, they would be curious to learn more about the cultural awareness those ten individuals are gifted with, coming as they do from the rural heartland of the country with their heartbeats attuned to the rhythm of the pulse of the nation.

What was the identification process?
More importantly, they would ask what criteria were applied to identify and select those individuals, apart from the influence their families may wield. How did they become eminently suitable to be handpicked? How do their academic qualifications overshadow the qualifications of their less influential and less fortunate country cousins? When did cultural awareness become a criterion for selection to the Foreign Service? If indeed that was a high priority, why did the ministry fail to include that requirement in the Foreign Service Minute? On the other hand, if the selection process was on the basis of positions held or influence their families wield, the unemployed graduates will certainly have reasons to be aggrieved.

Justice and fair play for all
Consequences of the proposed arbitrary recruitment processes are likely to have long-term repercussions. Those who join a service, whether it is the Foreign Service, Administrative Service or any other service or profession, expect gradual upward movement in their respective services. When artificial blocks and unjustifiable obstructions are placed before members of such professions, they are prone to be upset and angry at the injustices they have been subjected to. This pent up frustration would prevent them from giving their best to their respective institutions.

The other negative factor is that, those who are able and capable would think of abandoning the service leaving the mediocre to rule the roost. That certainly will not be in the interest of the administration currently fighting a running battle on bilateral and multilateral fronts simultaneously.

The government has to be mindful of the fact that we are living in a shrinking world, where countries have to fight hard to get what is due. Currently, allegations of war crimes against our gallant armed forces are receiving the attention of the UN Security Council and the Geneva based Human Rights Council. Attempts are being made to bring legal action against the executive and other high ranking officials of the administration, while steps are being taken by supporters of Eelam to sabotage tourism, as was the case in Berlin last week, and our exports to certain market. These are some of the issues our Foreign Service officials and the Ministry have to grapple with. Novices selected on the basis of whom they know and not on what they know, and officers aggrieved and frustrated by the erosion of professionalism cannot be expected to respond to such challenging tasks.

This is the time the Ministry should take steps to strengthen the Foreign Service, by recruiting the best and providing them with much needed training , so that they can confidently lock horns with their adversaries when it comes to safeguarding the interests of the country. When injustices are perpetrated with this degree of contempt what is the remedy available to the average citizen? In this particular instance, those within the service, as well as hapless unemployed graduates, could seek legal remedy by taking their grievances to the Supreme Court. On the other hand, we have a trusted and well respected President, and there is belief that he will not condone injustices being perpetrated on the youth of the country and serving officers in the public service. In this particular instance, it was he who intervened decisively on behalf of the aggrieved.

If justice and fair play are the norms of our society and not the exception, President Rajapaksa should ask the Minister of External Affairs to take speedy action to release the results of the examination held early this month, so that some of the vacancies could be filled by those who have toiled hard. He must also instruct the Ministry to come up with a credible arrangement for regular competitive examinations to fill the remaining vacancies, without trotting out lame excuses for circumventing established procedures for recruitment to the Foreign Service.

(Writer, Bernard Goonetilleke was former Secretary to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and retired after 38 years in the Foreign Service, having served as Ambassador to the USA, China, and as Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Geneva).

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