Diplomacy: More than workshops


Sri Lanka’s Heads of Diplomatic Missions (HoMs) overseas were summoned for an ‘orientation course’, given some lectures and sent on a tour to familiarise themselves with the developments taking place in their home country. The intentions may have been good, but did it serve the purpose?

The answer would best come from those who attended the programme. Whether they would be able to give their honest assessment knowing what fate awaits them if anything negative is said, is another matter.

The country’s foreign policy has been severely tested – and found wanting in recent times. Its relations with the West are bad. Sri Lanka faced trade sanctions of a kind; lost a vote at the UN. Her bilateral ties with India, its closest and most important neighbour, are on the decline; and a hostile diaspora is doing everything in its power to bring disrepute to the country and the government. From all accounts, none of these key foreign policy issues was discussed in any substantive way at the symposium.

For these diplomats, it was a case of listening to lecturers. At one point, when a senior retired career officer now serving in an Asian capital complained about the lack of feedback from the MEA (Ministry of External Affairs), the Minister shut him up saying they were not brought here to complain. Another career diplomat from Chennai was snubbed by the Minister and yet another raised the pertinent question of the diaspora (which was not even on the ever-changing agenda) and asked for a discussion on how best to handle them. The Minister agreed to such a discussion, but never had it.

It is clear as clear can be, that the MEA is dysfunctional and at best, a mere post box between the President’s Office and foreign countries. This has been recognised by foreign governments and was best illustrated when the Indian National Security Adviser visited recently and met the Rajapaksa brothers for official talks, but not the Minister of External Affairs, other than at the informal breakfast with the President.
With the minister spending more time in the air than on terra firma, and officials and some political appointee diplomats overseas embroiled in intrigue and infighting, there is a need for radical reform in this area if the country’s business overseas is going to be better served.
Recruitments and training of professionals to the diplomatic service have fallen by the wayside giving way to more and more political appointments of relatives of politicians even at lower levels. It is well and good to open diplomatic missions all over Latin America and Africa as a knee-jerk reaction to the humiliating defeat at the UN in Geneva last April, but where are the trained professionals in the service to man these stations?

Already, HoMs are complaining of the lack of staff, i.e. trained career diplomats. When the new mission was opened in Turkey, a young staffer had to be sent from the Maldives to help open the embassy. The few trained professionals are yanked from one mission and sent elsewhere on ‘fire-fighting’ expeditions. The Diplomatic School has closed down and the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute for Foreign Relations and Strategic Studies keeps having book launches and seminars but has no real substance to justify its name and the objectives for which it was established.
The need of the hour is for much more than a symposium, a homily and a cross country tour for the HoMs serving abroad. The problem is far more rooted at home, at the highest levels that direct foreign policy in the administration.

Need to monitor demographic patterns

The latest figures from the interim report on the recently concluded Census on Population and Housing must be met with mixed feelings. Among the statistics released, the growth rate of the population has dipped to 0.7 per cent during the last decade (2001-2012) — less than the replacement rate for populations.

For the first time, it has dropped below the 1 per cent mark. Since, the population increase during the last decade was only 1.4 million. Sociologists say that this low rate could have economic and social repercussions. On the one hand, there will be smaller markets and shortages of the labour force, but most significant would be, they contend, is that there will be fewer caretakers for an ageing population. If the migrations of the able-bodied, i.e. students settling abroad, asylum seekers and workers to West Asia continue, this problem will only be further compounded. The elderly population is to grow to five million or 22 per cent of the total population by 2031.

That apart, there is little doubt that population pressure is a problem that needs to be tackled. In the cities, one has only to be on the roads, especially in the mornings, early afternoons or evenings, when schools and offices open and close, to realise how overloaded and inadequate our public transport system and road network are. Populations tend to gravitate to the cities as rural areas still lag behind in the modern amenities of sanitation and habitation, education and employment.

Population pressure impacts on land, forestry, fishing and other resources. There are increasing encroachments on state lands countrywide and plantations have to be protected by laws against fragmentation especially for housing. In India’s Mumbai, a city that is estimated to have a population of 28 million in a decade or so, and be the most populated city in the world, there is a howl as villagers inch into wild life reserves and leopards drag away little children mistaking them for animals. This kind of situation must not arise in Sri Lanka constrained as it is with limited land area.

It is the other side of the coin for many western countries, especially in Scandinavia. Birth rates have dropped alarmingly and immigration has risen, fuelling community tensions.

While it is difficult to computer programme these growth rates, at last there are some data available after the north-east insurgency ended to monitor the demographic landscape of the country. The need then is for careful farsighted vision and planning to balance the different demands the next few decades will bring.

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