Sri Lanka’s Foreign Service
Posted on August 16th, 2012

Shenali Waduge

The Sri Lanka Foreign Service has come in for a lot of flak over the years. The performance of career diplomats have not given any reason for us to conclude that the death of the foreign service rests solely with the appointments of non-career diplomats/other officials. Wherein lies the fault and how best can we solve the present crisis becomes the all important question.

The Sri Lanka Foreign Service (Overseas Service) was established on 1st October 1949 and was then known as the Ceylon Overseas Service the foreign counter part to the Ceylon Civil Service. Its name became Sri Lanka Overseas Service in 1972 after Sri Lanka became a republic.

Officials to the foreign service are selected through an exam and graded into 3 groups who are trained at the Bandaranaike International Diplomatic Training Institute and the Sri Lanka Institute of Development Administration.

The positions into which these candidates can be absorbed are in order of seniority :

  • Secretary to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Presidential Appointment)
  • Additional Secretary (Public  Service Commission Appointment)
  • Director General (Grade 1/2/3)
  • Deputy Director (Grade 3)
  • Assistant Secretary (Grade 3 “”…” entry level)

In diplomatic missions Foreign Service staff will hold the following positions:

  • Ambassador /High Commissioner / Permanent Representative in UN (Grade 1)
  • Deputy Chief of Mission / Deputy High Commissioner (Grade 2)
  • Minister (Grade 3)
  • Minister Counselor (Grade 2)
  • Counselor (Grade 2)
  • First Secretary (Grade 3 “”…” completion of 7 years)
  • Second Secretary (Grade 3 “”…” completion of 4 years)
  • Third Secretary (Grade 3 “”…” entry level, probation)
  • Counsellor “”…” promotion to Grade 2
  • Minister Counsellor “”…” completion of 2 years of Grade 2

Appointments to a consulate will be

  • Consul General (Grade 2)
  • Consul (Grade 3)
  • Vice Consul (Grade 3)

There are 59 Sri Lankan Missions abroad in 57 countries with close to 500 employees in the Ministry and almost 800 in Foreign Missions.

Relying on exams alone is insufficient a criteria though interview selection has shown little merit too. From the 2010 examination taken by 10000 applicants the results revealed only 26 candidates had passed (scoring over 330 from 600marks) which immediately questions the quality of the examination paper or the standard of the graduates sitting the examination. If it is the standard of the graduates we can well understand from the chaos that is taking place at universities.

It is no surprise that our problem lies in the shortage of qualified personnel to man our foreign service. By qualified we need to reiterate that it is not just qualifications. It is simply futile to open foreign stations if we are unable to position people who are capable of handling themselves in the interests of the country.

 “Favoration” in Sri Lankan Context

In the Sri Lankan psyche of things situations become “irregular” and “political” if one is excluded from consideration, if one is included into this “favored” list then alls fine and “irregularities” are forgotten.

The question of integrity is not limited or confined to the comparison of career and non-career diplomats or even the foreign service in general. There are enough examples of how career diplomats have misused the State “”…” some have removed State furniture, some have purchased personal items and put it to State account, most entertain relations and friends and send bills to be paid by the State”¦almost all are guilty of refurbishing already refurbished homes”¦.these are nothing that anyone can deny or challenge and the guilty have been the career diplomats while the lists of accusations against non-career diplomats for being politically motivated appointments include wasting state funds on medical treatment, children’s education etc. So where do we draw the line?

Who is to judge “unsuitable” appointments and on what basis are these comments derived at? From past records what is clear is that we cannot conclude that career diplomats have fared any better than the diplomatic appointments and vice versa. Unfortunately no one can be moulded to function as they should “”…” it is left for the individual to decide the integrity with which he should serve.

Diplomacy is all about negotiations to come to a mutually beneficial agreement. The art of tactfulness and articulation supersede that of being Mr/Miss Sri Lanka or one’s ability to dress in latest designer labels though general charisma is desirable.

The integrity factor is something that is relevant in all spheres of the public including private sector. Integrity is something that a person has or doesn’t have “”…” it is nothing that anyone can be trained on. It is one’s conscience that dictates one’s level of integrity.

The recruitment processes of countries vary. In the US recruitment undergoes detailed screening and follows 3 steps which include a written test, oral evaluation, medical and security clearance, foreign language.

We are well aware of India’s reputation in its selection of people with talent and ability. Much as we may enjoy the manner India’s diplomats work towards advancing India’s interests diplomatically we can only feel ashamed at our own counterparts. Whether India is doing right or wrong by a country becomes irrelevant to these Indian officials who have been taught to put India first at all times. They care not what we say about them for their only goal is to advance India’s interests. Can we say the same of our own representatives be their career or non-career diplomats. How many foreign diplomats would openly condemn their country? Benchmark this against what our own representatives would say about Sri Lanka either officially or unofficially!

The Union Public Service Commission carries out an examination across India to determine staff for the Indian Foreign Service as well as for the Domestic Services (Indian Administrative Service, Indian Police Service, Indian Revenue Service etc). It is a test that draws peoples talents and not their specialization and the format has worked very well for India. Most of them are taught the foreign language before they are sent to the station and they are briefed about the history of the country station.

Sri Lanka Foreign Service examination comprises of a written exam consisting of a general paper, world affairs, an essay, a prƒÆ’†’©cis and a multiple choice paper containing aptitude and general knowledge components and the bottom line is that if anyone cannot pass this initial stage their competency is certainly questionable. Ironical too is those that knowingly enter from the back door care not or feel no guilt and end up ruining the entire system whilst wasting state resources. Whatever may be the case “”…” no back door appointments should be permanent.

As a nation our expectations from the Foreign Service is that these officers will safeguard the interest of our country and its people. It is upon the mission staff that we expect to be appraised of whatever is likely to affect our country before anything happens. A foreign service is not expected to simply do damage control.

For this it is imperative that these personnel maintain and develop ties with the host country and media. It is in the hands of these personnel that the interests of the nation vis a vis any economic and political exchange or agreements rests. The ability to pass an exam does not entirely fulfil the ability to exercise these requirements.

How many in the public service today put the obligations of the public service above their own?

How many can function impartially and despite any political allegiance can they not be objective enough to give advice whether it is good or not if it is in the interest of the country?

It is when people who are “inefficient” in our view but get appointed resulting and then recalled and replaced with another in a different attire that demands attention of the authorities to address the malady at its roots without making the situation worse by Cabinet level appointments

Over the years we have had people of varied fields and expertise drawn into the foreign service as non-career diplomats “”…” there have been people from the academic arena, architects, businessmen, economists and bankers, filmmakers, media personnel and journalists, lawyers, physicians, former military personnel, former IGPs, politicians, senators, state legislative councilors, parliamentarians, provincial governors, mayors, political activists, former UN officials and even beauty queens apart from the civil servants.

Some of these appointees have done a wonderful job whilst others have done little to raise our profile internationally.

The tricky situation the country faces is how these career and non-career appointees deal with situations that require their diplomatic expertise. So long as they deliver they gain everyone’s praise but no sooner they don’t the barrage of questions will start pouring in on how and who and why they were appointed.

When it comes to differentiating the abilities of career and non-career diplomats the arguments often rests on the art of diplomacy, the knowledge of foreign affairs, the language to be used etc which naturally non-career diplomats are not conversant in though they have amiable characteristics enough to draw first impressions through a smile and initial exchange of words.

A faux pas that the Ministry continuously makes is not realizing that foreign ministries round the world fundamentally follow a basic recruitment policy and they attempt to uphold this policy by treating those entering as career diplomats as one of their own.

The first barrier necessarily is broken by the fact that stations that are meant to have career diplomats is replaced with non-career diplomats. This leads to the other foreign diplomats treating our nominee as outside of their forte. Therefore, one way that the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry should address this is not to make political appointments to key stations where career diplomats should be stationed in view of the acceptance factor.

In a time where out of the box innovative thinking is appreciated and given accolades especially in the private sector, we need to realize that the foreign ministry in whatever part of the world keeps to its age-old habits and practices. Very few attempts to think of applying new methods to diplomacy and those that do are likely to be regarded as misfits. The answer is certainly not to be outsourcing every diplomatic engagement to external parties either. There is no point in viewing photographs of gleaming faces exchanging handshakes if countries do not respect our appointees.

It is in view of these discrepancies over the years that have resulted in the present state of affairs and the inability of missions to counter the falsehoods that are being spread on foreign shores. Clearly, all embassy staff are ambassadors of the country. They do not have “office hours” to promote the country. Wherever they go, whoever they meet, whatever they do essentially must carry the internal desire to promote Sri Lanka. It is when building ties amongst various foreign societies “”…” public or private that confidence is built about the country sufficient to country falsehoods by elements like the LTTE diaspora. Though no diplomacy can stop people who do what they do for money.

It only remains to be said that whilst better systems to raise the level of staff to foreign service is desirable no system can guarantee or cater to the need for men and women serving in our foreign stations to function with integrity and in the interests of the nation. It is they who must first love the nation enough not to waste State funds and feel proud to be Sri Lankan in order to diplomatically respond to false allegations. It does not require training to function in the interest of the nation and one’s country

 

2 Responses to “Sri Lanka’s Foreign Service”

  1. Vijendra Says:

    As usual, another great write up from Shenali on a very important subject. All we need is to have a look at what happened during the last 30 years with the LTTE propaganda machine doing tremendous damage to the reputation of SL because of the utter failure of our foreign services personnel.

    Foreign services personnel are the official representatives of our country and have to be committed to bear this responsibility irrespective of the location, time or company they keep with. They also have to be fully informed of the important and current GOSL activities, and should be prepared to share the appropriate information with other foreign missions, diplomats and governments in a responsible and efficient way. As Shenali clearly pointed out, they have to be proactive in their actions rather than be reactive after the fact. These Foreign Service representatives, unlike most other civil servants, have a great responsibility, and it takes a special type of person with special skills and competence to hold such posts. It is unfortunate that the majority of GOSL representatives do not belong to this category. They are not only dishonest, but are also sometimes arrogant and irresponsible and even bordering on being a disgrace to SL.

    Since these personnel have to communicate with other foreign personnel, they must have a reasonably good command of the language. They also should be patient enough to retain their calm and be logical in the face of adverse situations, often created deliberately by their interlocutors. More than anything, they must feel loyal to the GOSL, irrespective of the political colour of the party in power. If the current representatives can not feel comfortable with these basic requirements, they should do the best service to the country by resigning and going back to SL.

    Unfortunately, most representatives are incompetent and unsuitable to hold these posts, irrespective of the stream they have come from. Their main ambition is to further their own, selfish personal, material and economic gains. This situation becomes worse when some of these personnel are appointed purely as political patronage. If the Foreign Service is to gain any public confidence and respect, politicians should not interfere in their appointment. Can we expect this from the type of politicians we have?

  2. noor nizam Says:

    A well thought out, researched and written article which should be an eye opener to those concerned and those in service and or hoping to aspire to join the diplomatic service, careerer or non-careerer. Sri Lanka cannot at this junction of International relations go by default in failing to meet the challenges that are thrown at a Sovereign state which has only come out of a brutal physical terrorist war of 30 ears, just 3 years ago and is working to become the “Wonder of Asia”, an ambition that many Western and some neighbourly countries feel jealous about. But will the MEA officials accept this constructive criticism appreciatively or habour vengeance on freelance journalists who make their opinions know through their writings. A good example of the unwillingness to be proactive by our diplomats, is in defending the tremendous progress being made in the Tourist Industry in recent past 2 years. The statistics provided by the Tourism Development Authority regarding European tourist traffic to Sri Lanka which states that:- Western Europe rose 22 percent to 41,584 with UK generating most tourists at 13,643 up 13.7 percent from a year earlier with information that German visitors rose 28 percent to 5,852 and French visitors rose 30.1 percent to 6,189 are indicators of positive economic improvements. It is reported that in the first six months of this year, 452,867 tourists have arrived in the country. The country expects to reach a target of one million tourist arrivals this year and revenues of US$ 1 billion. Added to this reality is the decision taken by The flag carrier of the United Kingdom, British Airways to resume flights to Sri Lanka from Gatwick Airport early next year. After a 15-year absence, the carrier will start flights from Gatwick airport in London to Sri Lanka’s Colombo international Airport in Katunayake via Male in the Maldives. But the British Foreign office bureaucrats in a travel advisory dated August 16th., 2012 warned tourists coming to Sri Lanka that there has been an upsurge of Nationalism in the country following the end of the war while also warning tourists of increasing reports of sexual offences including on minors. This will have a severe impediment on the tourist arrivals from the UK which have been in the increase as stated above. Yet, up to now we have not seen a REBUTTAL to this travel advisory from any quarters of the government who should be vigilant to shoot down such false metaphors promptly, that can harm our economic revival, especially of the Tourist industry. Are we to blame the Minister of External Affairs or the Presidential Secretariat or the Ministry of Economic Development or the Ministry of Defence, after all what they have done and are doing in the defence of our Nation. But the truth remains in the contents of a comments made – which should be thrown to the diplomatic staff of the MEA.“More than anything, they must feel loyal to the GOSL, irrespective of the political colour of the party in power. If the current representatives can not feel comfortable with these basic requirements, they should do the best service to the country by resigning and going back to Sri Lanka, and the summing up paragraph of the article “It only remains to be said that whilst better systems to raise the level of staff to foreign service is desirable no system can guarantee or cater to the need for men and women serving in our foreign stations to function with integrity and in the interests of the nation. It is they who must first love the nation enough not to waste State funds and feel proud to be Sri Lankan in order to diplomatically respond to false allegations. It does not require training to function in the interest of the nation and one’s country” – it is simply PATRIOTISM.

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