ISLAMABAD: The government is planning to shut 22 of the country’s overseas missions, besides cutting down on perks and privileges allowed to diplomats and staff posted abroad, due to budgetary constraints.
The closure of embassies and consulates would mean a one-fourth reduction in Pakistan’s diplomatic footprint globally.
The country currently has some 70 embassies across the world.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, a source said, had consented to his Special Assistant on Foreign Affairs Tariq Fatemi’s ‘austerity’ proposals, but would approve it on his return from China.
Five missions identified for closure in the first stage are in Port Louis (Mauritius), Santiago (Chile), Naimey (Niger), Belgrade (Serbia) and Sarajevo (Bosnia). The plan to open a consulate in the Iranian port city of Bandar Abbas has been shelved.
However, the missions chosen for closure have left many baffled. The government had indicated its intention to focus on trade diplomacy, but closing missions in Latin America and Africa could limit its prospects of reaching out to the emerging markets in those regions.
Similarly, till last year there was focus on developing military ties with Serbia to diversify defence procurements.
Pakistan had long pursued its case for opening a consulate in Bandar Abbas with the Iranian authorities. Though there has been no agreement on the issue yet, the government had made allocations for it.
A diplomat commented that a consulate in Bandar Abbas would have been critical if Islamabad were to pursue the gas pipeline project with Tehran or develop the North-South trade corridor.
The sources said there was little debate on the matter in the ministry.
The move comes in the wake of the government’s decision to reduce all non-development expenditures by 30 per cent. The government has set itself a target of saving Rs40 billion this year by reducing the operational expenses of various ministries.
The budget allocated in fiscal year 2013-14 for overseas missions is Rs10.9bn against previous year’s allocation of Rs9.74bn.
A retired diplomat familiar with budgetary matters estimated that the government could save Rs180 million by closing down five missions, while full implementation of the proposal to shut 22 missions could yield savings of up to Rs1bn.
But, some diplomats believe that reduction in diplomatic presence by closing embassies could prove to be ‘costlier’ than the apparent savings projected by the financial wizards.
“A number of proposals are being considered to cut the expenditures. But, there is no final decision as yet. It is work in progress,” said Foreign Office Spokesman Aizaz Chaudhry.
In addition to closing missions, the proposed austerity measures include a host of other spending cuts — something which has angered the diplomats who think that reduction in their allowances would make it difficult for them to live at foreign stations.
Foreign service officers are planning to make a representation to Mr Fatemi. According to one of the sources, the Foreign Service Officers Association had sought an appointment with Mr Fatemi on July 9, but there was no confirmation of the date of the meeting being requested by the association that has remained dysfunctional for years.
Allowances for renting houses, health and overseas posting are intended to be reduced by 30 per cent. Similarly, the education subsidy for children of diplomats is proposed to be cut to 80pc. Moreover, missions in Europe, America and Australia are likely to be declared as ‘non-family stations’ for the non-diplomatic staff.