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What we don’t know about our Foreign Service officers

November 15, 2014
The room for improvement in our foreign service certainly lies in the amount of trust and efforts our own people are willing to put in engaging with our diplomats.
The room for improvement in our foreign service certainly lies in the amount of trust and efforts our own people are willing to put in engaging with our diplomats.

Many Pakistanis don’t tend to know much about the positive initiatives our embassies take. When I moved to Washington DC a few years back, I was in the same boat.

However, it was not long before I discovered that the Pakistani Embassy was not only one of the most active and engaging embassies in town, but also one that had taken a number of creative initiatives.

Like no other embassy I know of, the Pakistani Embassy organises a free of cost course on “Understanding Pakistan” for members of the American and the Pakistani-American community — a course which has gained quiet a bit of popularity in the past two years.

In the words of my American colleague Trevor Mills, a DC-based foreign policy analyst “the course tremendously changed my views about Pakistan and the opportunities it has to offer to its citizens and the world.”

Apart from this, Sherry Rehman as ambassador started a tradition of hosting an inter-faith iftar, where local religious leaders of multiple faiths would be invited to share their thoughts on inter-religious harmony and each one of them would pray in their own language before breaking the Islamic fast together.

Hosting an annual iftar is a tradition that I experienced with other countries’ embassies too. However, giving it a dimension of inter-faith harmony was certainly unique to the Pakistani embassy.

During my time in Washington, I have seen a change of three ambassadors and things kept getting better with every new appointment.

Three weeks ago, Ambassador Jalil Abbas Jilani pioneered an excellent tradition; the embassy and consulates (in the US) gathered a list of influential Pakistanis working in various cities and sectors across the US and invited them for the first Convention of the Pakistani American Community (CPAC’14).

It is no secret that talented Pakistanis are spread all around the globe, but what really made CPAC so special was the embassy’s initiative to gather them under one roof to synergise on their ideas for improving the state of affairs in Pakistan domestically, and to improve our image internationally.

I wish each one of us could have experienced the hope and positive momentum this event generated.

Instead of the blame game culture that prevails widely in our society, I was humbled to see that embassy and community leaders took mutual responsibility to face the challenges ahead; both unanimously agreed to form working groups to jointly work on Pakistan’s soft power as well as to create opportunities on the ground.

Pakistani diplomats are well-respected around the globe. In December 2013, Ambassador Naeem Khan was elected as Deputy Secretary General of the OIC’s (Organisation of Islamic Cooperation). While candidates from Afghanistan, Malaysia and Indonesia were also nominated for this position, the majority of the countries put their faith in the Pakistani diplomat for this prestigious position.

Similar is the respect accorded by retired Pakistani ambassadors I have been interacting with: Ambassador Touqir Hussain and Ambassador Akbar Ahmad, who are both deemed to be esteemed lecturers on Pakistan and Islam in the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), a division of Johns Hopkins and the American University (in Washington) respectively.

Little known initiatives are also those taken personally by our consul generals around the globe — initiatives that sometimes go even beyond their official scope of duties.

Our consul general in Chicago, Faisal Tirmizi, brought to my attention how he is on a mission to find and honour the families of successful Pakistani academics and architects who made Pakistan proud in Chicago nearly two to four decades even before his posting to the city.

Moreover, in a recent communication with Pakistani Consul General in Chengdu (China), Naveed Safdar, he brought to light his excellent initiative to provide funds to improve the living standards of local Pakistani prisoners.

Had our foreign service been plagued with corruption and inefficiency as many perceive it to be, we wouldn’t have our diplomats being accorded this much respect globally.

Rather, in my interactions with them and their families, I was surprised to learn that their children often experience a start as humble as many other ordinary Pakistanis do. Most of the children work on minimum wage jobs whilst being students and many begin their studies in community colleges instead of bigger universities.

The room for improvement in foreign service certainly lies in the need for further institutionalisation of the various initiatives our diplomats have taken, but more importantly, it lies in the amount of trust and efforts our own people are willing to put in engaging with them.

While constructive criticism is positive, we, as a nation, have gone much beyond that and tend to carry a cynical viewpoint towards any and every institutional development in our country.

We all talk about how much we would like other countries to have a better image of Pakistan, but we fail to realise that a change of narrative has to begin at home.

It is first our internal narrative — how much Pakistanis respect themselves — that has to change in order for us to expect any respect from others around the world.

For that to happen, we’ll have to reform our thinking and genuinely start appreciating and respecting the very institutions and people that represent us abroad.

This is not to say that we become overly nationalistic and start thinking that no one in the world is better than us, but this is to humbly suggest that change has to begin from within, and that its roots lie in self-respect.