Reprimanding envoys

Published May 7, 2021

IN a dressing-down that was broadcast for the world to witness, Prime Minister Imran Khan this week lambasted the country’s top diplomats for failing to serve the Pakistani diaspora in their respective countries of residence. A recording of the video meeting chaired by the prime minister showed around 20 ambassadors and high commissioners on a split screen listening as he furnished a damning list of transgressions reported by overseas Pakistanis through a citizens’ complaints portal.

Mr Khan chastised the diplomats for having a “bad attitude” towards the labour community. Among other things, he indicated that basics such as working hours were not communicated to the community. He also said that the ambassadors had failed to attract foreign investment, noting that Indian diplomats are more proactive — a statement that made headlines across the border. While the prime minister’s censure of the poor performance of some of the missions is valid and must lead to remedial action, the manner in which the no-holds-barred criticism was publicised is quite bizarre.

Read: Foreign service officers miffed at Imran’s jab

Soon after he tweeted a link of him scolding the diplomats, senior ex-officials of the foreign service expressed their reservations. Former foreign secretary Tehmina Janjua said she was “deeply dismayed at the unwarranted criticism” of the foreign ministry and objected to Mr Khan’s reference to a “colonial mindset” when referring to officers. She also said the problem cannot be resolved through tweets. Ex-foreign secretary Salman Bashir said the criticism was misplaced and that public critique “demoralises the best and brightest”. Former US envoy Jalil Abbas Jilani, too, said it was unfair. Though they protested against the public criticism, they all acknowledged long-standing issues and flaws. Why did Mr Khan feel it was important to broadcast this admonition? Is it a political move to win the electoral support of 9m overseas Pakistanis, after the PTI has lost a string of by-elections?

A public telling-off will demoralise an already under-fire Foreign Office — which is the only institution that is professionally trained to tackle the country’s foreign policy matters. There are certainly better ways to improve embassies’ public service delivery. Unprofessionalism is unacceptable. It is also deplorable that some officers in the foreign service ignore the requests of expats from low-income and working-class backgrounds. Shockingly, there are even reports of officers asking for bribes to process paperwork.

All these problems must be addressed, but grandstanding is not the solution. There are systemic issues that need to be fixed when it comes to consular services, which often face acute resource constraints. Staff appointed to these missions must be trained, selected and motivated. Poor performance at certain missions appears to be a perpetual problem, but it cannot be solved with a broad-brush approach that blames the entire institution. Instead of demoralising the entire service, the prime minister should have engaged with honest and respectable officers to identify how solutions can be found.

Published in Dawn, May 7th, 2021

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