November 23, 2003
This is a nation of reports. Over the years a veritable small army of (usually foreign) consultants has flown in, studied, dissected, and reviewed nearly every government department possible. The hard evidence of their work is contained in the compulsory report, which sits for the requisite period of time on some functionary's desk, before being shelved to gather dust in the company of its predecessors.
The point about reports in this country is that they are rarely followed by action. Take, for example, one dated April 29, on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, produced by a United Nations Advisory Mission. It found, among other things, that that Ministry with its present structure and capacity could not discharge even routine activites, or exploit opportunites to contribute to Guyana's national prosperity.
There was a flurry of words from the Ministry after some of the document's contents were published in this newspaper in August, but that institution evinced little public concern, at any rate, about the most damaging of the findings. It was instead more exercised over how the information had found its way into the public domain, despite the fact that that was where it had a duty to put it in any case.
It is true that the Advisory Mission had recommended that the Ministry should set up a "prestigious Council on Foreign Relations," to advise on approaches to securing sovereignty and increasing prosperity, and that Takuba Lodge, has in fact, instituted a Ministerial Advisory Committee. Whether this is quite the "think tank" which the mission had in mind is unclear, since details of its mandate have never been made public, and it is not known how often it convenes. It might be remarked that at least one of its members is not based in the country, making it difficult, one might have thought, for the full body to hold meetings with any frequency.
Then there was the recommendation that foreign service officers at the highest level should be rotated according to the three-year norm, and should be left in a post for five years as the outside limit. Neither financial constraints, nor political considerations justified leaving people in posts for over five years, let alone ten, commented the authors. It is true that Ambassador Ishmael formerly based in Washington and Ambassador Karran formerly in Caracas have now exchanged posts, so to speak, but this is as far as rotation has gone.
It might be observed in passing that the move met with some unfavourable commentary in our letter columns, although the notion that Ambassador Ishmael has been 'demoted' by being posted to Venezuela is a misapprehension on the part of some correspondents. Caracas is an absolutely critical mission from the point of view of this country, more particularly in these times of political stress there.
Certainly there can be no quarrel with rotating Ambassadors Ishmael and Karran; the real quarrel is about the fact that they are the only ones to have been moved. There are other heads of mission who have been ensconced in their embassies or high commissions for nearly as long as the above-mentioned representatives, at least one of whom (and arguably more than one) has turned in a less than stellar performance in the discharge of his functions. There can be absolutely no defence for maintaining those who are wanting the necessary skills, in a top foreign service post at taxpayers' expense.
As far as the other more serious findings of the report are concerned, there has been no movement that can be discerned by the public. The structural flaws highlighted by the authors, some of which had been noted by local commentators prior to the mission's arrival here, do not appear to have been addressed. One can only presume, therefore, that the problem of the confusion, incoherence and ambiguity resulting from the existence of the Ministry of Foreign Trade which operates out of Takuba Lodge, and shares overlapping responsibilities with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is not about to be confronted any time soon.
Among many other things, the report dealt with the deprofessionalization of the Foreign Service, and the poor pay and conditions of the officers, many of whom earned less than cleaners and drivers in other agencies. While the Minister of Foreign Affairs did have some comment to make on this subject, there has been no sign since then that the Government was regarding the matter with any degree of urgency. While the salaries of the Ministry's officers are inadequate to the point of being "unfair," and while the administration has allowed financial constraints to prevent it from rotating its ambassadors and adequately staffing and equipping its key missions, it is nevertheless proposing to place more strain on the budget by opening another mission - namely in India.
(This does not mean to say, of course, that we do not need a high commission in India and that we should not open one at some point; it just means that in the current financial climate, we have to deal with priorities.)
Considering that it was none other than the Government of Guyana which invited the UN Advisory Mission to come and assess the need for restructuring and re-organizing the Ministry of Foreign Affairs with a view to enabling it to function efficiently, one must assume that it was dissatisfied with that ministry's performance. Had it not been, then it would not have made any such request in the first place. In view of that, exactly, what then, did the Government expect the findings of the Advisory Mission would be?
And now that the mission has had its say, just what is the Government proposing to do about its major recommendations? Can we expect that restructuring will be undertaken in the foreseeable future? Or is it that commissioning a report was just a way of avoiding action altogether?
Will this be yet another case of a report gathering dust?