Thursday, March 20, 2014

Mediocrity in our foreign missions

By Editor
Tue 03 Dec. 2013, 14:00 CAT

Request Muntanga, Kalomo UPND member of parliament, says "there should be a fairest minimum standard set for those going into diplomatic service so that the country can get proper representation".

And Jack Mwiimbu, Monze Central UPND member of parliament, says "professionalism in the public service should be promoted".

No one can sensibly argue against what Request and Jack are saying. Without professionalism in the public service, government will not function efficiently, effectively and in an orderly manner.
It cannot be denied that, as Jack observes, "those posted in foreign service also lack credentials. As a result, staffing in foreign missions is mediocre". This needs to be corrected. And this can be corrected if there is a desire to do so.

The practice of sending unqualified relatives, friends and ruling party cadres to diplomatic missions started more than two decades ago. Attempts to make foreign service postings professional failed. People were trained for many months at NIPA with the hope of them going into foreign service. Very few of such NIPA graduates are in our foreign service today. What is needed for them to go into our foreign service doesn't seem to be professional qualifications but personal connections. They should either be relatives or friends of highly placed people in government and the ruling party. This qualification is not an easy one for everyone to get. You can't choose your relatives, you are simply born into a family without choice. And there is a limit to how much access one can have towards certain people to make them one's friends. Even among party cadres, only a few manage to have direct access to the key leadership. In general, there is little merit in the way people are selected for posting to the foreign service.

As a result, people with no abilities or skills to do the jobs required of a foreign service officer are the ones employed as such. It is good for these unemployed citizens, but it is certainly not good for the country and it doesn't serve the common good of all.

Diplomatic missions are very important for a country that wants to move forward, to make progress and improve the lives of its people.

When Zambian diplomats negotiate a treaty, attend a state dinner, or arrange a visa for a traveller to Zambia, they all have the same mission - to represent the interests and policies of Zambia.

An ambassador is the President's highest-ranking representative to a specific nation or international organisation abroad. An effective ambassador has to be a strong leader - a good manager, a resilient negotiator and a respected representative of Zambia. A key role of an ambassador is to coordinate the activities not only of the foreign service officers and staff serving under him, but also representatives of other Zambian institutions in the country.

Therefore, this calls for professional, well-trained diplomats who can effectively and efficiently represent Zambia's interests abroad under the direction of the ambassador. This also calls for foreign service officers who are capable of listening to and observing what is going on in the host country, analyse it and report to the ambassador and Lusaka. This demands the posting to our foreign missions of officers or staff who are able to understand or appreciate in a more sensitive manner the needs of other countries and their people.

Given these responsibilities, those we post to our foreign missions should have the necessary skills needed by these jobs. Some of the officers or staff should be very well versed in economic matters and be able to negotiate new trade laws and deals. We also need officers who are action-oriented "go-to" leaders responsible for all embassy operations from real estate to people, to budget.

This is a political relation requiring good political officers in our embassies who can keep the ambassador up to date on the political events and changes occurring in the country. And these being diplomatic missions in itself calls for officers with skills in public diplomacy to build mutual understanding and support for Zambia's policies by reaching directly to publics in foreign countries working with the media and all manner of people-to-people exchange.

Our embassies also need people who are well trained in consular duties and whose primary job is assisting and protecting Zambian citizens abroad. If you lose your passport, find yourself in trouble with the law, or want to get married to a foreigner overseas, our consular officers should be able to help you. Consular officers also issue visas to non-Zambian citizens who wish to travel, work, study or live in Zambia. This requires some reasonable knowledge of consular duties. If we send people who have no understanding of these issues, we should expect a poor service in this regard.

And due to the high level of interaction between countries in our interconnected world of today, professional diplomatic officers are needed in each country to aid in and allow such interactions to occur.

As we have already stated, our diplomatic missions handle very important issues on behalf of our government and our people. And as such, a lot of attention should be paid to the quality of officers and staff posted to these missions. The embassy is responsible for representing the whole country abroad and handling major diplomatic issues, such as preserving the rights of citizens abroad. The ambassador is the highest official in the embassy and acting as the chief diplomat and spokesperson for our country. This certainly calls for certain qualities that cannot be ignored if good representation is what we are looking for.

We, therefore, need diplomats who are capable of efficiently and effectively representing our country in the host country; protecting the interests of our country and its citizens in the country they are serving in; negotiating with the government of the host country; accurately and intelligently monitoring and reporting on conditions and developments in the commercial, economic, cultural and scientific relations between the host country and our country. These are not easy tasks. They require certain levels of experience and education. And if we really want to do well as a country, we have to change the way we appoint people to diplomatic postings.

We do appreciate the fact that things have been wrong for a long time and a culture of doing things the wrong way has taken root. But this is a revolutionary government out to change many wrong entrenched practices. And as such, this wrong approach to the staffing of our diplomatic missions should be stopped by this government and not perpetrated by it. Therefore, the observations made by Request and Jack deserve very favourable consideration.

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