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Substituting Politics for Good Governance

by Shanie

"Where is the world of eight years ago! 'twas there - I look for it – 'tis gone, a globe of glass, Cracked, shivered, vanished, scarcely gazed on, ere A silent change dissolves the glittering mass, Statesmen, chiefs, orators, queens, patriots, kings, And dandies, all are gone on the wind's wings. "
– Lord Byron (1788-1824) in Don Juan Canto XI

"Here richly, with ridiculous display, the Politician' s corpse was laid away. While all of his acquaintances sneered and slanged I wept, for I had longed to see him hanged."
- Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953)

(March 12, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) In 2004 and 2005, Anton Piyaratne, Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the Open University, did a study to ascertain the attitude of the Sri Lankan youth towards democratic institutions. As part of this study, field research was done selecting a random sample of youth covering twenty-two districts. Youth were identified as unmarried persons in the 18-32 age group. The field research was focussed on the youth attitudes towards politicians, because 'losing trust in democracy starts with rejecting politicians and political institutions, and finally losing trust in the entire system.

The study showed that youth across the ethnic divide do not respect the politicians and do not trust them. 42% of the Sinhala youth, 59% of the Tamil youth and 50% of the Muslim youth clearly pointed out that they do not respect any political leader. Overall, only 16.9% answered affirmatively, 47% negatively and 35.3% stated that they respected politicians "somewhat" ('tharamak' in Sinhala or 'oralavu' in Tamil). These terms were also used to express dissatisfaction. The 'youth believe that the politicians tend to forget the voters once they are elected and behave as a species that exists in isolation.'

The study was conducted five years ago but the perceptions of youth and the people seem unchanged over the years. On the contrary, the perceptions are perhaps even more negative today. The main parties seem to lack a political leadership with any clear vision. The conclusion in Piyaratne's study is that there is no vibrant democratic and political culture to arrest the deteriorating situation. This socio-political reality 'may lead people in general, and youth in particular, to release their grievances in various forms such as crime, malpractices, and finally rebellious and conflict situations.'

Recruitment to the Foreign Service

Typically, symptomatic of actions that lead to loss of respect and trust in politicians is the reported move to bypass established procedures for recruitment to Sri Lanka's Foreign Service. Hitherto, recruitment has been, as in the case of recruitment to the Administrative Service, by an open competitive examination. The purpose of such a scheme of recruitment was to select the brightest to adorn our Administrative and Foreign Services so that we could have a set of professionals who will be above politics and ensure good governance. This worked extremely well in the past where upright professionals in our civil and overseas services were highly respected. They provided impartial advice to our political leaders and, in the case of our diplomats, lent prestige and a favourable image to our country. Kalyananda Godage, a former foreign service professional, wrote in The Island this week about the standing and respect with which our diplomats like Shirley Amerasinghe and Jayantha Dhanapala were held in the United Nations; in fact, they both missed out on prestigious positions within the UN system because the Government of Sri Lanka declined, for no valid reason, to nominate them. Despite that petulance from the politicians at home, both Amerasinghe and Dhanapala went on to do Sri Lanka proud in the international arena.

But alas! As Godage wrote, a cabinet paper was being submitted at last Wednesday's cabinet meeting proposing that twelve named persons, reportedly sons and daughters of politicians or those who have been actively supporting the government and the President, were to be recruited to the Sri Lanka Foreign Service without the usual open competitive examination. We have had non-career diplomats previously serving in our missions abroad on short assignments. We have had retired service personnel, retired academics, defeated politicians and the like serving in such positions. But experience has shown that there was no alternative to professionalism when it comes to diplomacy. The members of the Sri Lanka Foreign Service are trained professionals; and in the current context when Sri Lanka is facing several challenges, we need such professionalism in our overseas missions.

Coming in through the backdoor

It is reported that the Minister for External Affairs' cabinet paper states that there is dearth of persons to serve in our overseas Missions and urgent steps are required to recruit persons to the Sri Lanka Foreign Service. This urgency, therefore, does not allow for the regular procedure of recruitment through an open competitive examination to be followed. Hence, the need to recruit selected persons to the permanent cadre of the Foreign Service! How these chosen twelve were selected, only the Minister for External Affairs knows – perhaps his political masters know better. It is reported that some of those selected are students abroad. Yet, the Minister's Cabinet paper apparently talks of the 'expertise and experience' of this twelve strengthening our overseas Missions. Knowing the thinking of the Minister, there are some who speculate that the recruitment will be followed by an exemption for this chosen twelve from the provisions of the Establishment Code whereby Foreign Service officers are required to pass an Efficiency Bar examination.

The Minister for External Affairs is a former academic with a string of academic qualifications. But sadly, after his entry into politics, his credibility and public standing have shown a steady decline. The present move by him only accelerates that process. There are many others in the cabinet who will understand the necessity for having a strong professional Foreign Service in Sri Lanka. As Godage has pointed out, a diplomat in an overseas Mission has a multitude of professional duties to perform: representing our country in the host country, reporting back the policies and actions of the government and others in the host country that require to be known to our government (the Wikileaks documents showed the key role of this function), promoting business and investment opportunities in Sri Lanka and for Sri Lankans, etc. These duties and functions require professionalism at a very high level. There many in the cabinet who also know that this type of recruitment without an open competitive examination will considerably lower the professionalism of the Foreign Service besides demoralising those already in the Service who have been recruited and trained following regular procedures. It is a pity that those who realise the error of such ways, lack the strength of character to oppose this. As in the case of the eighteenth amendment, they will articulate the curious logic – we oppose it but will support it too! It is to such people that Hilaire Belloc addressed his poem: his acquaintance sneered and slanged, but I wept because I had longed to see him hanged.

Foreign Policy Blunders

This week, the Prime Minister made a statement that there were secret LTTE training camps in India. This has promptly been denied by the Indian authorities. Our political leaders must caution themselves when they make statements for the domestic audiences or to serve a domestic political agenda. Professionalism in our foreign relations requires any statement involving another country, even if they are meant for a domestic audience, to be cleared with the government of the relevant country. This is not the first time such statements have been made and denied by the country. Today it was India, yesterday it was Nepal and tomorrow it may be somewhere else. This lack of professionalism only means not only egg in the face for the person making that statement but also earns disrespect for our country.

There are many associated with the government who make ex-cathedral pronouncements about our foreign relations, and comments about political leaders of other countries. The government must rein in such persons for they do enormous damage to our country's image and foreign relations. Journalists, persons from the civil society and such have a right to comment freely and to criticise freely. But persons associated with the Government of the country are no longer private persons and must exercise caution so as not to jeopardise the country's foreign relations.

Good governance must extend to our Foreign Service. As Godage stated, bringing in untrained sons and daughters of political hangers-on through the back door will destroy a professional Foreign Service. If, as the Minister claims, the exigencies of service demand immediate appointment, there is always provision to recruit, via an advertisement, officers from the Public Service on a short-term assignment. But exigencies of service seems only an excuse to give jobs through the back door to "our boys and girls", sacrificing the national interests of the country.

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