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Prime Minister Imran Khan in his virtual address this week to Pakistan’s envoys posted in different foreign missions expressed strong dissatisfaction over their performance and asked them to shun ‘colonial’ and ‘bureaucratic’ practices, warning them that any slackness in facilitating overseas Pakistanis would be ‘unforgivable.’

“Gone are the days when our ambassador in England would feel so proud and elevated meeting the British. He was least bothered about problems his countrymen were facing in England,” the PM recalled the experience of his past stay in the UK.

“Let me make it clear to you, we cannot go on like the way we are going on presently. The most important job of embassies is to serve their countrymen and then to bring foreign investment to their country,” the Prime Minister has been quoted by media as saying.

Speaking about Indian diplomatic missions, the PM said New Delhi’s embassies are very proactive to bring foreign investment to their country as opposed to Pakistani embassies. The outburst of the PM was sparked by multiple complaints that he has received on Pakistan Citizen Portal. There are complaints that our embassy in Saudi Arabia is unresponsive and indifferent to the complaints of overseas Pakistanis, notably the labourers, who are pushed around rather disgracefully.

The action by PM was swift, severe and unprecedented. The ambassador and the responsible staff at Saudi Arabia were recalled and a full-scale inquiry has been launched to be completed by next week.

It’s about time the state leader stood up and made transparent the declining state of governance at our foreign missions - much like the declining governance in our state institutions at home. But this state of affairs at our foreign missions is unacceptable. After all, an embassy is the face of the country it represents abroad.

The structure, mindset and behaviour of our foreign missions and the diplomatic cadre itself is stuck in the past when traditional diplomacy, protocols and social networking at gatherings constituted the prime objective of our foreign missions. Since decades, however, the whole gamut of foreign diplomacy has dramatically changed so much so that today’s diplomat is widely described as a ‘business’ ambassador who opens doors for foreign investment, exports and other business opportunities. Unfortunately, however, our foreign missions, by and large, are doing none of these. Moreover, the foreign missions are now service providers for multiple support services delegated to them related to investment and financial portfolios, commerce and trade, immigration, foreign remittances and similar. As identified by the Prime Minister, our foreign missions are not effective service providers at all.

Though the staff at an embassy may be vertically reporting to the parent organisation at home, the ambassador being the mission head and face of the country cannot be absolved of his or her responsibility to ensure that all multiple functions under his or her nose deliver effectively.

Today, China’s foreign diplomacy, strategic alliances and relations with countries are largely influenced by its ‘Belt and Road’ initiative which is a signature initiative of China for world connectivity and economic development. China-Pakistan relations went through a dramatic paradigm shift in diplomacy and strategic alliances after the rollout of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor. The US-India strategic alliance is also built around the economic interests of the two countries. Same is the basis of other diplomatic alliances around the globe.

One of the reasons for the performance decline of our foreign missions is that many appointments of ambassadors and staff in the past have been politically influenced. The country’s leadership remained content with their performance as long as they served their personal interests and wishes.

Country’s foreign missions need drastic restructuring and reorganisation. Their role and responsibilities have to be redefined in line with today’s trends and expectations. An ambassador, as a country representative, needs to be empowered to influence and be overall responsible for all the multiple functions being performed under his nose irrespective of the respective staff line reporting to their parent office at home.

Our foreign missions of today are cost centres funded by public money. They need to be turned around to be perceived as profit and service centres facilitating investment, trade, businesses and foreign remittance.

(The writer is a former President, Overseas Investors Chamber of Commerce and Industry)

Copyright Business Recorder, 2021