August 15, 2009

Training diplomats: The IFS has lost the shine

by Surendra Kumar

The training of the Indian Foreign Service officers is an issue which agitates many serving and retired Indian diplomats. But it can't be seen in isolation; it has to be looked from the angle of recruitment, role of the Foreign Service Institute, adequate administrative and financial decision-making autonomy and the need for compressed and intense training with a maximum exposure to diverse viewpoints interspersed with on the desk experience.

For years the Foreign Service Institute has been treated like a parking lot and a dumping ground for officers who couldn't be accommodated elsewhere. They were always looking for opportunities to get back to the South Block and had no interest in training the budding diplomats.

The Dean, even when he was the second seniormost officer in the MEA after the Foreign Secretary, was not a member of the FSB or DPC who could be of any assistance in terms of cushy foreign postings or promotions. He wasn't associated with major decisions of the MEA and was seldom invited to receptions/dinners for the visiting dignitaries.

The professional course for foreign diplomats run by the Foreign Service Institute has been a successful tool of training diplomacy and won admiration from several friendly countries. Several Presidents and PMs have requested our PM from time to time for organising special courses for their diplomats.

Unlike Rio Bronco Institute in Brazil and its counterparts in Mexico where the Diplomatic Institute also recruits diplomats of tomorrow, the FSI has no role or say in the recruitment. Instead it is expected to train whosoever is given to train as the fresh recruit of the IFS.

Over the years the background of the young men and women joining the IFS has undergone a sea change. At one time, engineers, doctors and agriculture scientists couldn't become diplomats. Today they can. In the past you have to have a good command on the English language,but now candidates can write some exams papers in their mother tongue and, if they score well, can land up in the Indian Foreign Service. This raises the problem of articulation.

In the last few batches roughly 80 per cent of the IFS officers hadn't given IFS as their first choice. Every batch has around 40 per cent officers from medical, engineering and agriculture background! Some have done even MBA. What draws them to the IFS? The lost shine of the IFS!

In an increasingly consumerist society even the young, intelligent and educated people crave for a high lifestyle, comforts and money. Some relish a sense of power and authority. The IFS is not for those who look for money, power and authority. Foreign travel is no more an attraction.

Barring some 25 capitals in the world, the living standards are not much better in foreign postings compared to India. The opening of the Indian economy has also opened new career openings. All these factors have eroded the earlier glamour and halo of the IFS and led to a drift to other careers.

The argument that intellectual standards of Indian diplomats have gone down on account of affirmative action of the government is invalid. Ability to transform into a consummate diplomat is not anyone's monopoly, so many gold medalists, university toppers have come out as croppers as diplomats as they couldn't adapt to the requirements of the service and never learnt the craft of diplomacy.

Based on my own experience as the Dean and keeping in mind what I learnt from my interaction with several diplomatic institutes, I feel a good diplomat should have or acquire or inculcate the following attributes:

(a) A knack for making friends and curiosity to know about different religions, races, peoples, political and economic systems, social values, cultures, thoughts, ideas, mindsets, ways of life, arts, literatures, music, dance, cuisines, dresses and everything which connects with different peoples.

(b) Adaptability: one day one might land in Washington from Tripoli or vice versa. Without quick adaptability and adjustment a diplomat is doomed. One must keep improvising in different surroundings without getting one's output affected adversely. Innovative and imaginative ideas are the survival kits for a diplomat.

(c) Ability to articulate verbally and in writing in a logical, coherent, friendly persuasive and convincing manner.

(d) Ability to listen and appreciate others' viewpoints.

(e) Patience in every sense (in negotiations, interaction, inter-personal dealings with foreign counterparts…)

(d) An eye for details, ability to read between the lines.

(e) Hard work, good stamina, mature and responsible negotiating skills and a pleasant demeanor are positive attributes needed in all services, including the IFS.

(f) Good reading habits to keep abreast with the fast-changing world and also be informed about one's own country as well as the country one might happen to be in.

(f) Flair for public relations and high standards of hospitality, many foes have been turned into friends, thanks to the hospitality at the residences of Indian ambassadors.

The training includes lectures by JNU professors, retired Indian diplomats, attachment with divisions in the MEA, other ministries, trade promotion organisations, IDSA,IIM Bangalore and Army training.

To streamline training and make it more productive and focussed, I had formed the Abid Hussain Committee in 2007 which has already submitted its report to the ministry. It has made some valuable recommendations. Maybe, the MEA will implement some of them some day.

Each FS tries to keep the FSI under his/her thumb. In my view, the FSI should have a high profile and be given maximum possible functional autonomy and administrative and financial decision-making.

Shyam Saran had issued an order introducing some very positive steps to strengthen and expand the role of the FSI when he was the Foreign Secretary. He wanted it to be a training institute and also to emerge as a credible think tank with facilities for an in-house research centre. Unfortunately, his successor didn't agree with those ideas and never implemented them.

All knowledge and wisdom doesn't reside in South Block and JNU alone. In today's fast-changing globalised world, multi-layered and multi-dimensional training is essential for creating a multi-tasking, multi-faceted diplomat coping with complexities of the 21st century.

Making it possible for academics, scholars, economists, successful entrepreneurs to join the diplomatic career at the mid-level is not a bad idea. But it should be to enrich the service rather than to diminish the role of career diplomats.

The writer is a formerly Dean, Foreign Service Institute.


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Anonymous said...

very unfair article. You say that engineers,doctors dont possess the qualities you have just mentioned ?. I disagree.

Anonymous said...

very well said. The training for IFS is below standard and the job profile is no more attractive. This service should be merged with IAS as it has no entity and the work done at lower level can easily be done by an SSC recruit. IF there is one service which matches the title of BABU its this so called elite service of IFS which is trully today Indian Faltu Service. Please someone save this service and the country.