While virtually addressing Pakistani envoys deployed worldwide, Prime Minister Imran Khan recently expressed his displeasure over the performance of embassies (particularly in the Middle East) regarding the services rendered to the diaspora. There is no denying the fact that there could be some issues in some places i.e. indifferent attitudes and delays in delivery of services regarding verification and issuance of documents. Whilst PM’s concern for Pakistanis abroad is appreciable, one may differ with his approach. His statement was problematic for the following reasons:
First, setting guidelines to civil servants for better service delivery and correcting wrongs are the prerogative of the country’s leadership. However, it should have been done discreetly as is afforded to any other state business, especially as sensitive as those representing the country abroad. This is because envoys function abroad on the backing of real or imagined support from their capital. Publicly embarrassing one’s own diplomats reduces the goodwill they may have at their respective duty stations.
Second, the PM’s broadside appears to be sweeping without actually highlighting specific problem areas. There are a good number of diplomats in our missions abroad who are serving the people of Pakistan with dedication and sincerity. In any event, most of the issues pointed out by the PM do not even come under the control of the embassies. For example, issues relating to NICOP and passports are relevant to NADRA and IMPASS, respectively. Thus, PM’s criticism on these two issues is misconceived.
Third, the statement is subjective. It is not based on any reliable data or objective assessment as to the performance of our embassies regarding the handling of complaints of Pakistanis living abroad. Criticizing the whole department based on selective complaints from Saudi Arabia, for instance, may not be justified. There are places where our missions are providing satisfactory services to Pakistanis including during the extraordinary times of COVID-19. Thus, the one-fits-all approach cannot be applied when it comes to evaluating the working of an institution.
Institutional issues can also be discussed privately and respectfully. Open criticism demoralizes people working with national spirit
Fourth, the comparison of Pakistani embassies with Indian embassies in terms of bringing foreign investment and offering better services to its citizens seems over-simplistic. Indeed, our embassies have an important role in inviting foreign investment to Pakistan. However, their role is more of matchmaking. Attracting foreign investment depends on various factors such as law and order, the performance of the justice system, legal infrastructure, political situation, and governance. So, envoys posted abroad can be held accountable in this regard only to an extent. Largely, it is governance at the domestic level which encourages foreign investment.
Fifth, how the PM has handled the issue of the performance of our embassies seems odd. It amounts to the humiliation of the Foreign Office. Institutional issues can also be discussed privately and respectfully. Open criticism demoralizes people working with national spirit and damages institutions. So, PM’s good cause is compromised with apparently a bad approach.
Sixth, the PM’s statement suffers from overgeneralization. If there were some complaints from the Middle East, the statement should have been confined to the cases pending with those embassies. Again, even this statement could have been worded more carefully. Further, any statement could have been avoided till a thorough investigation of complaints. Without concluding even on the pending complaints, issuing a broad and all-encompassing statement is nothing but jumping to the conclusion at the cost of reputational loss to a national institution.
Seventh, the statement appears over-politicized and charging. The PM said: “We cannot work this way…an embassy is meant to offer services to the diaspora but they have been found to be callous.” He added, “that the ambassadors dealt with labourers the way British used to treat them during the colonized period.” Without the outcome of the investigation on complaints, calling embassies ‘callous’ and comparing our ambassadors with colonizers is unjustified.
Eighth, indeed, there are issues with the performance of each institution including our Foreign Office. There is always a space for improvement and a need for reformation. But there has to be a systematic, well-thought, and scientific way for the improvement. Institutions are reformed when there is an objective understanding of the problems confronting institutions and a genuine political will. Political rhetoric (without an objective analysis of issues and policy work) helps only to an extent. Thus, the PM is expected to show appreciation of our national issues and reflect will through action. It will help Pakistan.
Finally, the PM needs to adopt a holistic approach for institutional improvement. Each issue such as the economy and governance need the attention of the government. Institutions do not work in isolation. Their performance depends on the performance of the government in other areas as well. For example, only the embassies may not be blamed for poor foreign investment in Pakistan, when the government shows less improvement on other indicators i.e. political atmosphere. Thus, the PM needs to show appreciation of the complexity and delicacy of the issue and its reasons.
In any case, institutional performance should be discussed in an institutional setup and a systematic manner. There is a need for introspection for the government and our institutions. So, this is the case with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as well. PM’s concern for Pakistanis abroad is appreciated. However, this concern needs to be actualized with concrete results. This result can only be achieved with institutional understanding and support rather than selective and subjective targeting.
The writer is an advocate in the Supreme Court of Pakistan