Saturday, October 3, 2009

India's need for more people

Yes, the title is a bit facetious, but I think this applies in the foreign policy bureaucracy field. This is something about which I've been hesitant to write, but lately a few things have emerged in the press that make it too hard to stay quiet.

For example, an article entitled "Too few good men" by AK Bhattacharya in the Business Standard on September 29 took India to task for its poor representation at the recent G-20 meeting in Pittsburgh. It contrasts the other delegations, especially the Chinese, with their teams of officials in different rooms, with the Indian group,

There was only one joint secretary-level official from the finance ministry who was shuttling from one room to the other, providing inputs and suggestions to the various meetings that were concurrently going on at the conference centre at Pittsburgh.

In addition to the quantity of officials, there is the question of their bureaucratic home, and scope.

In India, the finance ministry’s international co-operation division is preoccupied largely with the affairs of the World Bank and the IMF. The same team that deals with the World Bank and the IMF is now working on India’s interaction with G-20. There is clearly a need for building and expanding a team in the finance ministry that should handle India’s relations with the World Bank, IMF and G-20.

In fact, there is now need for greater co-ordination and co-operation between the ministry of external affairs and the finance ministry.

Then there was the question of media interaction:

Minister Manmohan Singh had gone to Pittsburgh, taking along with him a delegation of media representatives. By his own account, he had a “productive” meeting with other G-20 leaders. But apart from one press conference by the prime minister at the end of the meeting, the Indian government had not organised even one media briefing on how India dealt with the economic issues that came up for discussion at Pittsburgh.

Yes, there was a briefing from the National Security Advisor. Another briefing came from the Special Envoy of the PM on climate change. But was G-20 about security or about climate change? Or was it about global economic issues? The PM’s team had his Sherpa, Planning Commission Deputy Chairman, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, and Finance Secretary Ashok Chawla. Did the PM’s team make full use of them and the media delegation present at Pittsburgh? The fact is that none of them came for a briefing. In sharp contrast, all other important member countries were briefing their own media representatives about what their leaders said and how they made significant contributions to the debate at G-20.

India stood out for its shortage of people and ideas on information dissemination.

I quote so extensively from this article as it points out something I saw often in Washington. While the Chinese embassy sends someone -- generally a low level diplomat -- to almost every think tank seminar around town on any and all topics, it was very hard to ever run into an Indian diplomat -- even on India-related talks.

If India wants to play a role in world affairs, it will need a dramatic transformation of its foreign service and representation around the world. More officers need to be hired, they need to be trained, the Foreign Ministry needs to coordinate with other ministries, and on an on. But such change doesn't seem to be on the horizon.

There is an excellent academic piece on this issue, written by Council on Foreign Relations senior scholar Daniel Markey, published in Asia Policy, entitled "Developing India's Foreign Policy "Software"" that compares India with other nations around the world. India does not fare well. He has a great chart ("Figure 1") that contrasts India's 669 diplomats with 1,197 in Brazil, and 487 for tiny Singapore, although comparing with China is hard because it doesn't separate figures for diplomats. But one Indian diplomat in Washington told me that the Chinese had more diplomats in Washington than India had around the world. That would seem about right given their dramatic new building -- one day I'll write about the construction process that I got to observe on a daily basis -- as well as their current construction of more and better housing facilities for the Chinese posted to Washington.

India needs to decide that it wants to play a role internationally, and then needs to staff (and prepare) its delegations to achieve its goals. Diplomats heading off to the next set of meetings (the climate change negotiations) should go with briefing books and computers full of data, computer models, and intelligence about India's possible negotiating space, as well as likely positions and data of its negotiating partners. Simply showing up in beautiful clothes, speaking lovely and enchanting English, and making dramatic gestures won't cut it.

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