Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dr. Harsha De Silva, says that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) is bracing up for a major restructure with a motive of leveraging Sri Lanka’s worldwide Embassy network. In an exclusive interview with Nation, De Silva said that a workshop scheduled to be held in March this year would comprehensively discuss the strategies the country would adopt pertaining to each foreign mission while the Ministry would specify targets to be met by each Embassy year-on-year, going forward
Excerpts of the interview follow:
Q: It has been nearly four months since you took over the role of the Deputy Foreign Minister. At the time you assumed duties, you said your responsibility will be to promote ‘economic diplomacy’, an aspect which the country had been erstwhile weak on. Tell us about your progress?
In the last few months what we have tried to do is to understand what the issues are in terms of policy objectives. So, first of all we set up an Inter-Agency Task Force, we got the different groups to sit together, and we’ve figured out within the scope of the Foreign Office what we can do. We talked about networks. How do we sell Sri Lanka’s products and services, how do we export, how do we bring investors. So, one is you can have road shows and participate in exhibitions and things like that. But on a daily basis, our Embassies are out there around the world. We have 68 missions and we spend over Rs. 8 billion a year maintaining them.
So, what do we get from these offices as this is taxpayer’s money we are spending. Have we given them targets, how much of investment opportunities should they look for? Can they work at improving/strengthening bilateral trade? How do we promote the country’s trade and economic ties? So we have to leverage our network. For a long time, what we saw was our network was there but there were no targets given, no objectives discussed at the beginning of the year and end of the year and so on. So, now we are in the process of setting specific targets for each embassy and we will evaluate and monitor them and see how we can improve on.
Q: Could you elaborate more on these targets?
We are in discussions with the Missions themselves. If you ask me what the targets are, it depends – some areas may be trade, some investment, employment, tourism or people-to-people contact or education. Those multi-faceted engagements Sri Lanka does with other countries. So we are having a workshop during the first quarter of this year, maybe March with all the Ambassadors, government’s senior policy makers, politicians and private sector to try and give the new message. For a long time, we were fighting with the world and here we’ve turned a page and we want to promote Sri Lanka. At the workshop we will agree on these targets.
Q: Recently, it was felt that a friction was developing between the Prime Minister’s Office and the MFA. During the PM’s tour to Japan, the PM had publicly claimed that there is no Foreign Service in Sri Lanka and he wanted to introduce a new one. What was the real issue and have steps been taken to rectify the situation?
I think it’s the legacy. For the last ten years or so, the Foreign Ministry has been used as personal property of the previous regime. Ambassadors were appointed willy-nilly, they were just relations and they were doing their private work and businesses wherever they were stationed. The staff was de-motivated. They were forced to take a particular line where our foreign policy was being completely misaligned. They had created friendships with some countries and created enemies in certain part of the world.
We called the Europe, the conspirators. We had completely got ourselves into a very ugly situation. And it was always on the defensive. Now when we changed the policy-makers at the top level, the President, Prime Minister, Minister of Foreign Affairs, we changed that and went back to our original thinking of ‘friendship to all and enmity to none’. And we dealt with the UNHRC and now are dealing with the European Union on the GSP plus issue.
When we were shifting the policy, the whole Foreign Office, meaning the people in it had to make the change. They need to fall in line with the government’s policy. Perhaps he didn’t see that coming since they were used to a particular environment and that just got carried over.
Recently, we have had open discussions with the Prime Minister and he has told us these are your shortcomings. He talked about how it was when Sir Don Baron Jayatilaka who first started talking about a foreign policy for Sri Lanka and how over the years it developed with the times. He while being critical also advised us what is that we need to do and how we need to start thinking about implementing the foreign policy of the government coming down from the President and the Prime Minister and the Minister of Foreign Affairs. So, we need dynamic people to get things done, we are no longer in the defensive – we are offensive, we need to move from the dark ages to the economic diplomacy agenda.
We need to work with the Ministry of Development Strategies and International Trade, Department of Commerce and Department of Defense on maritime security, on trade and commercial matters and political issues, etc. I think he is also a little bit impatient and he said if you can’t do with the existing Foreign Service people, we will have to bring new ones. That is not said in a bad way but that message has to reach everyone.
Q: Has there been a change of heads under the new government to align with the new policy?
There have been some changes. But we are restructuring the entire Foreign Office. For the first time since it was set up and we are looking at rationalizing the Foreign Office. Do we need all the Embassies that we have? 68 missions. Do we have Embassies in all the places where we want Embassies? What about roaming Ambassadors – like home based Ambassadors? For instance, Singapore does not have an Embassy in Sri Lanka but it has an Ambassador for SL but he is based in Singapore and he comes here all the time when he needs to visit. Then should we have Embassies in all the little places or should we consolidate? All those questions have not been answered but we are in a process of restructuring into the Singaporeans quite a bit.
Q: What are the short- to long-term strategies that you have identified so far in promoting the island as a lucrative investment destination?
As I said, it is a joint effort among the Ministries I mentioned and includes the Department of Commerce (DOC), Board of Investment, Sri Lanka Tourism, etc. While the specific responsibility falls within the Minister of Development Strategies and DOC, it is the Foreign Office that has the networks, the platforms, the relationships with the various people so it is always a team effort. We have identified strategies to get there but MFA is not responsible for the X dollar of investment.
Q: What is the status of the EU fishing ban on Sri Lanka?
The EU fishing ban is pretty much lifted now. A little more to get the paperwork finalized. All I can say is very soon we will have it lifted. However, I can’t tell you a specific timeframe.
Q: Recently, it has been reported that Sri Lanka and Pakistan have agreed to include services and investments chapters in the bilateral FTA. What does this ‘liberalization’ mean given that there is a fear among the section of the public that Pakistanis would now be able to capture Sri Lankan jobs?
The fears of getting into trade agreements with other countries seem to be blown out of proportion by various Trade Unions and GMOA, etc. But SL needs to engage in investment transactions and that is how countries grow. If you take services, they have four modes. This is where people are worried about CEPA also. Say, for example, a person wanting to see a doctor to get a test result read out. Mode 1 is you stay in your country and provide the service to a customer in another country. The doctor can be in India and we can send the report, and he can read the report from there and tell the client here, i.e., Telemedicine or he can do it over the Internet. Mode 2 is you go to India and get yourself checked into a hospital there and get treated and come.
So if mode 1 is like BPO stuff, mode 2 sounds like tourism. Third one – Mode 3 is through investments. Say Apollo when they built the facility in Narahenpita, they brought the doctors and the whole works associated activities around it. That is also services. Mode 4 is what the problem is, where there is a transfer of natural persons. In this, a doctor in India can come here and have a board outside and start practising. So Mode 4 trade does not exist in this agreement we are talking about. It is just unfounded fear these people have been using to protest against good intentions and beneficial agreements for the people.