MEA opens doors to IR experts as consultants

In a decision aimed at reducing the work pressure on Indian Foreign Service officers because of an acute shortage of hands, the Union government has decided to invite “consultants” to the External Affairs Ministry for three-year terms.

The decision, >notified in a circular posted on the Ministry’s website on Monday calling for international relations experts with an M.Phil. degree to join the Ministry’s Policy Planning and Research Division (PPR), is a significant break from the past and is expected to reduce the pressure on IFS officers to do research. The consultants will be required to follow “specific geographical or thematic” areas, compile research papers on the subject and attend seminars.

Explaining the decision to the Standing Committee on External Affairs of Parliament, headed by Congress MP Shashi Tharoor, Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar is reported to have said that the Ministry is open to “lateral entries” by scholars outside government service, something which it has resisted on earlier occasions.

The IFS has been facing a manpower crunch in the past few years, given the increasing number of international engagements and high-profile visits. In 2012, the Ministry had 3,500 officials, of whom only 815 were officers (IFS-A).

That compared poorly with other countries such as the U.S., which has approximately 20,000 diplomats, including thousands of “lateral entrants”, or Japan and China with nearly 5,000 diplomats each. Significantly, at least two members of the parliamentary committee, Mr. Tharoor and JD(U) MP Pavan Varma, have written books criticising the Ministry for its shortage of officers.

In 2014, the Standing Committee had itself advised the government to address the “urgency of providing more staff, including through recruitment from other cadres and the academic and private sector, as per the specialised needs of the Ministry” in its annual report. The problem has been felt most acutely by those in the neighbourhood, say committee members, where every sudden development has the potential of snowballing into a crisis that impacts India greatly. While the division on Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Maldives has been broken up, the division on Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan remains one “over-burdened” unit.

The MEA’s latest decision is not the first time it has allowed non-IFS members into the policy planning process. Several officers have been deputed from other ministries, especially the Finance and Commerce ministries, and last year, the MEA set up a special division for ‘Centre-State’ relations aimed at bringing State government officials and missions abroad in closer contact. But previous attempts at recruiting experts from outside the government have been fewer and far between, says former IFS officer Mr. Pavan Varma.

“The MEA seems to develop antibodies to anyone from the outside, and therefore these consultants haven’t worked in the past.” Mr. Varma told The Hindu , he welcomes the effort, but says rather than recruit “a handful of consultants,” the government should focus on inducting more foreign service officers through the civil services.

Little scope Academics say the move will attract young academics, but not more senior experts given there would be little scope for a longer career within the Ministry.

“I think this is a very good beginning given that the MEA has in the past shied away from utilising outside expertise,” said Happymon Jacob, Assistant Professor, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, where many of the applicants are expected to belong to, adding that the MEA “should consider engaging such consultants in divisions and desks other than policy planning as well.” The last date for applicants to apply for the newly created post of “international experts” is July 15 this year.

> Click here to read the MEA notification (pdf) .

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Printable version | Sep 6, 2022 3:13:34 pm |