Flying high the nation’s flag


by Randima Attygalle

"A diplomat is essentially a salesman for his country as he/she got to promote the national interests of the country, for which the person should have a very thorough understanding of the needs and priorities of the nation represented," observed the Director, Bandaranaike International Diplomatic Training Institute (BIDTI), Maxwell Keegel, urging the public to take more interest in joining the foreign service.

Citing some of the most outstanding career diplomats the country has produced such as Dr. Vernon Mendis, Bernard Tillakaratne, Ms. Sarala Fernando and Dr. Jayantha Dhanapala, he reiterated that the Foreign Service is a professional service and also a unique service because it not only gives a person an opportunity to represent one’s country but also to gain a wealth of international exposure.


Professional training

Today BIDTI is responsible for training officers of the Sri Lanka Foreign Service (SLFS) and also career diplomats of the Ministry of External Affairs. It was established in 1994 on the initiative of the late Premier Sirimavo Bandaranaike, filling the vacuum of a professional training institute for career diplomats.

"Mrs. Bandaranaike, having been one of the longest serving foreign ministers in the country aspired to have a professional institute which would not only serve the country but also the region, the reason why the institute is referred to as an international training institute," Keegel said.

The Institute assists regional countries including Nepal, Bhutan, Maldives and Cambodia which lack the capacity for training. Its Foreign Diplomat Program conducted annually is well received by so many, drawing a considerable number of participants from the region. In addition, some of its other programs cater to foreign diplomats serving here.

It is geared to provide professional training in the acquisition of diplomatic skills with particular focus on negotiation skills, effective communication and public speaking, economic diplomacy including trade, investment and tourism promotion and extensive study and discussion on current global affairs.

Keegel explains the institute facilitates a career path. "We run several courses for those who aspire to make a career in foreign service and a considerable number of undergraduates who offer International Relations for their basic degree, follow courses related to diplomacy which they find very complementary."

Flying the Lankan flag high

The teaching panel consisting of career diplomats, visiting overseas scholars and professionals drawn from both public and private sectors provide an in depth and a focused approach to the subject. BIDTI is also committed to enhancing the quality of labour officers posted to Sri Lankan diplomatic missions in labour- receiving countries by offering a Certificate Course for Labour Welfare Officers in collaboration with International Labour Organization (ILO). An array of other specialized programs is also conducted including a Postgraduate Diploma in Diplomacy and World Affairs, Certificate Course in Trade and Economic Diplomacy and Workshops of Sri Lankan Studies.

After training, future diplomats are sent for overseas training to gain exposure before they are posted to foreign missions. "Although professional training is rendered by BIDTI, given the fact that ours is a small service compared to rest of the world, more exposure is required," explains Keegel who had served various Sri Lanka missions including those in London, Canberra and New York. Although our foreign service has taken strides with several Lankans holding office in international missions and men and women on par in their service, still more public awareness is needed to make it a ‘more attractive’ career choice, he says.

"We can be proud of contemporary diplomats such as Aruni Wijewardane, Secretary of the Policy Making Organs of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Grace Asirwatham, the Deputy Director General of Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) illustrating the international achievements of Lankan women diplomats. Today we have an equal representation of men and women in foreign service."


Entrance exam

Unlike in the past where the entrance exam to the Foreign Service was advertised only in the government gazette, today the public has easier access to this information on-line. The exam is conducted in all three languages although interviews are conducted in English only. Although fluency in English will give a diplomat the cutting edge, it is not necessarily a prerequisite for entry provided the aspirant is conversant with the subject in hand.

"We always encourage our students to further their competency in English, by introducing them to English courses, but one need not unnecessarily fear English if you are confident about the subject you are to negotiate," says Keegel who illustrates his point with the Chinese and Japanese examples. "Although they don’t speak English very fluently, they are accompanied by interpreters, so one need to dispel the myth that extreme fluency in English is a must for diplomacy."



Contrary to the public perception that one needs to be politically savvy to pursue a career in diplomacy, Keegel opines that despite certain political appointments being made, it doesn’t affect the professionalism in the field since the values of a true diplomat help them advance in their career. "The number of political appointments made during certain regimes is high and low in others but regardless of those appointments, there are professional cadres which carry the weight of the whole exercise and I don’t believe that the political flavor affects the professional service of diplomats as their role can never be replaced."

He also dismisses the allegation that there is discrimination in admission to the Foreign Service. "In the areas affected by the war, people still lack awareness about this field. They are not aware even to the extent people are aware of in Colombo," noted the Director who encourages more young people to look at diplomatic careers as it provides both an opportunity to be an ambassador for the country and also experience diverse cultures.


Finding a winning diplomat

Nipunika Lecamwasam, a Diploma Holder of BIDTI, armed with BA (Hons.) in International Relations from the University of Colombo says diplomacy is for those who adapt; for those who love traveling, getting exposed to foreign cultures, and working in unfamiliar conditions. "It’s not for everyone because a strong commitment to advancing one’s country’s interests abroad is also necessary to find a winning diplomat in," says Nipunika who is currently working at the SAARC Cultural Centre and will be leaving for Hungary shortly to pursue a MA in Political Science at the Central European University. 

She adds that diplomacy is a great learning experience in terms of personal growth since it injects so much discipline into one. "One has to be analytical and also a great negotiator in order to be a successful diplomat. One must also be courteous and thoughtful."

She adds that BIDTI has complemented her education in International Relations. "Their dynamic style of lecture delivery actually made me look forward to attending weekly classes. Their lectures not only expanded our knowledge about diplomacy but also made us aware what a responsible task diplomacy is. For Nipunika, diplomacy is a preferred career path since she has always been interested in generating policy inputs and being part of a policy making process, the impact of which will have national as well as international relevance.

"Given the reciprocal bearing of International Relations and internal conflict on each other, these career paths will help me achieve my ultimate goal of contributing to formulate the country’s foreign policy keeping in mind the international relevance of its past conflict."


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