Despite lateral hiring, Sushma's MEA is miles away from creating a think-tank

The MEA is seeking to hire consultants to enhance its policy-making expertise, but if we really want to build long-term think-tanks, the government needs to create an enabling environment for it.

Jaideep Prabhu July 02, 2015 19:17:21 IST
Despite lateral hiring, Sushma's MEA is miles away from creating a think-tank

The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) put out an announcement on 29 June seeking consultants for its Policy Planning & Research Division (PP&RD). This followed several articles over the past two years criticising the government for the limited manpower and expertise of the Indian Foreign Service (IFS). More recently, there has been speculation about the expansion of the service via lateral entry into the cadre. The move has been welcomed by most people and it can only be hoped that it is only the first in a series of moves that will revamp and energise India's foreign affairs policy-making circles.

Despite lateral hiring Sushmas MEA is miles away from creating a thinktank

External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj. AFP

As several India observers have remarked already, the size of the IFS is remarkably small for a nation of India's size and interests. To be fair, it is only recently that Delhi's role on the world stage has grown; its growing economy has compelled India to take positions in trade and security matters in all corners of the world. Furthermore, it cannot help but be involved when its north-eastern neighbour and rival drags the world's economic centre of gravity back to Asia.

South Block's holiday during the post-Nehruvian slump years ended in the mid- to late 1990s, though little was done to boost its capabilities until now.

The MEA announcement, though a step in the right direction, is a short-term measure and leaves much to be desired.

First, the advertisement seeks experts for a period of three years. Given that the hire is not into the IFS cadre, hierarchy and prospects for upward mobility on the job are unclear. Most applicants will, therefore, treat this as a line entry on their resume or a sabbatical from their "real" job. Such a short-term attitude hardly encourages the development of expertise in a field and the PP&RD will effectively be turned into a long workshop on government procedure and thinking.

Reaching out to domain experts - on regions as well as issues - is an excellent idea but the presumption is usually that this expertise is developed elsewhere and brought in on specific projects. In this manner, the MEA can augment its in-house expertise at will from a large pool of experts in industry and academia. Towards this end, as former foreign secretary Nirupama Rao has suggested most recently, an MEA think-tank could be created. This group would be tasked with formulating position papers on a variety of key issues to provide the IFS with immediate expertise.

The need for consultants would not be obviated because the manpower requirements for a think-tank are high for a rising regional power like India if it wants to remain at the forefront of research on all topics the country would be interested in.

Second, the Indian government must also understand that the entire system of consultants and think-tanks depends on access to information. Policies have an administrative and political history and it is vital to take this into account as well as the contemporary goals of the state. Declassification of government files would greatly assist in developing foreign policy expertise, but moves on this front have come only in dribs and drabs. For some unfathomable reason, every Indian bureaucrat I have met at home and abroad takes great pride in the state of the National Archives and the declassification process. Perhaps a visit to similar facilities in Germany or Britain may be in order to fully appreciate the capability of national archives and freedom of information.

India's library collections, even in the metros, are also pitiable. Foreign publications are expensive for the Indian wallet and scholars cannot finance all their intellectual needs out of their own pockets. The sheer volume of research generated every year from even the top few institutions would require the salary of an entertainer or sportstar to keep up with. The development of just one world-class national library in each of India's four or five largest cities - without borrowing privileges - would immeasurably improve access to international manuscripts and journals.

For comparisons, consider Harvard University's library system: it has approximately 19 million books and an annual operating budget of $160 million.

The MEA fails to realise that - or at least has chosen not to act on it yet - a pool of experts it can consult or develop in-house requires a nurturing environment of sound academic institutions, freedom of information, and access to data. These are the larger infrastructural problems that need to be addressed in the long-term. For now, the move to start lateral hiring is a positive step. Let us hope it will be followed by a full spectrum of reforms and development soon.

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