There are several impossible professions in this world, they say. To be a doctor or a pastor are such professions, or a teacher. They are certainly rewarding, too, at times, but one always feels one should do better and more. I have been a teacher, and I know how much more I should have done, and how many mistakes I made. Those who deal with ‘life and death’, as doctors and pastors do, have even more difficult jobs, and to do one’s best, isn’t always enough, especially not when we have people’s destiny in hand. Many times, we hear stories about how important teachers have been to children and youth from challenged families and in difficult neighbourhoods. They may tell stories about how important one particular teacher was to pull them back into good habits and realize that school had to be taken seriously.

To be an ambassador is also an impossible profession. True, it is a highly paid and prestigious job, and the title seems to be one of the few that has not been devalued. But then, to be an ambassador or senior diplomat is also to be in everyone’s eye, under scrutiny by all and sundry. We all like to have opinions about what ambassadors do and say. And we have opinions about what they did not do and say., even how they and the spouse dress, and the rest.

When I worked in Africa, in Tanzania, as a middle-level Norwegian diplomat, I was hired as a sector specialist in education, research and human rights; Tanzania was the major recipient of Norwegian development aid. I also worked in the UN and African Development Bank, and as a consultant and researcher. I quickly learnt to tread carefully. In Africa, we used to say that the walls have ears and eyes, and that all foreigners, Europeans in particular, should not be careless about their behaviour. Well, often, we were just ‘news’ in our own way, good for gossip, too. But it could also be used otherwise. In UNESCO, we were advised only to express opinions on issues in our own field of work and having checked the organization’s policies in advance.

I had a colleague who had a service passport, not a diplomatic passport, who out of the blue ran into difficulties and had to leave overnight because there were accusations from the police about drugs having been found in his house. No court case was ever started or evidence presented. Nobody knew if the whole thing had to do with something private, his local wife, her relatives, or something else.

Today, one might have expected some #MeToo stories in the diplomatic communities. But diplomats seem not to be included too often, and good is that. In the ‘old days’, the time of the Soviet Union, Western diplomats intimate relations with locals were serious issues, raising questions about security, even espionage. Same-sex relations would be high-risk cases among diplomats, and certainly among politicians. Just this week, the Catholic Church in Vatican lifted diplomatic immunity for persons accused of sexual misconduct in their organization.

Alcohol abuse has officially not been a big issue among diplomats, although it should probably have been since alcohol consumption was (and is) high in many diplomatic communities. Good for me and many others in ‘my days’, over 20 years ago, that heavy smokers were tolerated! Well, until I was posted to the World Bank in Washington DC, and they a few months before I came had declared their buildings smoke-free. I was forced to stop, and good was that, go ‘cold turkey’, as they called it. I used to question if America was really a ‘free country’.

These are all rather superficial aspects of international life, you may say. True, but they have to do with the culture an atmosphere in which diplomats work and live. More importantly, though, are the values and overall cultures of the diplomatic service, including in the United Nations and international NGOs. In my time as a Western diplomat in Tanzania, some 25 years ago, the time had come for the Norwegians to evaluate how our embassies in developing countries handled the combination of development aid and ordinary diplomacy. The embassy in Tanzania was the largest in the world because of huge development aid programme. Today, the largest recipient is Afghanistan, but aid is mainly channelled through the UN.

In Tanzania that time, the Norwegian foreign office hired (terribly overpaid) consultants to help introduce administrative changes, which included one overall head, the ambassador, no aid head, and few sector specialists and technical assistance personnel. This led to staff a shift in recruitment policies, and the era of aid specialists, and idealists, was soon gone. The new foreign office personnel policy may be good for service in Western countries, but I think it was better before for postings in developing countries. We were all quite deeply committed to development in the poor countries; most staff had specific country-experience, some even research experience, before they were given posts at the embassy. But then, in hindsight, the impact of development aid was not impressive, and partly the blame for that goes to the embassy personnel.

In Pakistan, a top diplomat of the ‘old school’ is leaving this month after four years as EU ambassador to Pakistan; before that, he spent seven more years in other posts in the country related to Afghan refugee and returnee issues, plus three years in Afghanistan. Dr. Jean-Francois Cautain (with degrees in veterinary medicine and development studies) belongs to the ‘old school’ of aid diplomats, the type I think were better than the generalists that often fill most posts today. His humbleness, and interest in learning about the land, is indeed evidenced through his wife Sonia’s work, too; she has completed a Masters’ degree in gender studies at the local Quaid-i-Azam University.

Examining the hearts and kidneys of senior foreign diplomats from the West, I have said that things were better before. But not all was better before. For example, I believe that the younger staff members are often better equipped to consider broader administrative issues and trends. Besides, aid budgets are transferred to the UN and other organizations, which again transfer funds to local NGOs and government offices for implementation. In future, I predict budget support will become more common, mainly to earmarked sectors, but aid will keep shrinking. But even then, the diplomats should have deep country expertise; that is difficult to get from short 2-3-year postings. One doesn’t quite understand the poor countries’ struggle. I hope the leaders in the Western capitals realize that we still need the Cautain calibre of ‘old school’ personnel – and that regular recruitment to the diplomatic service can still attract specialists, not only generalists.

In today’s article, I have just touched the surface of an important subject. I have given a few examples and anecdotes related to life and work of Western diplomats in developing countries. In future articles, I will try to dig deeper into the topic, which has important structural aspects for international relations and the development of a country like Pakistan.