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Diplomatic Endeavours | Shelina Afroza

 

1. Can you please give us a glimpse of who you are?

I am a retired civil servant.  I was distinctly privileged to join in the mainstream Bangladesh Civil Service (Administration) Cadre list as a member in 1983.  Interestingly, we, a group of 40 women Officers broke the taboo (women were not eligible for the BCS Administration Cadre until 1983)  by joining as a Magistrate and Assistant Commissioner at Dhaka Collectorate. Having an eventful career of around three and half decades, I retired as Secretary to the government in 2016. I’m also privileged to serve as Chairperson, Jiban Bima Corporation (JBC) - the largest state  owned Life Insurance Corporation after retirement. Since January 2020, I have been fully dedicated to my family, friends and myself.

 

 

 

2. You have had a very distinguished career as a member of the Bangladesh Civil Service. You also served as Secretary for the Ministry of Fisheries and Livestock;  Additional Secretary and Director General, National Institute of Population Research & Training (NIPORT), Ministry of Health and Family Welfare; Joint Secretary, Ministry of Industries; Deputy Secretary and Ministry of Home Affairs; Walk us through your experiences of working across such an incredibly diverse range of positions and responsibilities.

Yes, it was quite a distinguished but challenging career. We (as women)  were the first to  join as Magistrate and Assistant Commissioner. The people and the bureaucracy were not ready to see a Lady as a Magistrate as the perception was that women weren’t tough and tactful enough to do the job of Magistracy and be in the field of Administration. People, out of curiosity, even came to see us - a woman sitting on a Court as Magistrate. Expectations were very high and we had no choice but to embrace the challenge of living up to the expectations of the government and the male dominated society as well.  I enjoyed being a part of the whole gamut of challenging assignments, either in criminal justice, law and order situation, mobile court, land-revenue administration, disaster management and relief distribution, national or local government elections, rural development and name anything.

After District Administration, I served in the Local Government Division at the Secretariat as Desk Officer of the recently decentralized Upazila Administration. I was greatly benefitted from the exposure to rural development administration and its elected bodies. Then, serving in the national Parliament was both a challenge and an opportunity to experience how the law  making body is so central to governance, democracy and rule of law. Experiencing the challenges of Police Administration, while serving in the Ministry of Home Affairs as Mid-level Officer, was an interesting dimension of my civil service career.  

I enjoyed working in the Health Ministry as Additional secretary and  Director-General, NIPORT (National Institution of Population Research and Training). I got engaged in creating value by imparting the skills to the health professionals like nurses, and health and family planning workers and through research on health and population control, which contributed to implementation of MDGs, community and universal health and population control. Exposure to the CMSMEs (Cottage, Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises) sector under the Ministry of Industries was unique in terms of, particularly, micro credit, job creation, and women empowerment and issues relating to intellectual properties and standardization. My stint in the development wing of the Power Division was very enriching.

All the diverse experiences and exposure greatly contributed to building my confidence and understanding of the critical situations to shoulder the responsibility at the top echelon of bureaucracy as Secretary, Ministry of Fisheries and Livestock. I had the greatest satisfaction to give our best to implement government policies and priorities with all the Officials of the Ministry, Departments, Institutes, & field Officers to elevate the image of the Ministry in terms of its greater contribution to the development of the country.

During my stint in the Ministry, globally, Bangladesh became 4th in fresh-water fish production, 1st in Hilsa, and 4th in Tilapia fish production. Shrimp production and export increased substantially. We made headway in attaining near self-sufficiency in Live-stocks, poultry and dairy products. The success of present hilsa production has been the outcome of moratorium introduced during breeding and support mechanism for the fishermen with digital identity cards. Dedication of the Fisheries and Livestock Institutes and Field Officials made a silent revolution which substantially contributed to creating jobs and better quality of lives of the millions engaged in these sectors.

As a daughter of a Veterinary Doctor (worked in the Department of Livestock), I had the greatest satisfaction to end my civil service career from  the Ministry, where I definitely had added ownership and emotional attachment.

 

3. What were your childhood ambitions and did you always know that you wanted to pursue a career as a civil servant?

Not really. I considered teaching to be my profession. Immediately after my Masters, I joined a project at the World Bank in 1982 where compensation was quite handsome. I was not interested at all, rather hardly understood the importance of joining the Civil Service. While I got the offer to join, I was half-hearted. It was my father who persuaded me by saying “I don’t see any one of my children joining the government service except you, who got this opportunity. So, please join”. I couldn’t say anything but yes to him. Definitely, I had the best advice from my beloved father and the empowerment I experienced through this service had been something simply extraordinary.

 

 

4. You served in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Dhaka and various Bangladesh Missions abroad. You also accompanied your husband, who also happened to be a former Ambassador abroad. What was it like being in a marriage where both of you were working with the Bangladesh Government? How did you maintain your relationship when you were posted apart?

This is the toughest question I have encountered throughout my life. Frankly speaking, both my husband and I had a strong  resolve that both will try to the hilt to continue with our careers. Accordingly, we indeed tried to leverage upon the provisions of the government rules, regulations and provisions. I had the privilege to serve at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs with my husband on 2 occasions and also got posted in missions abroad (Moscow, Ottawa). I exhausted all provisions of study and extraordinary leaves to study abroad (Calcutta University for M-Phill and Karachi University for PhD) while my husband was posted. I managed to join my diplomat husband and children abroad while visiting other capitals or the same places for seminars or meetings. I sometimes even availed extended leave while on official trips abroad. 

Ultimately, it became absolutely impossible to stay continually with my husband while he became Ambassador. I must admit, I couldn’t give my hundred percent to perform the responsibilities as the spouse of Ambassador. Definitely I missed many glamorous occasions but not his Credential ceremonies at the Royal Palaces in London and Muscat; the UN Office in Geneva; and the Palace of the Holy Office of Pope in Vatican. However, our understanding was unwavering. While four of us were in four different countries, my husband used to say – ‘my heart is split into four’.  I tried not to understand that - and kept quiet!

Yes, both of us had unique visibility in the bureaucracy and we enjoyed the same very much, but had to endure a huge cost. To cite a heart wrenching situation, upon abrupt transfer to headquarters from Ottawa, we had no choice but to board a flight to Dhaka handing our 14-year-old elder son. Ayon. to a senior family friend at Ottawa airport  to complete his high school. However, our children also understood our life in bureaucracy, that we took seriously and tried to serve the country passionately. If recounted, we got the best possible exposure of the world, people of different cultures, varied but eventful experiences of great satisfaction. What else should we have in a life-time!

 

 

5. Out of all the countries you lived in, where did you enjoy living and working the most? What made that experience unique? 

It’s difficult to say where we enjoyed the most. Every country and place had its unique attractions. Our first posting was in Moscow. It happened so, the day we joined (19 August, 1991) there was a military coup against Soviet Leader Gorbachov.  Within 3 months, The Soviet Union crumbled and Boris Yeltsin emerged as a hero and ascended to the helm of new Russia. And, we had uniquely experienced the history that was in the making. In Calcutta, we have the same language, culture, life-style and historical legacy but enjoyed the life of a foreign Diplomat’s family. Karachi was special in a sense, my husband very proudly represented Bangladesh as a diplomat of our beloved independent and sovereign Bangladesh. Needless to mention how much we enjoyed in Ottawa, Muscat, Geneva and London and cherish the fond memories. However, I’d say it's Bangladesh - no match in the world!!

 

6. You have special interest in cultural issues and so could you shed some light on this area from your experience both at home and abroad? Do you think cultural bonds can be a helpful glue to bring the countries together?

Yes, I fully agree with you that I have a special interest in cultural issues. I love music, performing art, paintings, literature, and photography. Tagore’s songs are my obsession. In recent years, I have developed the passion for spending time at the rooftop garden.

In professional life, we found that cultural exposure truly made a headway in forging deeper relations. While I posted abroad and stayed with my husband, I always arranged or engaged in events like art exhibitions promoting particularly women and young painters, food festivals, musical soiree, cultural events, celebrations of our national festivities (Bengali New Year),  fundraising events to support the victims of disasters and trade fairs. Wherever we were (in abroad), we tried to arrange something special and that received high appreciation from members of the host countries and our diaspora. For entertaining guests with indigenous and authentic Bangladeshi cuisine, we received much appreciation. Indeed, we vividly experienced how cultural exchanges greatly contributed to forging strong bondage and upholding the image of Bangladesh.

 

 

7. Bangladesh is known for its women empowerment and social entrepreneurship. Did you find these issues resonating appropriately at the regional and global level to add value to the reputation for Bangladesh? How much, if any?  

Definitely, women empowerment has been resonating globally very well. Bangladesh has been a success story and widely acclaimed. Women leadership of the Honorable Prime Minister in Bangladesh made a miracle in terms of transforming the country from an LDC to a developing country. While I did research on “Emerging Role of Women in Civil Service (Administration)” as part of my dissertation for PhD (2007), I found only 15% women inducted in Civil Service (Administration). Now, induction is around 23%. Women Officers are widely visible in all services (including Police and Defence) and at all tiers (Top to Base) of governance. Women entrepreneurs are independently running their own businesses. Also, we’re equally visible in the challenging professions like press and media. There are women squads in sports like football, cricket, archery, athletics are bringing laurels from abroad vis-à-vis their male counterparts.  Women contingents from Defence and Police have even been working in the UN Peacekeeping Missions abroad.

 


8. You have been involved in the policy making process. Please tell us how you see the future of Bangladesh in the post COVID-19 world? 

COVID-19 pandemic is a global phenomenon. Like all, Bangladesh has been largely impacted. Pandemic exposed the vulnerability of our health sector, public and private both.  It’s definitely a huge challenge for Bangladesh even to revive to the pre COVID-19 level. However, we need to appreciate the ‘fast and generous’ stimulus package of the government and to support the MSMEs, self-employed, and the teeming millions of unbanked people. We had to give priority to life first. Now, its life and livelihood - balance between the two is very difficult. Since Bangladesh's economy has been increasingly exposed to the global market, it’s not necessarily very easy for the country for resilience and recovery, unless the global trend is not positive. However, positive signs emerged with better remittance, export revival and impressive Foreign Currency reserves in Bangladesh. Growth outlook also seems impressive.

We need to focus on priority projects, optimum use of resources without wastage, and an added focus on the agriculture sector for food security. Also, there’s MSMEs sector (informal sector provides huge employment in the economy) and proper implementation of the stimulus package. Bangladesh simultaneously needs to streamline the medical services at all tiers with a time-bound comprehensive mechanism ensuring transparency, accountability, accessibility and affordability.

 

 

9. What type of skills has your career taught you, and can you give some advice on structuring strong personal development?

Self-development and adaptability with the technology should be the priority. Appropriate use of technology could ensure services at the doorstep of the stakeholders faster, and we should make the best use of the Officials particularly at the field level, ensure skill and re-skilling, and encourage them to be innovative in approach, application, and extension services. Everything should be target and result oriented on the basis of transparency and accountability. Overall, to change the mindset, and be pro-people and pro-development.

Now, there shouldn’t be any excuse for a modest salary. 

 

10. You served as Chairperson of a reputed insurance company and must have seen the business community and their practices from close quarters. What is your assessment about the strength and weakness of business practices in Bangladesh and what can be done to make them more modern, competitive and productive? 

JBC is mandated to deal with Life Insurance.  Unfortunately, despite the widespread use of the corporation,  the performance is yet to be at its maximum potential. Life Insurance is still not very popular, there has been a systemic crisis. At the field level, there needs to be a change in the mindset to reach out to the clients of all professions. Comprehensive ICT application, e-filing and services will definitely develop the credibility of the organization to the public. There has been a huge shortage of pro-technology and skilled personnel at all levels.

Since this is a Corporation, the government may consider introducing a true professional mechanism through an aggressive road map to energize the spirit and motivation for insurance coverage across the country. Insurance coverage is not tuned to the pace of development of the country.

Professionalism needs to be instilled through appropriate reforms and reorganization. JBC has tremendous potential but the corporation needs to develop the culture to make sure that it’s a service organization and can bring smiles to the clients in times of need. And, it’s doable.

 

 

11. What advice would you have for people interested in pursuing a distinguished career such as yourself?

There was a time when we entered Civil Service that we didn’t even know typewriting and struggled with honing computer skills. Today, the whole world is at hand with mobile, internet, and Facebook. My advice definitely would be to embrace the technology and use it for a good cause. With social media, lots of positive and productive services could be delivered. With lesser effort, it is possible to be more smart and productive. 

Always remember that knowledge is power. It’s up to individuals to get more information, just by using the technology at hand, and to understand the meaning of life and get clarity in purpose. Believe in yourself. Make best use of time, resource, and energy for self-enlightenment and then to preach others. 

 

 

 

12. Would you have any advice for the younger generation in a fast changing world, particularly when the job market both at home and abroad are transforming at a fast pace? What skills do you think they will need to navigate through this challenging process?

Possibly, I am not good at advising somebody of this generation for a career to pursue. While abroad, I found teachers to be the best guide to advise students. This advice definitely changes with changing times. However, I would like to suggest, whatever discipline one enjoys, s/he should pursue something in that area. Of course, technology is constantly changing and has an impact. Above all, nobody knows everything. So try to be thorough in your pursued discipline. Positively, s/he would have his/her  own innovative ideas in the realm of ever changing technology driven career opportunities depending on strength and weakness.

 

 

13. October is the month of Mental Health Awareness. With that in mind, what does mental health mean to you? And how important are mental health resources and services, with respect to a country’s socio-economic success? Any advice you would like to share?

To be honest, we have been experiencing challenges throughout life to address mainly the physical health issues. Mental health is yet to attract the level of attention it deserves.

Mental health is important at every stage of life, like childhood, adolescence and adulthood. Mental health disorders like anxiety, mood disorder, and schizophrenia disorder - these are highly complex situations. Arguably, mental health crises are resulting from a fast life in the course of career and high ambition trajectory. Those who cannot adjust with that pace  usually experience the mental health crisis. Many mental health crises also arise from lifestyle. There is a tendency to cluster various mental health issues and disabilities as the same, which is very wrong. Creating awareness and exposure of the newer generations to the core values of family, society, culture, and humanity could be of great help to make them survive and thrive in a rapidly changing world. And, I consider family as an institution to deliver the best results.

In my earlier personal anecdotal writings, my younger son, Apon, was critical of me not covering the negative experiences in the writings. But, I remained focusing on positivity in all occurrences. Possibly, counselling on positivity in life, even at family and peer levels, would help to make mental health issues substantially lessened.

Thanks and stay well, safe, and blessed.

 

 

 

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