Thou shalt not ‘committee’

Setting up a committee is not only a way out of a predicament; its also an instrument to perpetuate life of conference

Khalid Saleem July 09, 2015
The writer is a former ambassador and former assistant secretary general of OIC

The one phenomenon that stands out like a sore thumb in this blessed land is the unabashed proliferation of committees and commissions. Their only visible contribution has been to make the prevailing confusion even worse. Looking back, one finds that committees have never been terribly popular entities, except perhaps with those who delight in setting them up or those who are privileged enough to serve on them. To put it in a trite way, the committee (or commission) appears to be a slick way of wriggling out of an unsustainable commitment.

History is witness that setting up committees has been the favourite tool of governments as well as legislatures. Whenever they find themselves in a predicament, the easiest way out is to set up a working committee to look into a particular situation and to make recommendations. The secret is to nominate those people on the committee who are fond of listening to their own voices. This is a sure guarantee that the matter will be postponed long enough for it to lose its topicality.

In these days of multilateral diplomacy, committees have become weapons of the last resort in the hands of clever diplomats. Setting up a committee is not only a way out of a predicament; it is also an instrument to perpetuate the shelf life of a conference that, perhaps, should not have been convened in the first place. Understandably, multilateral diplomats have taken to the committee culture like ducks to water. Multilateral conferences — that often spawn like wild mushrooms after rain — have embraced committees like long-lost offspring. Committee after committee crops up following every session of such conferences. The more the merrier appears to be the motto. Since multilateral diplomats are not only overly fond of listening to their own voices, but also consider themselves to be God’s gift to humanity, committees, aforesaid, perpetuate their existence and, in due course, give birth to such offspring as sub-committees and working groups to make the lives of observers even more complicated. The last thing a committee ever does is to ‘commit itself’.

Committees at the United Nations, which have lately latched on to world diplomacy like leeches, are a case in point. What is intriguing is that the monster that ultimately emerges bears no resemblance whatsoever to the committee that was set up in the first instance! The exercise proceeds something like this: the conference decides to set up a committee comprising the six most vocal delegates. To contain expected opposition, the chairman lamely clarifies that the committee would be ‘open-ended’. This opens up a Pandora’s box, as it were.

When the committee convenes in due course, the attendance comes to 36, the additional delegates having in the meantime woken up to the monetary benefits of extending their stay. It is another matter that an overwhelming majority of the participants have little or no understanding of the issue under discussion; not that they care! They have enough expertise, though, to keep the discussion going on and on.

At this point, it may, perhaps, be in order to quote what some well-known persons had to say on the subject. Carl Byers was perhaps, being a tad uncharitable in defining a committee as, “A group of the unfit , appointed by the unwilling, to do the unnecessary”. His definition is not that far from the truth, though. John le Carre likened the committee to “an animal with four hind legs”.

One may sound uncharitable, but the aforesaid does give one the feeling that the world’s troubles would have been less had there existed no such institution like the ‘committee’. One could, perhaps, go a step further and hope for the day when a committee to end all committees would be set up. Meanwhile, one has little option but to reconcile oneself to the realisation that committees, like death and taxes, are predestined!

Published in The Express Tribune, July 10th,  2015.

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