Letter: FO on a shoestring

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The Independent Culture
Sir: The member of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee who claimed to have found the mechanics of an old banger under the bonnet of the Foreign Office's Rolls Royce may have been a bit confused about what he was actually looking at: what is more likely to have been there is only the sketchiest remnants of any engine at all (" `Catalogue of errors' over Sierra Leone", 10 February).

From 1991 to 1995 I was British ambassador in Cameroon, a country formed from the merger of the old French territory of Cameroun and British Southern Cameroon. Whereas my French colleague once boasted to me that he had 250 French officials answerable to him, I had to manage with just three other British staff. And the French ambassador only had to cover Cameroon; I was simultaneously accredited to the Central African Republic, Chad and Equatorial Guinea - an area as great as that of the then 12 members of the EU.

Nor were the resources dedicated to the area in London any more impressive. The handful of staff in the FCO's Africa Equatorial Department had to advise ministers on a region that included a succession of international trouble spots ranging from Somalia and Rwanda to Zaire, Nigeria and Liberia - and Sierra Leone. Perhaps not surprisingly, the number of substantive policy communications which I received from London in four years could be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Complacent talk about a service able to "punch above its weight" and "make bricks without straw" ignores the fact that neither of those activities is actually possible to any significant extent. If the Government is not prepared to allocate to our overseas representation the resources needed to deal with an increasingly complex world, then the Sierra Leone debacle is unlikely to remain an isolated case.


Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire