Reita Toussaint, permanent secretary, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, at a Joint Select Committee meeting.

The Foreign Affairs Ministry has started lobbying to have a Trinidad and Tobago citizen elected as president of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in the 2023 elections for that post—and the ministry is also approaching governments, which have issued advisories against this country to give them the facts of circumstances.

This was confirmed by the permanent secretary in the Foreign Affairs Ministry Reita Toussaint on Wednesday when she and other Foreign Affairs Ministry officials were interviewed by Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Joint Select Committee (JSC). The JSC is headed by independent senator Dr Maria Dillon-Remy.

Questioned by JSC member Rodney Charles on the election for the UNGA’s president, Toussaint said it would be foolhardy to wait until 2022 to start lobbying and this country has already begun work towards the election. She said T&T has also made arrangements for reciprocal support.

Meanwhile, Toussaint also confirmed there’s been more engagement with China. She said while there may be some diminished activity with African states, there’s still training for Nigerian students in T&T and the relationship with Africa continues to be important.

And aside from contacting governments that have issued negative advisories on T&T, she said the ministry’s also taking every opportunity to engage with the European Union on placing this country on its financial blacklist. The engagement is with a view for the EU to have a “more balanced approach”. States that have a “seat at the table” with the EU have also been asked to advocate on this country’s behalf.

Toussaint also said after recent observations including on social media, the ministry is also looking at strategies to put more positive information on T&T into the public domain.

However, Toussaint confirmed the ministry has staffing issues particularly after expanding overseas missions without a commensurate increase in staff at headquarters. She said the ministry needs a total of around 20 people for different levels at new missions—plus the 15 other missions are also short-staffed. Current restructuring is expected to deal with getting staffing levels right, she added.

The ministry has to work with the public service’s recruitment system. Toussaint said the ministry must be more aggressive in bringing its needs to the service commissions so recruitment happens faster. The ministry doesn’t send people into overseas posts if they are not ready and there have been instances where officers overseas spend longer than they should. A posting is three years and could be continued with another three-year stint, then the individual returns to headquarters.

The permanent secretary said because of the lack of resources, the ministry can’t be consistent. She explained married officers get a larger allowance for families but there are challenges and “we have to look at how we do business.” She noted there are circumstances where the head of chancery is a contract officer. Also, people sometimes leave the foreign service if they see better opportunities elsewhere.

Toussaint also said there’s no gender policy in the ministry and there are about seven women to four men.

Toussaint publicly thanked officers for serving overseas amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Noting the sacrifices and challenges they face to keep T&T’s operations going effectively while staying COVID-19 free.

Toussaint said there’s a recalibration of T&T’s position and strategy not solely based on energy, but overall the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is looking at how this country positions itself.

She said the Prime Minister’s current chairmanship of Caricom and his discussions with the World Health Organization and Atlantic Council will elevate this country’s international profile.