Youthful unrest at the foreign ministry

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Young diplomats at Norway’s foreign ministry think they’re forced to wait far too long to finally become ambassadors abroad. More than 100 of them have complained that ambassador posts don’t necessarily go to those most qualified, but rather to those with the most seniority.

Some young diplomats feel they're blocked from consideration for ambassador posts or other top management posts here at Norway's Foreign Ministry. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

Some young diplomats feel they’re blocked from consideration for ambassador posts or other top management posts here at Norway’s Foreign Ministry. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

More than a third of all the top posts at Norwegian embassies around the world will be subject to personnel changes next year. Ambassadors are rotated regularly, and the ministry is in the midst of evaluating who will be sent where, but that doesn’t ensure youthful renewal.

Rather, reports newspaper Aftenposten, the average age of Norwegian ambassadors is now 59, according to a letter sent by fully 121 younger employees of the foreign ministry (Utenriksdepartementet, UD). The letter was sent to former Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide last summer.

Higher average age
In it, frustrated young employees complained that the average age of those holding top posts in the foreign ministry is much higher than in any of the other government ministries and also higher than top diplomats in several other countries. They cited younger average ages of top officials in the foreign ministries of Sweden, the UK and the Netherlands, countries they believe were fair to compare with Norway’s diplomatic service.

Moreover, they complained that especially the posts of ambassador often are handed out as a result of “long and faithful service,” and not because of specific qualifications. They noted that in the UK, some diplomats are named as ambassadors as early as age 35.

Norway will name 26 new ambassadors this spring, with Aftenposten reporting that there are more than 300 applicants for the posts, including 80 women. The letter led to a meeting between its writers and ministry management.

‘Many considerations’
“It’s correct that the average age of middle managers is higher (than in other ministries),” Aud Kolberg, ekspedisjonssjef at the ministry, told Aftenposten. She said that’s because those hired as aspiring diplomats generally work two years in Oslo and then six years abroad, but noted that they often get leadership experience by stepping in for ambassadors at small embassies, as “chargé d’affaires.”

She said there are many considerations in appointing ambassadors, some purely professional, others more general. “We don’t send someone as ambassador to Russia if they don’t speak fluent Russian,” Kolberg said. Others may be sent from a demanding post in one country to an easier posting later. “There are many factors that play into this,” she said.

Women currently hold 30 percent of Norway’s ambassador posts, while the ministry’s goal is 40 percent. Some men reportedly feel overlooked as qualified applicants if they’re up against female rivals, because the women may win the job.

Aftenposten noted that complaints from young diplomats about the ambassador selection process is nothing new. In the 1960s, a group of them included Thorvald Stoltenberg, who became not only an ambassador but foreign minister himself and also is known as the father of former Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg. Thorvald Stoltenberg protested along with his colleagues that young diplomats were being blocked from the top posts. He ended up contributing to the problem, though, when he wanted to extend his own period as Norway’s ambassador to Denmark 40 years later, thus blocking younger colleagues from getting the chance to serve in Copenhagen.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund