Waging the Good Fight on Multiple Fronts
Interview with H.E. Shahidul ISLAM,
Ambassador of Bangladesh to France
As one of the countries that contributes the most troops to United Nations peacekeeping operations, Bangladesh is playing a pro-active role on several key global fronts, starting with the fight against terrorism and the campaigns to achieve sustainable development and better migration management. The Ambassador of Bangladesh to France, H.E. Shahidul Islam, discusses the challenges and stakes of the battles being waged by his country, and outlines Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s strategy for diversifying the Bangladeshi economy.
The Diplomatic Letter: Excellency, reelected on January 5th, 2014, Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, wishes to enter Bangladesh in the group of middle-income countries by 2021, the year of the 50th anniversary of its independence. How would you describe the progress made by your country, in particular to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?
H.E. Shahidul ISLAM: Thanks to the strong leadership of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and efforts of our hardworking people, significant progress has been made in increasing per capita income and reducing poverty, and Bangladesh was classified by the World Bank as a lower middle income country in 2015. The economy of the country has seen a sustained growth of 6% for the last seven years. In the just concluded financial year (July 2015-June 2016) Bangladesh attained 7% growth for the first time in its history. Bangladesh hopes to sustain 7% growth rate to become a middle-income country by 2021.
Bangladesh has registered remarkable progresses in the areas of poverty alleviation, ensuring food security, primary school enrolment, gender parity in primary and secondary level education, lowering the infant and under-five mortality rate and maternal mortality ratio, improving immunization coverage; and reducing the incidence of communicable diseases under Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Bangladesh will further build up on these achievements in order to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030 with particular focus on poverty alleviation. Bangladesh also expects to attain gender parity in higher education and eliminate child marriage by 2030.
T.D.L.: Since 2010, Bangladesh has sustained growth in GDP of over 6% per year on average. What are the main drivers of this dynamic? How are redistributed the benefits of this economic growth, particularly in order to reduce the country’s poverty rate? What are the efforts devoted to education?
H.E.S.I.: Strong agriculture, good export performance and remittances sent by Bangladeshi workers abroad are the major driving forces behind Bangladesh’s sustained economic growth. Bangladesh earned USD 34 billion from export in the last financial year (July 2015-June 2016). Ready-made garments and textile accounted for 82.04% of the export earning, followed by jute and jute goods (2.69%), home textiles (2.20%), footwear (2.09%), leather and leather goods (1.91%), shrimps and frozen food (1.56%), and light engineering industries (1.25%). Massive public expenditure for the construction of large infrastructure projects like roads, bridges, power plants, seaports are also keeping the economy growing. The country has received over USD 15 billion as remittances from expatriates Bangladeshi workers last year. Bangladesh has a foreign currency reserve of over USD 30 billion, which provides the country a comfortable position in the overall balance of payment situation.
The economic growth during the past years has drastically reduced the rate of population under poverty level. The percentage of population living in poverty has come down to 22% in 2016 from 57% in 1990 and extreme poverty to 12.9%. Bangladesh hopes to eradicate extreme poverty by 2030 as targeted by SDG. The economic growth is being distributed to the poor and marginalized sections of the society through various social safety net programs, including Food For Work program to create employment to end seasonal famine, increase in the minimum wage for workers, payment of monthly stipends to widows and the elderly people. Last month, the Government has introduced distribution of rice at lower price among the poor and vulnerable sections of the population.
Education, with particular focus on girls’ education is receiving top priority. While primary education is free for all, education for girl children is free upto secondary level. The Government distributes free text books to the primary and secondary school going students. Free lunch is provided at school to reduce dropout rates. 1125 new primary schools have been set up and 5017 schools have been renovated during the past seven years. 34895 new teachers have been appointed in primary schools during this period. Last year, 13 million primary school students and 3.8 million secondary school students were given stipend to support their needy families.
T.D.L.: As the most densely populated country in the world, Bangladesh economy relies mainly on its vast manpower resources. While the textile industry represents 80% of exports of the country, how do you approach the social injustices that characterize the industry and how the authorities do they cope? Reflecting the creation of technology parks such as the Kaliakoir High Tech Park, what are the sectors for the future for the economic diversification of your country?
H.E.S.I.: Textile and apparel industry has helped create millions of jobs in Bangladesh. More than 80% of the 4 million workers employed in this industry are women, which has advanced women empowerment and improved gender equality. Bangladesh believes that economic growth should go hand in hand with workers’ rights and safety. After a major accident in a readymade garment factory in 2013, the Government of Bangladesh has been working with EU, USA and ILO to improve the labor rights and workers’ safety. The Government has made it easier for trade unions to operate in garment factories, has employed more inspectors to strengthen inspection of labor condition in garment factories, and has undertaken safety assessment of all active garment factories. The Government also fixed the minimum salary of workers in the apparel and textile industry at Tk. 6,000 (equivalent to 75 Euro), which may appear to be too little by European standards but that represents 75% increase at a time. The salary of skilled workers are higher. The salary of the workers remain low mainly for two reasons: a) due to poverty workers accept poor labor condition, and b) brands and retailers tend to pay low price for the products. In spite of these problems, the salary and other facilities of workers are increasing with the overall progress of the economy.
Efforts to diversify our economy is going on with the support of the government and development partners including EU. We have identified agro-based industry, pharmaceuticals, IT, footwear, shipbuilding, light engineering as promising sectors of the economy. In addition to Kaliakoir High Tech Park, an industrial village for tannery industry has been created in Savar, and a pharmaceutical park in Munshigonj. Also, side by side with the existing eight Export Processing Zones (EPZ), the government is set to establish 100 special economic zones (SEZs) for foreign and local investments. China, Japan and South Korean businessmen have shown their keen interest to relocate production units to these special economic zones.
T.D.L.: During the past decade, the flow of foreign direct investment in Bangladesh has more than doubled, reaching $ 1.8 billion in 2015. What factors explain, in your opinion, the recent launch of the attractiveness of your country? How does your government intend to continue to improve the business environment? With some old French business presence in the Bangladeshi market, what opportunities can you identify for the development of French-Bangladeshi economic exchanges?
H.E.S.I.: The World Bank has ranked Bangladesh 20th out of 187 countries in terms of investors protection, making Bangladesh the best investment destination in South Asia (Doing Business, published by IFC). Bangladesh has a large pool of hardworking and easily trainable young workers. The large population with median age of 26.3 years guarantees a sustained supply of workers for labor intensive manufacturing sector. Prices of utility like gas, electricity and other services are low compared to other Asian countries. The growth of a middle class with a sustained economic growth during the last decade also guarantees a large domestic market of consumer goods.
Tax holidays, full repatriation of capital and profit and sovereign guarantee against any risk of expropriation makes Bangladesh an investment-heaven which may be utilized by the French investors. The Lafarge-Surma Company Limited is one of the largest FDI in Bangladesh amounting to USD 280 million. Thales, a French company, is building the Bangladesh’s first satellite (Bangabandhu satellite-1) and Oberthur Technology is engaged in producing national identity card in Bangladesh. Another French company, Technip, is expected to build an oil refinery in Bangladesh involving over USD 2 billion. The French companies are well placed to invest in roads and railway, urban transport and development, water treatment, power generation, pharmaceuticals, IT sector, agro-based industry, high-end textile, and tourism industry. Bangladesh will need 60,000 MW electricity production capacity by 2040, and nuclear power has been identified as one of the sources of increased power generation. France has the possibility of engaging in the construction of nuclear power plant in Bangladesh. There is also huge potentials of capacity building and technology transfer in renewable energy, and blue economy.
T.D.L.: Set at the crossroads of South Asia and Southeast Asia, Bangladesh is set to become a pivotal country for regional trade. Like the recently launched railway project to connect Dhaka with its western provinces, according to your opinion, what are the most emblematic projects of Bangladeshi infrastructure building program? Which attention is specifically scope to the energy sector?
H.E.S.I.: Bangladesh has undertaken massive infrastructure building drive including roads and highways, bridges, railway, power plants, satellite, oil refineries, seaports and modern airports. Padma Bridge (6 km long) involving USD 3 billion is being built with Bangladesh’s own financing. This bridge, when completed, will connect the capital city Dhaka with the Southwestern districts of Bangladesh and would have tremendous impact on the economy of the southern area of the country. Expansion and modernization of railway to connect Bangladesh with India, Myanmar and China are going on. The highways connecting Dhaka with the port city of Chittagong and between Dhaka and northern city of Mymensingh are being upgraded. Power plants and LGN terminals are being built to supply adequate electricity to support industrial development. Metro rail is being introduced in Dhaka with Japanese assistance to improve traffic situation in Dhaka. A deep seaport at Payra is being constructed as the third seaport to support increased marine transportation.
Currently, Bangladesh has a capacity of producing 12000 MW of electricity. By 2021, the demand for electricity will be 20,000 MW and 60,000 MW by 2040. This will need construction of thermal power plant, nuclear power plant and development of renewable energy sources. French public and private companies have tremendous opportunity to be involved in the development of our energy sector.
T.D.L.: With the benefits of the economic rise of India and China, your country must still deal with the geopolitical rivalry in the region. Considering the cancellation of the SAARC Summit to be held on 15 and 16 November 2016, how do you analyze the recent escalation of tensions between India and Pakistan and its impact on the stability of South Asia? What role could the Bangladeshi diplomacy play in order to appease these differences and boost the regional integration process initiated in 1983 by Bangladesh through the SAARC?
H.E.S.I.: Soon after the independence of Bangladesh in 1971, the founding father of Bangladesh, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman based his foreign policy on the axiom «friendship with all and malice to none». In furtherance of his vision, SAARC came into being as the first South Asian regional initiative to promote cooperation among South Asian nations for development and peace. Bangladesh continues to remain at the forefront of promoting regional integration in South Asia to advance peace, stability and economic development in the sub-region. However, it was subsequently found that not all the countries of South Asia were equally prepared to bury their past rivalry and look ahead for a common future of the peoples of the area. In particular, Pakistan has continued to interfere in the internal affairs of Bangladesh, which neither helps bilateral relation nor promotes the spirit of SAARC. We hope that all members of SAARC will come forward with an open mind to revitalize this regional organization.
In the meantime, other regional initiatives such as BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal) to enhance connectivity as provided under the SAARC charter for sub-regional groupings, and BCIM-EC (Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar Economic Corridor) to promote economic cooperation among these countries, and BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multisectoral Technical Cooperation) with the participation of Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Bhutan and Nepal are moving ahead. Bangladesh is actively involved in all these sub-regional cooperation initiatives.
T.D.L.: Speaking at the 71st General Assembly of the UN Conference on September 21st, 2016, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina lamented the «new wave of terror» which is facing Bangladesh. What approach she recommends regarding this challenge and especially to stop radicalization? Taking into account the official visit that should conduct the Pope François in Bangladesh in 2017, which external partners your country would give priority in this field? Beyond that, what are the objectives of the future Centre for Peacebuilding to be set up in Dhaka?
H.E.S.I.: Bangladesh follows a policy of «zero tolerance” on terrorism and violent extremism. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is determined to fight against all forms of terrorism and violent extremism by all means. Her message condemning the terrorist attacks in January 2015 (Charlie Hebdo in Paris) and November 2015 (in a night Club in Paris) and in July 2016 (attack in Nice) consistently repeated the same message “Terrorists are terrorists irrespective of their colour, creed or religion and must have no place in any civilized society”.
Both law enforcement measures and deradicalization campaign have been strengthened following the terrorist attacks in Gulshan, Dhaka, on 1 July 2016. Security measures have been strengthened all over the country to prevent recurrence of such incidents. The Police are investigating the incidents and identified the criminals behind the attack and arrested most of them. The law enforcing agencies are also verifying if the terrorists received any guidance from the international terrorist groups. The Government is determined to break the nexus between terrorism, extremism, and radicalization and eliminate them all from Bangladesh. Hon’ble Prime Minister also warned that stern action will be taken against individuals who are involved in ‘false preaching and pushing the youths towards death and hell’.
The people of Bangladesh in general are secular and liberal. They consider that terrorists are maligning Islam through conducting such heinous acts in the name of religion. A massive deradicalization campaign has been launched with the involvement of administration, civil society, religious leaders, school authorities and parents of students, so that the preachers of hatred cannot recruit new youths. The government of Bangladesh has also updated all national laws related to terrorism, financing of terrorism, money laundering and violent extremism with a view to bringing them to highest international standards, including 2012 Prevention of Money Laundering Act, 2012 Mutual Legal Assistance Act and 2013 Anti-Terrorism Act.
The National Committee for Intelligence Coordination (NCIC), headed by the Hon’ble Prime Minister, monitors and provides guidance on policy response to counter-terrorism and countering violent extremism related data and intelligence. The National Committee for Militancy Resistance and Prevention (NCMRP), Chaired by the Hon’ble Minister for Home Affairs, analyses emerging terrorist and extremist threats and suggests appropriate legal and administration measures to mitigate such threats. Apart from these, Bangladesh Financial Intelligence Unit (BFIU) with the support of the Central Intelligence Cell of National Board of Revenue is working to stem the flow of financing in terrorism and violent extremism. In February 2016, the Government has launched a specialized Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime (CTTC) unit under Bangladesh Police to combat militancy, violent extremism, cybercrimes and financing in terrorism.
Terrorism is a global challenge and no country can handle the challenge alone. It is only by coordinated and concerted effort, this global menace can be effectively addressed. The Government maintains a strict policy of not allowing the use of Bangladesh’s sovereign territory for the purpose of terrorism against any other country. Bangladesh will continue to work closely with other countries, regional organizations and the United Nations to fight this menace. Bangladesh hopes that the international community would support us in fighting common challenges of terrorism and violent extremism.
Bangladesh is proud of multicultural and multi-religious character of its society. Secularism in Bangladesh is understood by the presence of all religious groups freely preaching and practicing their religious beliefs, and not by the absence of religion. The proposed visit of the Pope François to Bangladesh in 2017 will further strengthen our commitment to upholding this secular, tolerant fabric of the Bangladeshi society. The government and the people of the country, including the Catholic community, will ensure the highest standards of security, protocol and respect for the Pope.
T.D.L.: Outside the first summit meeting organized by the United Nations dedicated to refugees and migrants, the leader of the Bangladesh government had a meeting with the Foreign Minister of Myanmar Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi. What do you expect about this consultation for the development of Bangladesh-Myanmar relations? How this dialogue can be part of the Bangladeshi initiatives to strengthen ties with ASEAN and its members’ countries?
H.E.S.I.: Bangladesh maintains close economic and political relations with ASEAN, both as a single regional block as well as individually with all its members. There is great potential for further expanding our existing cooperation with ASEAN countries in the areas of trade, tourism, culture and sharing of skills. Bangladesh joined the ASEAN Regional Forum and the country now stands directly at ASEAN’s western door. Bangladesh is keen to widen its economic relations with the ASEAN member countries in the coming days.
Bangladesh values its relation with Myanmar, which is the closest ASEAN member country in terms of geographical proximity. Bangladesh has been making sincere efforts to strengthen relation with Myanmar through dialogue and exchanges as well as establishing physical connectivity through roads and railways. Both Bangladesh and Myanmar are part of sub-regional initiatives of BCIM-EC (Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor) and BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multisectoral Technical Cooperation). Bangladesh believes that Myanmar will respond to the goodwill of Bangladesh and that the two neighboring countries will be able to establish mutually beneficial economic and political ties. The democracy-loving people of Bangladesh has great respect for the Myanmar leader Mrs. Aung San Suu Ki, and the meeting between Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Foreign Minister Mrs. Suu Ki reflects the inherent affinity between the two democratic leaders.
It may be noted that currently there are about 500,000 Myanmar nationals from Rakhine province who have taken shelter in Bangladesh. We are very hopeful that the democratic leaders of Myanmar will put in place necessary measures so that these refugees can return to Myanmar in safety and that there is no new influx of refugees from Myanmar into Bangladesh.
T.D.L.: The first Franco-German Embassy was inaugurated in Dhaka on September 21st, 2015. How did you welcome this initiative? How can it contribute to the deepening of cooperation between Bangladesh and the European Union which also remains to be the largest trading partner of your country? How would you like it to evolve?
H.E.S.I.: We are very delighted to host the first ever joint Franco-German Embassy Building in Dhaka. The inauguration ceremony of the joint Franco-German Embassy building on 21 September 2015 also provided the rare occasion of the joint visit by the Foreign Ministers of France and Germany, marking a milestone in the Bangladesh-EU relation. The importance of our relation with EU can be hardly overemphasized; we are closely cooperating with EU in trade, investment, development cooperation, democratization and poverty alleviation. Germany and France are the two important export destinations for Bangladesh in the EU where all products enjoy duty-free market access. Both France and Germany cooperate with Bangladesh on various international issues ranging from sustainable development and climate change preparedness to culture and human rights.
The establishment of France-German Embassy in Dhaka also has great symbolic value for the entire South Asian region by way of inspiring the South Asian nations to bury their past rivalry and begin close cooperation for mutual benefit. Foreign Minister of Bangladesh Mr. Abul Hassan Mahmood Ali, MP stated that this joint Embassy is not “only unique”, but also is an example of how to live in “peace, cooperation and harmony”.
The sustained EU support over the years has contributed significantly to the growth and development of Bangladesh, including making it one of the fastest growing economies in the world. The EU is Bangladesh’s main trading partner, accounting for around 24% of Bangladesh’s total trade in 2015. The EU has also remained a major source of development assistance for Bangladesh. In view of Bangladesh’s recent economic growth that has translated into significant progress in poverty alleviation, food security, economic growth, employment generation, gender equality and women’s empowerment, increasing agricultural production, reducing illiteracy, etc., the Bangladesh-EU relation is poised to be transformed from the earlier donor-recipient relationship to one of mutual interests rooted in shared values for democracy, pluralism, tolerance, human rights, rule of law and good governance as well as trade and investment. In the coming years, Bangladesh EU relations is expected to become more diversified and move away from the present aid centred development cooperation to a more comprehensive form of economic partnership in which investment promotion, skills upgradation, knowledge and innovation, technology transfer, export diversification and productivity enhancement would become increasingly prominent. Bangladesh would also be immensely benefited by directing cooperation and assistance in development of infrastructure, human and institutional capacity building to adapt to natural disasters, technological support for sustainable agriculture and weather resistant cropping practice, support for overall green growth. Also, tackling common global issues ranging from international peace and security to fight against terrorism and violent extremism, cooperation to tackle climate change and governance of migration will feature prominently in the evolving Bangladesh-EU partnership.
T.D.L.: Bangladesh and France will celebrate on February 14th, 2017 the 45th anniversary of the establishment of their diplomatic relations. What is your point of view on the evolution of these links? While the French Development Agency (AFD) has opened an office in your country since May 2013, how could the cooperation between the two countries be further increased? Like culture, traditionally the heart of bilateral relations, and more recently, the fight against global warming, what could be the new areas of cooperation between the two countries?
H.E.S.I.: The people of Bangladesh has great admiration for the people of France for their support in our war of liberation in 1971. In particular, the support of French philosopher and politician Andres Malraux, who vowed to fight for the independence of Bangladesh, is remembered by our people. The government of Bangladesh has bestowed him «Friends of Bangladesh Honour» in 2012 and Malraux Garden was established in Dhaka in 2015. France was one of the first European countries to have recognized the independent Bangladesh as early as on 14 February 1972. Since then, the relation between the two countries have expanded and deepened in a broad spectrum of areas like political relation, economic cooperation, development partnership, fight against global warming and terrorism. Bangladesh considers France as a partner in our quest for economic development and democratization process. Our two countries share the values of democracy, freedom, and the dignity of human person. These shared values have provided a solid foundation for working on international issues like fight against terrorism and violent extremism; fight the adverse effects of climate change and promoting global peace and stability. On the bilateral plane, economic cooperation is becoming the most prominent area of our cooperation. The participation of French companies in infrastructure building and urban development is praiseworthy. We welcome the presence of AFD in Bangladesh since 2013 and appreciate its participation in development projects in the areas of water and sanitation and urban development. Over last 3 years, AFD has committed around 300 million euros in different projects corresponding to their mandates. AFD can also help Bangladesh in climate change adaptation and provide technology for green growth.
Cultural cooperation and people-to-people exchange is an important way to further solidifying our understanding and cooperation. Both the people of France and Bangladesh are proud of their rich cultural heritage, their language and their contemporary cultural expressions. Bangladesh appreciates France for running an archeological cooperation mission in Mahasthangarh since 1993. Alliance Francaise in Bangladesh offers French classes to Bangladeshi soldiers selected to become Blue Helmets (UN peacekeepers) in French-speaking countries. France can also provide training opportunities for our professionals and artists, and technical assistance for the development of our tourism and creative industry.
We are planning to celebrate the 45th year of our diplomatic relation through number of events, including publishing of the French version of the Unfinished Memoirs of the Founding Father of Bangladesh, Banganabdhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman; Bangladeshi painting exhibition in Paris and cultural performance by Bangladeshi cultural troupes in France. We will also organize a Bangladeshi film week in collaboration with the Bengali Department of the Institut National des Langues at des Civilizations (INALCO) for the French viewers.