Lundi 22 Avril 2019  

N°124 - Quatrième trimestre 2018

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  S.E.M. / H.E. Mahmood Hasan

Fostering Development through Worldwide Cooperation


Thirty-five years after gaining independence, Bangladesh is stepping up to become a major player in South Asia. With the January 2007 elections drawing near, H.E. Mahmood Hasan, the Ambassador of Bangladesh to France, tells our readers about the drive to develop his country and reinforce regional cooperation.



The Diplomatic Letter: Mr. Ambassador, the mandate of the Government led by the Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia will end in October 2006. What are its main achievements? Whatever the results of the next elections, what should be, as far as you are concerned, the next Government’s priorities?


H.E. Mahmood Hasan: The present BNP Government led by Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia was sworn in October 2001. The incumbent Government shall complete its term of office in October 2006. During its five-year mandate the Government has made significant achievement in various sectors.

Regarding political stability, Bangladesh has a stable multi-party democratic system. The Parliament is the centre of vibrant political activities and has a strong opposition party. Maintaining peace and ensuring law and order are therefore quite challenging responsibilities for the Government. The situation in Bangladesh during the past five years speaks eloquently about the achievements.

The present Government has also emphasized the need to reduce dependency on external assistance for economic development and become self-reliant. Actually, Bangladesh is keen on Foreign Direct Investment and substantial amounts (US $ 2.7 billion) have been invested in different sectors of the economy over the past five years (2001-2006). Bangladesh is keen to obtain greater access for its exports to world market. The growth rate of the economy in 2006 was 6.7 per cent. Exports have grown by 21.63 per cent (2006) over the previous year (2005). The per capita income is US $ 482 in 2006, as compared to US $ 374 in 2001.

Concerning the social indicators, there have been significant improvements in education, healthcare and overall human development. The primary education enrollment rate has reached 92% (2006). The female-male ratio in primary schools is 53:47 (2006). Fertility rate and infant and maternal mortality rates have declined while average life expectancy has gone unto 65 years. Bangladesh has thus achieved the targets as contained in MDG-2 (universal primary education) and MDG-3 (gender equality).

Finally in matters of foreign policy and world peace, Bangladesh has been pursuing a pro-active foreign policy since independence, firmly adhering to the Charter of the United Nations. We believe, peace is central to economic and social progress of the Republic. As enshrined in our Constitution, Bangladesh’s commitment to peace is reflected in terms of the contribution made in the peace-keeping operations across the world where Bangladesh has been one of the largest Troops Contributing Countries (TCCs).

At the same time, Bangladesh is recognized as a key proponent of regional cooperation. Our belief is that intensified cooperation within respective regions bolsters the economic potential of collaborating countries. That understanding convinced Bangladesh to take the initiative – as early as in 1980 – to launch the idea of forming the present-day South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). We are also actively participating in other fora, namely Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multisectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) and ASEAN Regional Forum. Our objective and our constructive role in international sphere have secured us membership in the UN Security Council (1979-1980 and 2000-2001), ECOSOC (1997) and to key UN Funds, Programmes and Bodies namely, UNICEF, UNESCO, UNDP, UNFPA as well as the recently constituted Human Rights Council and UN Peace Building Commission.

Whichever party wins the next elections in January, 2007 will continue with the same strategy – economic development in an atmosphere of peace and stability and indeed strengthen the democratic institutions.


T.D.L: Fifteen years after the beginning of a multiparty system in your country, what do you think about the democratization of the Bangladeshi society? How do you perceive the pressures of the donor countries in favour of Human Rights on democracy and the fight against corruption that is affecting the economy of Bangladesh?


H.E.M.H.: Bangladesh has a vibrant multi-party democratic system of polity. The three main pillars of the democratic society have gained strength over the years. These are – the process of free and fair elections as per the Constitution, the independence of the judiciary, and a free press and media.

Elections are conducted at the end of the term of an incumbent government by a neutral Caretaker Administration. The judiciary is independent and has the reputation of being free and fair. The media – both the print and electronic are completely free. These institutions have made the people of Bangladesh quintessentially democratic in their spirit and attitude.

Bangladesh has a mechanism for constant dialogue with its development partners. These partners are sometimes critical about the Government and if these criticisms are found justified, corrective measures are taken by the Government. The Government of Bangladesh is sovereign and acts on the basis of its own priorities.


T.D.L.: A few months before the general elections, the religious fundamentalism issue is more than ever in the centre of the debates in Bangladesh – the third biggest Muslim country in the world. Regarding the unprecedented wave of attacks of 17th August 2005, how does the government apprehend the challenge of terrorism and what is its strategy to eradicate the terrorist networks in the country? How would you assess the terrorists’ capacity to prejudice the next electoral process, and more generally, the institutional and identity foundations of the State of Bangladesh?


H.E.M.H.: First of all let me make it very clear, that there is no religious fundamentalism in Bangladesh. Bangladesh is a moderate and open society with an excellent record of communal harmony. The Constitution of Bangladesh ensures the rights of all citizens to religious freedom.

In August 2005, some criminal bigots – in the name of religion – have been involved in small bomb attacks on the administration and the general public. The Government has already banned these groups and has succeeded in arresting all the main perpetrators. The judicial process has convicted the top perpetrators. Thirty-three of them have been sentenced to death, while several others have been sentenced to life imprisonment. Since the arrests of these criminals, there has not been any case of bombing in the country. There is no complacence and the Government is determined to root out the extremist elements from Bangladesh. Religious fundamentalism cannot sustain itself in a democratic society. Bangladesh is truly democratic.


T.D.L.: In spite of a sustained annual growth of 5% for four years, Bangladesh is still facing a clear worsening of the social inequalities. What measures are being considered to check the impoverishment of the country?


H.E.M.H.: Bangladesh has opted for free market system linked with the global economy. Bangladesh is also firmly committed to accelerating economic growth and reducing poverty. The GDP growth rate for 2006 was 6.7%. It is true that there are income disparities, which is symptomatic of any free market economy. No society can eliminate social disparities entirely. However, the Government of Bangladesh has taken bold steps to reduce this phenomenon by investing more and more in education, healthcare, human resource development and empowerment of women.

The country has made commendable progress in terms of income generation and reduction of human poverty. The concept of micro-credit was born in Bangladesh. This is an economic model for creating livelihoods for the poor, especially the women. The pioneering work of Grameen Bank has been extended into different areas of income generation. It has been providing credit to the poor without any collateral. These innovative projects have indeed helped in reducing the income disparities and have been empowering the womenfolk of Bangladesh.

Bangladesh has received wide appreciation for making remarkable progress in several Millennium Development Goals. If you look at the recent statistics on Bangladesh by World Bank, Asian Development Bank, UNDP and others – you will see it for yourself. Once Bangladesh succeeds in creating more employment opportunities these disparities will be reduced further. For this reason, the government has put greater emphasis on the flow of FDI and export than that on the economic assistance.


T.D.L.: The vigour of the economy of Bangladesh, supported by a private sector described as a “real internal dynamism”, rests on an important internal demand and a good performance of exportations. How would you describe the economic assets of your country? Which sectors are favoured in the development strategy of Bangladesh? Which initiatives can help improve the business sector?


H.E.M.H.: Indeed, more than 70% of the economy in Bangladesh is in the private sector, which is dynamic and innovative. The policy of the Government is to support the private sector, which is driving force of the economy.

The ready made garments (RMG) sector has made tremendous progress over the past three decades, in both forward and backward linkages. RMG now contributes more than 70% of Bangladesh’s export basket, accounting for more than 7.5 billion dollars in exports. This is a sector which we believe will attract more foreign investment and also help the development of other related industries.

If you speak about economic assets – I shall mention the gas sector in Bangladesh. Massive investments have been made in this sector and its contribution to the GDP is on the increase.

In order to improve the exports of Bangladesh – what is needed most is the free flow of trade and access to different markets in the developed economies. Despite being a member of WTO – Bangladesh’s exports suffer because of different kinds of tariffs and above all non-tariff barriers (NTB) imposed by the developed economies. These obstacles to exports need to be abolished for counties like Bangladesh to break the cycle of poverty and underdevelopment.


T.D.L.: A good part of Bangladesh is enclosed within the North-East of India, but it has a strategic position, at the crossroads of the Indian sub-continent and of South-East Asia. How can the regional integration further the development of the national infrastructures? What projects or what methods are advocated to do so? What do you expect from the free trade agreement of South Asia (SAFTA) that came into force on 1st July 2006?


H.E.M.H.: Bangladesh is bordered by India on three sides. The North-Eastern region of India is grossly underdeveloped compared to other parts of India. It is a landlocked region bordering Bangladesh.

As for SAFTA, it has entered into effect, as per the Agreement, on 1 July 2006. The process of tariff reduction has begun. It is scheduled that by 31 December 2008, tariff for goods from four SAARC LDCs (Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, the Maldives) to other SAARC countries (Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka) would be reduced to 0% – 5% level. Similarly, the SAARC LDCs are scheduled to reduce their tariff level to the same extent by 2015. Alongside, all the member states have ratified the Agreement and also three trade facilitating agreements – on avoidance of double taxation, cooperation in customs matters, arbitration council – have been signed. The SAFTA Ministerial Council has also been constituted to monitor the Agreement’s implementation.

These indeed herald a new era for SAARC. We are also initiating a Study on inclusion of Trade and Services in SAFTA. It is expected that full implementation of SAFTA would result in increased trade and investment within the region and also make South Asia a more attractive investment destination for the international investors.


T.D.L.: Founded in 1985 on the proposal of the former President Ziaur Rahman, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) still has difficulties to find a real dynamism of construction. While the latest summit took place in Dhaka in November 2005, how can the cohesion in South Asia be reinforced? How does your country, in partnership with the other State members, intend to contribute to the stabilization and economic integration of Afghanistan, which is part of the SAARC since the Summit of Dhaka?


H.E.M.H.: Regional cooperation in South Asia has gone through various stages over the past decades. When Bangladesh mooted the idea of SAARC in the early eighties, and the late President of Bangladesh Ziaur Rahman approached each of the South Asian leaders, our objective had been to optimally harness the economic potential of the South Asian countries. Since the inception in 1985, Bangladesh has always played a key role in steering the regional cooperation agenda across different sectors. At different stages, we got around the SAARC member states to join innovative endeavors, for instance in areas like poverty alleviation.

I ought to say that over the past few years, SAARC agenda has drawn a greater attention and engagement of the member states, particularly as one considers the outcome of the past two Summits i.e. 12th Summit (Islamabad, 2004) and 13th Summit (Dhaka, 2005). The Summit in Dhaka has particularly been a milestone one : Agreement on South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) and three trade facilitating agreements were concluded; an umbrella financing mechanism “SAARC Development Fund (SDF)” has since been operationalised; a 300 million dollar SAARC Poverty Alleviation Fund is coming up; twenty-two SAARC Development Goals (SDGs) have been launched for attainment by 2015. These aside, we would be observing the Year 2007 as the Year of Green South Asia, Decade of 2006-2015 as the Decade of Poverty Alleviation. Furthermore, collaborative activities during SAARC’s third decade will be pursued with a more result-oriented focus. We have accordingly been able to articulate a Vision document for the Third Decade which will be launched at the 14th Summit (New Delhi, April 2007). Our ultimate objective remains to progress towards a Customs Union leading to a South Asian Economic Union in the coming decades.

Such renewed engagement has seen Afghanistan joining SAARC as the eighth member. The Afghan Foreign Minister attended the SAARC Council of Ministers Meeting in Dhaka for the first time. It has also been decided to accept China, Japan, Republic of Korea and the European Union into SAARC as Observers. They would all be attending the 14th Summit in 2007.

Clearly, SAARC is poised for a deeper integration through various collaborative endeavours. In all our undertakings – be that improving the connectivity, social situation or, harnessing potential in energy, trade and investment – Bangladesh’s approach has been to set the framework and agenda to bring direct benefits to the common people. My hope is therefore to see SAARC emerge gradually as “People’s SAARC”.

As far as Afghanistan is concerned and her economic integration with SAARC member states, the efforts would begin soon. All the SAARC member states are keen to contribute to upliftment of the social and physical infrastructure of the brotherly country. In our individual capacity, a number of Bangladeshi NGOs and hundreds of aid professionals are already involved in Afghanistan. At the same time, as soon as Afghanistan is able to join the SAFTA, significant trade and investment opportunities will also be created in that country.


T.D.L.: The official visit of the Prime Minister Khaleda Zia in New Delhi in March 2006 allowed to revive the cooperation between Bangladesh and India, with the signature of two agreements against drug traffic and on the extension of the bilateral trade. How these progresses will allow Bangladesh to settle various problems with India?


H.E.M.H.: Prime Minister Khaleda Zia visited India in March 2006. Earlier in February 2006, she also visited Pakistan. As Chairperson of SAARC, Begum Khaleda Zia needed to consult her counterparts in these countries on how to accelerate the process of economic integration. Both the visits were highly productive.

The signing of the “Revised Agreement on Trade” will help remove the bottlenecks in trade and commerce between Bangladesh and India.

The “Agreement on Mutual Cooperation for Prevention of Illicit Trafficking of Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances” will help the law enforcing agencies in both countries to deal with trafficking of drugs more effectively. This in turn will help reduce the crimes related to drugs in the region.

The signing of these Agreements is evidence that both the countries want to move forward through dialogue and negotiations. With India, Bangladesh has manifold relationship. Bangladesh and India have been constantly negotiating on different issues that directly affect the bilateral relations of the two countries.


T.D.L.: In 2005, China established itself as the main supplier of Bangladesh – for the first time before India. What does this evolution of the foreign trade convey? More generally, how do you analyse the low level of exchanges between the SAARC countries and the tendency of India to turn more and more to the ASEAN? Which part can China play in South Asia?


H.E.M.H.: Indeed, China as a close neighbour has established itself as the main supplier of Bangladesh. This I believe is normal for the two countries who are members of WTO. Countries engage in trade if it is mutually beneficial.

Bangladesh has also successfully negotiated duty free access for a number of Bangladeshi exportables into China. China is also engaged in the implementation of several major infrastructural projects in Bangladesh.

The reason for the low level of exchange between the SAARC Countries was because of the high rates of tariffs on the exportables of the other South Asian Countries. This trend will now be reversed with the implementation of SAFTA.

Bangladesh has now become a member of the “Asian Regional Forum” (ARF) and will have more economic and commercial relations with ASEAN. India having the largest economy in South Asia, finds it natural to have commercial links with ASEAN.

Bangladesh is very happy to see China joining SAARC. China recognized the burgeoning potential of the SAARC member states individually and SAARC as a dynamic regional cooperation organization. It has been quite some years that China conveyed its interest to associate itself with SAARC. We recognized that our interaction with China spans over a long time and has been growing further in recent times in various respects. China has also been playing an important role in development cooperation in the region. At the 13th Summit (Dhaka, 2005) all the South Asian Heads of State/Government thus welcomed the interest expressed by China as an Observer. We believe, as China joins SAARC, a new era could begin in terms of concrete, project-based collaboration between SAARC and China in a number of areas of mutual interest.


T.D.L.: Bangladesh is the first troops-contributing country for the peace operations of the United-Nations and poses as a major partner of the international community. What is your vision on the United Nations reform? Your country belongs to the least developed countries (LDCs) and is the most important of them for the number of inhabitants; what does Bangladesh plan to propose during its presidency to the U.N. Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC)?


H.E.M.H.: I have already mentioned that Bangladesh strongly believes in maintenance of peace among nations.

Bangladesh Armed Forces, police and civilian officials are now serving as UN Peacekeepers in 12 countries involving more than ten thousand troops, which makes it the highest troops contributing country for UN Peacekeeping Operations. Because of our firm conviction, Bangladesh has been selected as a member of the “UN Peace Building Commission”, which is a recognition of our contribution to World Peace.

With regard to UN reforms, Bangladesh believes that it should be made stronger, more effective and result oriented. Bangladesh does not support an expansion plan purely based on “equitable geographic representation”; rather it supports expansion of the UN Security Council membership based on a member states’ commitment to the UN. The UN should also address the development and environmental issues – particularly those that affect the developing countries.

Bangladesh is currently serving a two-year term in the ECOSOC and has made important contributions to its work. Bangladesh will complete its term in December 2006.


T.D.L.: The first visit of a European troika in Dhaka in January 2006 enabled to relaunch the political dialogue between Bangladesh and the European Union, which is the first trade partner of your country. What are the main cooperation axes established by Brussels and Dhaka ?


H.E.M.H.: Relations between Bangladesh and the European Commission were first set-up in 1973. European Commission has a full-fledged Delegation in Dhaka since 1982. Bangladesh and the Commission have signed three Agreements with broad scope of cooperation on the following areas:

– Basic human and social services (food, health, primary health care and education).

– Human and social development.

– Economic progress. (capacity building in trade, economic development issues, etc).

Bangladesh receives technical and project assistance in the three areas mentioned above. European Commission is an important development partner of Bangladesh. There is constant dialogue between the EC and Bangladesh.

European Union member countries are the largest destinations for Bangladeshi exports and accounted for around 55% of our total export globally. From July 2005 to June 2006, total exports from Bangladesh to the European Union countries stood at 4.62 billion dollars.


T.D.L.: The two Alliance françaises schools and the archaeological mission of Mahasthangarh are good examples of the traditionally good relationships between Bangladesh and France. Beyond these cultural achievements, how would you define the cooperation between the two countries? The Minister of Foreign Affairs came to Paris on 24th April 2006; in which fields did he want to give a new impetus? How does the recent investment of the group Lafarge – the most important French investment apart from the gas sector – attest to the development potential of the trade exchanges between the two countries?


H.E.M.H.: Bangladesh and France enjoy excellent bilateral relations. France has provided important moral support during our war of liberation. I would particularly recall the contributions of French Philosopher Andre Malraux who raised massive public opinion and support in France and around the world for the people of Bangladesh during the war.

Economic relations between Bangladesh and France are also quite close. France is an important market for Bangladeshi exports. In 2005-2006 Bangladesh exported goods worth 809 million dollars to France. France has now emerged as an investor in Bangladesh. Several companies – Lafarge, Alcatel, Adhipress, Carrefour, Total, Aventis Pharma, Casino, etc – are engaged in trade and commerce in Bangladesh. A joint venture of French company Danone and Grameen of Bangladesh is expected to start production of dairy products in Bangladesh in November this year and French football icon Zinedine Zidane is expected to open the ceremony in Bangladesh.

The Alliance Francaises in Dhaka and Chittagong are important cultural centres. They are engaged in showcasing French culture in Bangladesh. These centres also organize Bangladeshi cultural events and have emerged as centres of cultural exchange.

Bangladesh is an old civilization and has many historical sites. Bangladesh and France have signed an Agreement for cooperation in the field of Archaeology in 2002. Under this Agreement French Archaeologists are working in Mahasthangarh. They made interesting discoveries and are helping our Museum experts in the preservation of Bangladesh’s ancient heritage.

An Exhibition of Bangladesh heritage of sculpture, statues and historical artifacts will be held in Paris in autumn 2007. The Exhibition is going to be organized jointly by Musee Guimet of Paris and Bangladesh National Museum.
When Mr. M. Morshed Khan, Foreign Minister of Bangladesh visited Paris from 23-25 April 2006 he met his counterpart Mr. Philippe Douste-Blazy, Foreign Minister of France. The two Ministers discussed bilateral issues of cooperation. Bangladesh has requested for easy access of her goods to the French market. Mr. Khan also invited Mr. Douste-Blazy to visit Bangladesh and be present at the inauguration of the Lafarge Cement Plant in November 2006. The setting up of such a large factory in Bangladesh eloquently speaks about the foreign investment climate in Bangladesh and also the significant economic progress that Bangladesh has made over the last three decades.
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