2 years ago

Economic diplomacy: A conduit for Bangladesh's vision 2041

Padam Multipurpose Bridge is expected to boost regional connectivity and attract foreign investment to Bangladesh. 	—FE Photo
Padam Multipurpose Bridge is expected to boost regional connectivity and attract foreign investment to Bangladesh. —FE Photo

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Since my assumption of the Office of the Foreign Minister of Bangladesh, I, in fact, am bestowing special emphasis on economic diplomacy. In order to achieving Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's dream of Sonar Bangla by 2041, Hon'ble Prime Minister has outlined few roadmaps; and to help achieving those roadmaps, we have introduced two packages. One is Economic Diplomacy package and the other is Public Diplomacy package, and they reinforce each other. This event is indeed a timely initiative, also in the context that the global recovery from Covid is being made difficult by the ongoing Ukraine crisis. The crisis has shown us that, in today's interconnected world, an event anywhere affects everyone everywhere.

The architect of independent Bangladesh and Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman very well understood the importance of economic diplomacy. For a war-ravaged country, the first challenge was to achieve recognition from the international community and rebuild the economy to feed 75 million people. During that cold war era, Bangabandhu manoeuvred his foreign policy to forge a bipartisan position in matters related to international politics enabling Bangladesh to trade with both the worlds. In fact, it was due to his astute economic diplomacy that in only a period of three years- from 1972 to 1975, Bangladesh's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita almost tripled from $94 to $278 (Source: World Bank). Never did in our history we experienced such rapid development in such a short span of time.

What is Economic Diplomacy? Economic Diplomacy package has five components and these are: (1).More foreign investment, (2) More trade and export diversity, (3) Gainful employment of human resources both at home and abroad, (4) Transfer of technology, and (5) Quality services to Bangladeshi Diaspora and to others.

While our government agencies and officials will portray the success stories of Bangladesh and its potentials and opportunities, our Public Diplomacy package is designed so that global leaders, academicians, Think Tank, CEOs, MDs of credible organisations reiterate the narrative of Bangladesh's achievements and potentials.    

Bangladesh has two great resources. One is its young but huge manpower, and second, plenty of waters, rivers and rivulets. If we can fully utilise these resources, Bangladesh is sure to achieve its dream of Sonar Bangla.  In order to utilise them, we need to have more investment and trade to create employment opportunity, and we need technology transfer to optimally utilise our resources. To reinforce our Economic Diplomacy, we have introduced Public Diplomacy package. All of my colleagues and Mission heads have been advised to put additional efforts in achieving our goals of Economic Diplomacy. For Bangladesh, Economic Diplomacy is all the more important as we prepare our transition from the Least Developed Country (LDC) group in 2026. This is also an important tool in our national efforts to achieve the 2030 SDGs and 2041 goals.

During the course of last decade and a half, we have become an export powerhouse and a manufacturing and connectivity hub. From 2005-06 to 2020-2, we have recorded four times increase in our export earnings. Currently, we enjoy specialised market access that is accorded to all LDCs. However, we are well aware that we risk losing several preferential accesses due to our graduation from LDC. To offset these risks, we have already taken a number of measures. Bangladesh Missions abroad are working relentlessly to ensure post-graduation preferential access of Bangladeshi products to large markets such as GSP-plus facilities in the European Union. For example, to achieve "double transformation" to meet the RoO (Rules of Origin) criteria of the GSP-plus scheme, Bangladesh's apparel sector is already on the move to gradually strengthen its backward linkage industries. As of now, as much as 80 per cent of the country's exportable knitwear is already undergoing double transformation, while it is around 50 per cent for woven garments. Moreover, the Ministry of Commerce, teaming up with Bangladeshi Missions abroad is in the process of finalizing preferential and free trade deals with a number of countries. We have already conducted feasibility studies on 23 countries for bilateral and regional trade agreements, free trade agreement and comprehensive economic agreement. We are opening up new markets. We also have signed a few Double Taxation and Investment Protection Agreements plus a few are work in progress. We have also set up a dedicated Trade & ICT Wing in the Ministry to help facilitate both business and public sector to achieve the above goals. In addition, we have created an office to oversee and monitor the activities and achievements of our Missions abroad.

Steps are afoot to diversify our export basket by prioritising sectors such as ceramic industry, ship-wrecking industry, agriculture, cement industry, pharmaceutical industry, blue economy and knowledge-driven industries such as IT. Bangladesh is now exporting robots to South Korea, ships to India and pharmaceuticals to Europe. With 650,000 registered IT freelancers - the largest freelancing community in the world, Bangladesh is now vying for a sizeable foothold in the international IT market. In 2020-21, amidst the pandemic, we managed to earn around $ 436 million by exporting digital devices. In 2022, as part of encouraging product-wise export, our Hon'ble Prime Minister has declared "ICT Products and Services" as "Product of the Year".

Attracting Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) has always been a cornerstone of our economic diplomacy. Currently as the world's eighth most populous country, Bangladesh's stable growth and political stabilityhas raised tens of millions to 'middle class and affluence' status. Apart from being a booming domestic market, we are also a strategic hub linking India, China and the ASEAN countries. Today, Bangladesh has the most liberal investment regime in the region, characterised by a wide array of facilities, attractive incentive policies and consistent reforms. Investment development is one of the ten Special Initiatives of the Hon'ble Prime Minister. 100 Special Economic Zones (SEZs) and 28 High-Tech Parks are being created with a view to encouraging investment and rapid economic development through increase and diversification of industry, employment, production and export. We have implemented mega projects to accelerate the growth of industries and to take full advantage of our strategic location. Padma Bridge, the country's longest bridge is set to be inaugurated on June 25 this year, fulfilling the decades-long desire of the people, particularly those from the southern districts. The double-decker bridge -- a four-lane road on top and broad-gauge single rail track on the bottom -- is expected to boost the country's GDP by 1.2 to 2 per cent. With 70 per cent of our population aged below forty and 2.3 million young professionals entering the workforce every year, we are suitably poised to support rapid industrialisation through foreign investments. In addition, initiatives have been taken to help improving "ease of doing business" and removing barriers to establishment of factories and business enterprises. We would like to make Bangladesh a manufacturing hub of the world. 

Being at the doorstep of the fourth industrial revolution- for Bangladesh, there is no option but to make right choices and take adequate preparation so that our youth can fully exploit the advantage of technologies. For successful transfer of critical technologies, it is imperative to provide our youth with quality education and improved skills training. Initiatives have been taken to make our youth technology shabby. Around 83,000 thousand schools in the country have been provided with ICT devices and about 3,27,000 teachers have been trained up in the use of ICT tools. Sheikh Russel Digital Labs have been set up in schools for young students to have hands on digital device. We have also taken steps to modernize faith based education. We have prioritized technical education. Enrolment to technical education has experienced significant rise from 1.0 per cent in 2009 to 17.14 per cent in 2020. To increase the female enrolment in TVET (Technical and Vocational Education and Training) the admission quota for female students has been increased from 10 per cent to 20 per cent. As a result of these steps in primary, secondary, faith-based, plus technical and tertiary education, the overall literacy rate in the country has experienced significant rise from 56.8 per cent in 2010 to 75.6 per cent in 2020.

The Government is working relentlessly to provide skills training and education with a view to create opportunities for gainful employment both home and abroad. Wide network of Social Protection Programmes such as Employment Generation Programme for the Poorest, Food/Cash for Works Programme, Skills for Employment and Investment Programme have been developed. We, Bangladeshis- being naturally resilient, know that opportunity to work is all we need and from there on we can surely forge our own destiny.

During the time of our birth experts labelled our destiny as a'bottomless basket with no hope of survival'. 50 years down the line- defying all odds, Bangladesh is now a vibrant economy, a land of opportunity. You will be happy to know that Bangladesh is currently the 41st largest economy in the world, and set to become the 25th largest economy by 2035. In fact, during the course of our journey of first 50 years, we have made it a habit to churn out wonders from impossible situations. From a land known for famines and food-aid dependency; we have surpassed food sufficiency and emerged as one of the largest global producers of rice, vegetables, and inland fisheries- to name a few. A Muslim majority country that was predicted to be plagued by "religiously based hatreds" by well-known outlets like the Wall Street Journal, Bangladesh has become the beacon of religious harmony in this region and emerged as the only country in the world where more women have held head-of-government positions than men in the past 50 years. No wonder, Wall Street Journal termed it a standard bearer of the South, a model of economic development. A country, one-seventh of whose population had to seek refuge in neighbouring India during 1971; Bangladesh is now globally praised due to its generosity and capacity in temporarily sheltering over a million Rohingyas on its land. A country that was known to be "controlled by nature and not by men" due to recurrent natural calamities, Bangladesh has now become a global example and a star of disaster preparedness.

If historical data is anything to go by, I am sure we will be a developed nation by 2041 and our Father of the Nation's dream of building a 'Golden Bengal' will be realised. I am confident that the vision of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina emphasising on Economic Diplomacy and its implementation by all concerned Ministries and Authorities of the Government will help realise this dream. Today, I have strong conviction that our endeavour of effectively pursuing Economic Diplomacy would also immensely contribute to our timely attainment of the 2030 SDGs. As we have lost two years due to the pandemic, time has come to further bolster our efforts. My Ministry, and our Missions abroad, is and will always remain ready to work closely and to coordinate our national efforts with all the national investment and trade authorities, ministries and business bodies. May I conclude underscoring that those who will work hard to achieve our goals, their efforts will never go in vain. They will be remembered forever in a prosperous Bangladesh.


Dr A K Abdul Momen, MP, is the Foreign Minister of the Government of Bangladesh.
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