Dhaka is ready to contribute to Emirates’ food security programme through uninterrupted supply of food items, providing skilled farmers

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Photo: Supplied

Published: Mon 7 Mar 2022, 7:26 PM

Last updated: Mon 7 Mar 2022, 7:50 PM

The longest-serving woman leader in the world, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, will commence an official visit to the UAE from Tuesday. She is expected to meet the rulers, visit the Expo 2020 Dubai and witness signing of several major agreements.

PM Hasina hopes the bilateral relations with the UAE are elevated to a comprehensive economic partnership.

A joint business council will be launched as Bangladesh eyes increased cooperation from the UAE, Sheikh Hasina told Khaleej Times in an exclusive interview.

Edited excerpts:

In line with your vision 2021, Bangladesh received the UN General Assembly approval to graduate from the least developed country (LDC) category to the developing country grouping in 2026. What were the major steps taken to realise this achievement?

Bangladesh received the final recommendation to graduate from the group of LDC in February 2021. We have a five-year preparatory period to make our graduation smooth and sustainable.

Bangladesh has made this achievement on a solid economic foundation. Our government took initiatives to build a human-centred, inclusive modern democracy as envisioned by the Father of the Nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. We have invested heavily in our people to lift them out of poverty and to make them empowered to carry out the development journey of the country. We have been pursuing inclusive economic growth by implementing novel policies like the Vision 2021 and Vision 2041, eighth Five Year Plan, Delta Plan 2100, ‘Mujib Climate Prosperity Plan’ and so on.

What will be your roadmap for development and core areas of focus in the post-pandemic world?

In the coming days, our main thrust would be to bring the economy back on track while coping with the virus variants. As we focus on the Agenda: 2030, our main thrust would be to ensure the core principles of Sustainable Development: ‘inclusiveness’ and ‘leaving no one behind’.

To that end, the main focus areas would be: Build a resilient and sustained health system in my country; ensure full vaccination to all my people; ensure an effective vaccine procurement supply line; the possibility of manufacturing/producing Covid-19 vaccine domestically; bring the momentum of our impressive GDP growth back; revive airways industry/hotel/tourism/service industry; strengthen the ICT sector to cope with the new normal situation; deliver on the 2030 promise timely and continue taking special care of the most marginal and vulnerable segment of the people as well as the middle class of the society who suffered most during the pandemic and are still suffering.

How is the country preparing to weather the impacts when trade concessions offered as an LDC would be withdrawn?

Bangladesh rail project. Photo: Supplied

Bangladesh rail project. Photo: Supplied

Graduation will bring both challenges and opportunities for us. First of all, graduation will surely enhance our image in the world and help our campaign of branding our country.

The improved business climate in the country will eventually attract a higher flow of foreign direct investment (FDI) and generate employment. With graduation and strong financial indicators, Bangladesh will have more opportunities to secure commercial loans from the international market at a competitive interest rate.

The current mega projects which are under construction in Bangladesh like Padma Bridge, Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant, Karnaphuli Tunnel, Payra Port, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Industrial City, Terminal-3 of Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport, Metro Rail, etc. will be completed soon. Upon completion, these mega projects will hugely increase the business competitiveness of Bangladesh, offsetting any possible challenge faced from the LDC graduation.

It is true that Bangladesh will face some challenges due to the withdrawal of the LDC-specific International Support Measures (ISMs) after graduation. For Bangladesh, the trade-related ISMs are the most important ones, in particular duty-free and quota-free (DFQF) market access along with flexible Rules of Origin. After graduation from the LDC status, Bangladesh will no longer remain eligible for the DFQF facilities.

However, Bangladesh’s economy is well prepared to cushion out any short-term pressure faced from the LDC graduation. You are aware that though Bangladesh is not receiving any tariff benefit from the US for its garments products, it is one of the top exporters of RMG (ready-made garments) in the US, which shows the resilience of Bangladesh’s export industry whether it receives any preferential support or not.

What are the key strategies to realise your vision of transforming Bangladesh into a developed country by 2041?

Bangladesh metro project. Photo: Supplied

Bangladesh metro project. Photo: Supplied

Vision 2041 articulates Bangladesh’s vision to attain upper middle income country status by 2031 and a developed nation by 2041. Our economy is transforming from agriculture based to a more manufacturing based one. Apart from RMG, Bangladesh is exporting electronics, pharmaceuticals, processed agricultural products, leather products. We have the second biggest online workforce in the world.

We are gradually diversifying our economy to a broader range of export products. By doing so, we are in the process of establishing 100 economic zones by 2030 to encourage foreign direct investment in different categories of industries. We have already received investment from Japan, EU, Canada, Korea, China, India, US, Singapore, Thailand among others.

Our strategy in this regard is to make this country a regional business hub by taking advantage of its geographical position. To make this happen, we have undertaken dozens of transformational mega projects on infrastructure such as Padma Bridge, deep seaport, metro rail, nuclear power plant, rail link, airport, elevated expressway, four-lane highways etc. I hope our economy will experience double digit growth very soon.

As Bangladesh and the UAE are both marking their golden jubilees, how have bilateral relations evolved over the past years, and what’s the agenda for this visit and outlook for future cooperation?

Bangladesh rail project. Photo: Supplied

Bangladesh rail project. Photo: Supplied

Bangladesh gained its independence and the UAE was founded in the same year of 1971 and since then the fraternal relations between the two countries expanded and consolidated in different sectors.

The foundation of the relationship between the two countries was laid by the Father of the Nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman during his historic visit to the UAE in 1974. The people of Bangladesh fondly remember the 10-day visit of the UAE’s Founding Father Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan to Bangladesh in 1984 that took the bilateral relations to a new height.

Current annual trade volume between Bangladesh and UAE is around $1.5 billion. The UAE is presently the fifth largest foreign investor in Bangladesh investing nearly $2.5 billion.

On the eve of celebrating the Golden Jubilee of both of our nationhood, it is the high time to take our relationship to a new height. I am aware of the UAE’s centennial vision 2071 and Initiatives of the next 50. We also have Vision 2041 and Delta Plan 2100.

To realise the above-mentioned development targets and visions, Bangladesh is keen to work together with the UAE by establishing a ‘comprehensive economic partnership’ with a view to tapping maximum mutual benefit from huge potentials the two countries offer to each other.

Bangladesh mega project. Photo: Supplied

Bangladesh mega project. Photo: Supplied

We need huge investments in human resource development, physical infrastructure, power, energy, manufacturing, and service sectors. UAE investors are welcome to invest more in Bangladesh in the fields of physical infrastructure like construction of tunnels, bridges and other communication networks, power and energy, agro-food processing, tourism, blue economy, scientific research and innovation, artificial intelligence and other potential sectors.

We are ready to contribute to the UAE’s food security programme through uninterrupted supply of food items from Bangladesh with engagement of the UAE authorities in every stage of the supply chain from production to processing to shipment. We are ready for participation in the UAE’s leased framing in third countries by providing skilled farmers to work in those farms.

Two apex trade bodies (FBCCI and UAE CCI) are going to launch Joint Business Council (JBC) during this visit. And that it will comprise sector-wise leading business leaders from both sides.

We have a lot to offer in the UAE job market. We would welcome the technical and financial support from the UAE for skill development of our work force following the sector-based needs of the UAE job market. We look forward to working with the UAE in non-conventional areas like artificial intelligence, digital integration, financial management etc.

Bangladesh enjoys a high level of remittances from expatriate workers. How is the government creating a workforce with skills for the future?

We have initiated a plan to create a huge technologically skilled workforce keeping in consideration the requirements of Fourth Industrial Revolution. The government is currently training the workforce in six Institute of Marine Technology and in 55 types of trades in 64 Technical Training Institutes (TTIs) countrywide.

In FY 2020-21, we have provided skills development training to 300,000 people. For women workers to be employed in the RMG sector, we are providing women workers six-month long training in the TTIs. We are running training programmes for those who want to take up domestic help jobs abroad.

Our Technical Education Board has included 8 new trades in its training curriculum and 9 new trades have been included in the scheme titled Skills for Employment Investment Programme. The government is training up to 200,000 people to take up driving jobs.

What are measures taken to ensure women empowerment and improve living standards of citizens?

Free education for girls up to Grade 12, stipends, free textbooks, sustained training, skill development programme, collateral free credits are some of our strategies that have opened up immense opportunities for economic empowerment of women. Initiatives, such as a one-stop crisis centre, DNA profiling lab, toll free 24/7 hotlines have offered women and girls increased protection from violence. We have also prioritised ICT for women empowerment. My country pledged to increase women’s participation in the workforce leading to 50-50 by 2041.

Bangladesh is promoting an inclusive growth strategy, focusing on sustained economic growth and human development. Our government has adopted strong Social Safety Net Programmes (SSNP). Education stipends, adult allowances, maternal allowances, allowances for the widow, deserted and destitute women, My-house-My-farm project, Ashrayan (shelter) project, food-for-work programme, life enhancement programmes for the disadvantaged population, lifelong development programmes for the transgender people, Vulnerable Group Development, and Char livelihood programme are being implemented under SSNP. The government is in the process of finalising the National Household Database to streamline the selection process of beneficiaries of different social protection programmes.

How Bangladesh aims to tackle the crisis of climate change and work on Sustainable Development Goals?

Despite being a climate vulnerable country, Bangladesh has placed much emphasis both in policy and action in ground for addressing climate change impacts. Before the COP26 that was held in Glasgow in November, we had submitted an updated and more ambitious Nationally Determined Contribution to the UNFCCC aiming at significantly reducing the carbon footprint. We are working on formulation of a National Adaptation Plan, which will enhance the climate resilience of the country.

We are going to implement the ‘Mujib Climate Prosperity Plan’ to achieve low carbon economic growth for optimised prosperity and partnership.

We have achieved remarkable success in providing access to electricity to over 20 million people by installing more than 6 million solar-home systems – the largest of this kind in the world.

As the current Chair of the Climate Vulnerable Forum, we are promoting the interests of the climate vulnerable countries in the international platforms.

Based on the success of the implementation of many of the Millennium Development Goals targets, Bangladesh has adopted the Whole-of-the-Society approach for implementation of SDGs. We have involved government machinery, NGOs, INGOs, civil society, development partners, private sector, businesspeople, academia, professionals, local authority, Members of Parliament, and other relevant stakeholders to implement the SDGs.

What does the future hold for Myanmar’s Rohingya refugees in the camps of Cox’s Bazar?

We have been trying our best, with the support of the international community, to ensure safety and wellbeing of the Rohingya. We developed an island called Bhasan Char with proper amenities, spending about $350 million from our own resources to de-risk and decongest the squalid camps in Cox’s Bazar. After the exodus of 2017, Bangladesh again primarily relied on bilateral engagements with Myanmar and concluded three instruments on return. According to the arrangements, Myanmar agreed to ensure safe return of the Rohingya to their homes, facilitate freedom of movement, basic services and livelihood. In the backdrop of frustrating progress in the bilateral engagements Bangladesh took it up at the global community. Bangladesh engaged China under an informal tripartite mechanism to commence the repatriation. The political developments in Myanmar since February 1, 2021, and the ongoing instability have stalled all the process.

Myanmar might not fully comply with its obligations to ensure protection and sustained return of Rohingya unless it is compelled to do so through an effective and well-calibrated engagement on the part of the international community.

Bangladesh is not in a position to shoulder the enormous burden for an indefinite period. The ultimate solution to the problem lies in the sustainable repatriation of the Rohingya.


How do you want to be remembered?

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Photo: Supplied

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Photo: Supplied

Well, I take this as an opportunity to devote my life for the welfare of a nation which my father liberated. Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman dedicated his life to establishing a democratic, peaceful, poverty-free, hunger-exploitation and discrimination-free society. Unfortunately, before he could accomplish his dream, he, along with 18 members of our family, including my 10-year-old brother were brutally assassinated on August 15, 1975.

My life-long devotion is to realise the unfulfilled dream of my father by transforming Bangladesh into a prosperous, inclusive, knowledge-based developed country where no one will be left behind. I believe that when I will not be there, people will remember me as a faithful servant to the country who wanted nothing less than the best for the country and for the people.

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