Bangladesh's strengths, weaknesses, opportunities highlighted to move towards brighter future

Dutch Ambassador to Bangladesh Anne van Leeuwen has described the coming years and decades as "very promising" in terms of cooperation with Bangladesh with the larger involvement of the private sector keeping in mind the transition from aid to trade.

While delivering his keynote speech on "Bangladesh-Netherlands Relations: Prognosis for the Future" he identified the strengths, weaknesses and opportunities in Bangladesh and laid emphasis on addressing those to move towards a brighter future on a win-win basis.

"So we are seeing the coming years and even decades very, very promising for a closer cooperation in the field of agri food and water management with a larger involvement of the private sector," said ambassador Leeuwen.

Cosmos Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the Cosmos Group, hosted the dialogue as part of its ongoing Ambassador's Lecture Series on July 21.

The opening remarks were delivered by Cosmos Foundation Executive Director Nahar Khan. The session was chaired by Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury, a renowned scholar-diplomat and former Advisor on Foreign Affairs of Bangladesh Caretaker Government.

Professors at Department of International Relations, University of Dhaka Dr Amena Mohsin and Dr Lailufar Yasmin; and Honorary Advisor Emeritus, Cosmos Foundation Ambassador (Retd) Tariq A Karim comprised the panel of discussants.

Nahar Khan said the Netherlands and Bangladesh have maintained an enduring friendship over the past 50 years and continue to share deep ties.

There was a significant Dutch role in Bangladesh's early infrastructural development, water management and food security efforts, she said.

Khan mentioned that the Bangladesh Delta Plan 2100 provides a key entry point for future collaboration between the two countries.

At the fourth round of Foreign Office Consultations (FOC) between representatives of the two governments, she said, both sides acknowledged the evolving nature of the bilateral relationship with the shift from development cooperation to economic cooperation.

"I believe the importance of this recognition cannot be overstated. And the future direction of our ties must be anchored in this realization in order to reap the full potential of the bilateral relationship in the days to come," Khan said.

Echoing Nahar Khan, Dr Iftekhar Chowdhury said the Bangladesh Delta Plan 2100 remains a key focal point of future collaboration between Bangladesh and the Netherlands.

Dutch expertise on waterworks will not only assist us to be a delta resilient blue economy, but also help agricultural production which will acquire great significance in the post-Ukraine war future economy, he said.

Dr Chowdhury said the Dutch and the Bengalis have a historical relationship that dates back centuries that involved both politics and trade.

"Unsurprisingly, upon Bangladesh's independence, our diplomatic relations began almost immediately, within two months of our nascence," he said, adding that the Netherlands was a key OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) development cooperation partner.

Despite diversity in endowments and capacities, the common aspirations of resilience, adaptation and innovation in challenging the vagaries of nature led to bonding of values, said the prominent foreign affairs expert.

Dr Lailafur Yasmin identified three particular strengths that Bangladesh has which they often fail to recognise.

She finds the number one strength is the maritime sector and noted that Bangladesh now stands as a blessing of geography.

Dr Lailafur said Bangladesh can provide access to the landlocked territories of Northeast India; Bangladesh's ports - Mongla port and Chattogram port - can sort of provide access to other landlocked countries of this region, Nepal and Bhutan. "So here Bangladesh holds a huge strategic potential by being able to provide access to the Bay of Bengal for these landlocked regions."

She said the second strength is the land-centric importance of Bangladesh while number three is something that demography as natural resources.

Dr Lailafur said Bangladesh needs positive PR in the international media as the ambassador started by saying about the image crisis that Bangladesh suffers from.

"I believe that we need more positive engagement that we have with the Netherlands and we need to flourish it in the long run," she said.

Dr Amena Mohsin said the construction of the Padma Bridge with internal resources has brightened the country's image.

"The ambassador talked about the image issue. Yes, I agree that Bangladesh suffers from an image issue. But one has to also look at the history of Bangladesh and its political history...the kind of history that Bangladesh inherited, is quite different from the history that the West has," she said.

Dr Amena also recalled that Bangladesh was portrayed negatively by the West after its birth in1971, "From there, I would say that we could build the Padma Bridge with our own money. So, I think we have fought back for that image crisis in a big way."

She admitted that the country is facing some problems relating to governance issues like the shrinking spaces for civil society. "We do agree that constraints are there and we're trying to work on it."

The noted international affairs analyst said the media can play a major role in building a good image of the country by highlighting the positive stories and portraying the everyday struggles of people's lives.

Regarding the Rohingya issue, Dr Amena said the Netherlands has supported Bangladesh in dealing with the problem, and it stands for International accountability, through ICJ and ICC.

"It's unbelievable that a country like Bangladesh with this kind of enormous burden of the population is hosting 1.1 million Rohingya people," she said, noting that a comprehensive approach is necessary to resolve the Rohingya crisis.

"We talk about the securitysation of the refugee issue. But one has to be very mindful of the fact that this is also a very strategically important area for Bangladesh. The international community has to take into cognizance the kind of challenges that Bangladesh is facing," Dr Amena said.

Talking about the Delta Plan, Tariq Karim said they have to learn how to do their diplomacy in a manner that they can ensure that Delta does not die.

"If the source of the Delta dies, we die. If we die today, we are 170 million people, what will be the population if the Delta Plan does not succeed," he said.

The former diplomat said these Ukrainian crises are not going to end - whatever the optimistic prognosis is in Europe or elsewhere, is going to drag on, and it is going to have an effect on all of them in one way or the other.

He said it is already having gas prices, energy costs and prices; and that will be transcended into food and into transportation. "So we will have to learn to cope with this."

"Now it is for you to figure out where you can help us - I think the other participants have mentioned a couple of good areas. Yes, the digital divide, you need to help us to cover that, and that will speed up the process of what we have been going through for the last 50 years," said Tariq Karim.

The Dutch envoy said it is important for them to find close cooperation in the region - Indo Pacific - with like-minded democracies and countries with open market economies that they feel are their natural allies.

"And in the first place, Bangladesh fits into that category. And I think what we are also having in common with Bangladesh," he said.

The ambassador said there is so much that the two countries have in common there is so much that they recognize and that is the landscape in the geography.

Looking back to friendship and cooperation, he said those 50 years of course have been the first decades really on the basis of official development assistance to Bangladesh.

"We have always seen Bangladesh as a partner here. Bangladesh has always been in the top of the recipients of official development assistance. And now Bangladesh is on the brink of graduating to a middle income country which means that we have to recalibrate in the next coming years," said the envoy.

Highlighting Bangladesh's strengths, the envoy said Bangladesh is one of the fastest growing economies in the Indo Pacific and it has relative political stability, a large workforce and a demographic dividend.

There is strong infrastructure and a very strong and growing consumer market due to its expanding middle class, he said.

The Dutch envoy mentioned the lack of diversification of the economy as a weakness. "I mean, 80 or 90% of the export basket is still in RMG. So that's absolutely a weakness", he added.

The long lead time for shipping of products is something that they see as a challenge.

Also, among other challenges, are the low ranking of Bangladesh in terms of the ease of doing business and the perception of corruption, he observed.

In response to a query from the Chair, the ambassador also addressed the subject of market-access into Europe following graduation from the list of Least Developed Countries, and the need to overcome some of the aforesaid constraints to facilitate that.

On opportunities, he said, "I think they are remarkable. There are opportunities being created by the government."

The Dutch envoy said he is absolutely convinced that it will be a very beneficial cooperation where Bangladesh and the Netherlands will benefit as they always try to strive for a win-win situation. "We are partners in trying to find common ground and to work together in a win-win situation."

With inputs from Abdur Rahman Jahangir, Anisul Islam and Md. Ishtiak Hossain

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