He expects a strong investment relationship to continue once the pandemic abates

Robert Chatterton Dickson has been British High Commissioner in Dhaka since March 2019, responsible for representing the United Kingdom and leading across the British Government's priorities in Bangladesh. In an interview with Dhaka Courier (DC), High Commissioner Dickson shares his thoughts on Bangladesh-UK relationship during COVID-19 crisis and beyond.

DC: We are going through a very difficult time amid coronavirus pandemic globally. How do you see the relations today and beyond?

High Commissioner: The COVID-19 outbreak is the biggest public health emergency in a generation, with a huge impact on people everywhere and a catastrophic effect on the global economy. No country is untouched or unaffected. An effective global response is in everybody's interest and will support recovery. In the face of the COVID challenge we have been working with partners in Bangladesh to strengthen public health capacity, increase access to sanitation in deprived communities and support preparedness in the Rohingya refugee camps.

The virtual Global Vaccine Summit on 4 June, hosted by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, shows UK leadership on a key aspect of tackling the pandemic. Vaccination is always important to public health everywhere and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has a strong and internationally recognised track record of promoting it in Bangladesh.

More generally, the UK-Bangladesh relationship has been strong and deep since independence in 1971, based on a much longer history and very strong links between our peoples. I look forward to leading the UK contribution to celebrations of Bangladesh's 50th anniversary next year.

DC: What are the challenges that you foresee in post-COVID19 period when we talk about Bangladesh-UK relations?

High Commissioner: We will continue to work together on a host of issues after the pandemic. The UK and Bangladesh are international leaders on tackling climate change and will work together as we move towards the UK-hosted international climate conference, to be held in Glasgow in November 2021. Bangladesh's role as chair of the Climate Vulnerable Forum makes this partnership particularly important. We also work together as leading members of the Commonwealth, on making the most of the opportunities created by the UK's freedom to set our own trade policy outside the EU, and on finding a lasting solution to the Rohingya refugee crisis.

DC: Our RMG sector is badly affected due to supply chain disruption and fall in consumption in countries like the UK. Is there any specific initiative from the UK government so that brands keep taking clothes from Bangladesh restoring orders in place without any further cancellations?

High Commissioner: I know the COVID crisis has had a very serious impact on the Bangladesh economy, and particularly the garments sector. Companies have had to make difficult decisions. The Bangladeshi RMG sector has built very strong capability and a global reputation in recent decades. I hope these will enable it to recover quickly as the pandemic eases. Beyond the crisis, I see huge long potential in the UK-Bangladesh trade and economic relationship, especially in the high end goods services in which the UK excels.

UK-based entrepreneurs are trying to help deal with the immediate crisis. A good example is Lost Stock, who are allowing shoppers to buy a box of clothing directly from the manufacturers, with almost 40% (almost £13) of the proceeds of each box donated to Bangladesh through a non-profit organisation based here. Lost Stock's goal is to help 50,000 workers and their families by the end of the year.

DC: We have seen US' keen interest to import 25 types of products from Bangladesh amid coronavirus pandemic including PPE. Is there any such opportunity between Bangladesh and the UK?

High Commissioner: We are keen to diversify the supply chain for the UK National Health Service to make it more resilient in future and are exploring the potential of buying PPE in Bangladesh. There is already some UK sourcing of PPE from Bangladesh and we are working with industry to expand this quickly. The capability and responsiveness which make Bangladeshi companies so competitive in RMG should help them expand their PPE business.

DC: Every crisis comes with new opportunities. Does COVID-19 offer any such opportunity in our relationship?

High Commissioner: COVID-19 is unprecedented and has had an impact on health, livelihoods, and mobility in the UK and Bangladesh. But the fundamentals of the relationship between our countries - very strong people to people links, a shared history and our Commonwealth ties, a growing trade and economic relationship, working together on shared challenges like climate - remain very strong and provide an excellent platform for working closely together in the future.

DC: We see Rohingyas got infected with coronavirus. Is there any specific programme to protect Rohingya people during COVID-19?

High Commissioner: The UK is the second largest donor to the international response to the Rohingya refugee crisis, supporting both refugees in the camps and host communities including in building resilience COVID. We have allocated more than £10 million to support COVID-19 preparedness and response efforts. Working with WHO, UN and NGO partners, our funding has helped to rapidly establish treatment centres with experienced staff for severe and critical cases, and Mobile Medical Units to deliver home-based healthcare and monitoring. We are also providing oxygen supplies for the isolation and treatment facilities. These facilities are ready to treat both refugees and host communities. Our partners have also been distributing soap, building more handwashing structures, and raising awareness about personal hygiene to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and sharing information to reduce rumours. And our funding is still working, as we do every year, to prepare the camps in case of heavy rains and cyclones, as well as other disease outbreaks such as dengue and dysentery. We have also provided food relief to 53,000 individuals in the host communities in Cox's Bazar district, many of whom have lost their livelihoods.

We will continue to work closely with the Government of Bangladesh, the UN and the communities to assess need and respond quickly. We have ensured that the Rohingya situation continues to be addressed on the global stage, particularly through our leading role on this issue in the UN Security Council. Our aim, working with the Government of Bangladesh and international partners, is to enable the Rohingyas to return home to Rakhine in a safe, dignified and voluntary manner, and to support them until that is possible. The Government and people of Bangladesh have shown exemplary humanity in supporting these persecuted people.

DC: We have seen Bhasan Char remains unaffected during cyclone Amphan. Don't you think the international community should support relocating Rohingya people there for better life?

High Commissioner: It was encouraging that the refugees on Bhasan Char were kept safe during Cyclone Amphan. We hope it will be possible for the UN to carry out an assessment of the facilities on Bhasan Char in the near future to enable the Government, the UN and international partners to agree a common plan.

DC: How do you see the state of media freedom in the UK, Bangladesh and beyond?

High Commissioner: The media plays a critical part in upholding democracy everywhere, and is facing challenges in many parts of the world. It is even more important in the present time of global crisis that the media is free to do its job and give citizens the facts they need to stay informed and safe. The UK has been at the forefront of defending media freedom globally, working particularly with Canada. I greatly admire the courage and resourcefulness of the media in Bangladesh in its reporting on the COVID crisis, not least as the nature of their work means that journalists are particularly at risk.

DC: Do you think the UK investment in Bangladesh will be affected due to COVID-19?

High Commissioner: The UK is the second largest investor in Bangladesh, and some of the biggest international investors including HSBC, Standard Chartered Bank and Unilever are based in the UK. UK companies are very interested in the opportunities presented by Bangladesh's track record of very strong growth. While the pandemic is undoubtedly having a short term impact, I expect a strong investment relationship to continue once the pandemic abates. Further reform in the business environment would help to build on this momentum.

DC: What kind of cooperation we are having between Bangladesh and the UK to deal with the coronavirus when see a growing number of deaths in Bangladesh?

High Commissioner: We are very concerned by the rising death toll in Bangladesh. The UK is playing a major role in the global response to COVID-19 especially in supporting efforts to find a vaccine. We are working closely with the Government and other partners here to deliver on the National Preparedness and Response Plan to strengthen public health capacity, increase access to sanitation in deprived communities, and provide support to those who are facing economic hardship. We have provided more than £7 million in support of the national health system which has, among other things, helped to increase capacity for COVID-19 testing by supporting 60 additional lab technicians across 30 government labs.

We have also helped BRAC with over £1 million to reach more than 5 million people with prevention and outbreak management messages. We provided £3 million to UNDP to increase access to sanitation for more than 2 million people in deprived communities in 20 city corporations and municipalities across the country. As our regular support through a consortium of several NGOs led by Concern worldwide, we are helping the disaster-prone coastal area of the South-west Bangladesh to increase COVID-19 testing capacity.

DC: Is there any plan to come up with more opportunities for Bangladeshi students and young professionals to study in the UK?

High Commissioner: The UK offers opportunities for young Bangladeshis to study in Britain, including through Commonwealth and Chevening scholarships for undergraduate and postgraduate study. The COVID-19 pandemic means that admissions processes and modes of teaching will be different this year, but there are some fantastic and innovative examples of high-quality online learning being delivered by institutions across the UK.

UK universities are encouraging applications even if students are unable to travel to the UK to meet usual timelines. Our Visa Application Centres in Bangladesh are currently closed, but we hope to resume normal visa services as soon as we are able. Meanwhile Bangladeshi international students can prepare themselves online to join the UK's world-class universities.

The UK Government is introducing the new, internationally competitive Graduate immigration route for international students in the summer of 2021. Successful applicants on this route will be able to stay and work, or look for work, in the UK at any skill level for a period of two years.

UK Universities are also very keen to establish a presence in Bangladesh, as they have in other fast growing countries in Asia. We hope the Cross Border Higher Education Act will be implemented soon to enable them to offer an affordable world class education to young people in Bangladesh.

DC: What are the initiatives that you would like to take to strengthen people to people contact between the two countries?

High Commissioner: The relationship between the British and Bangladesh people is deep and strong, with around 600,000 people of Bangladesh origin living in the UK and wider links between our two countries across many areas including, trade, education, development, defence, culture and curry! I look forward to celebrating all of this when Bangladesh marks 50 years of Independence next year.

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