Redefining Bangladesh’s economic diplomacy

Staff Correspondent
Thursday, November 9th, 2017


Economic diplomacy has been a declared policy of the successive regimes for quite some time but its meaning and operational aspects remain unclear over the years, making it an almost lip service of the people in power.


In Bangladesh, it has not been backed by intelleectual exercice and long-term political thinking with which the practitioners can go ahead to attain national objectives of foreign policy pursuit.


In context of Bangladesh, a seasoned diplomat like Dr Toufiq Ali, has in his mind the question if those ‘who lay down the policies and implement them see economic diplomacy the way it should be looked into. If we are not sure about what it is and what our approach should be, it is time to time to redefine the country’s economic diplomacy.


Reality check


Bangladesh’s diplomacy is ostensibly based on moderation and the principle of ‘friendship to all and malice to none’. But that friendship in each country has never been well-defined. Instead, Dhaka has what Professor Imtiaz Ahmed of Dhaka University’s International Relations Department called a Biriyani (a food item which contains many things together) approach as it does not have separate package for each country, region and bloc in view of harmony in mutual interests. ‘If you put 50 items on your plate and if two-three of them taste bad, people would raise questions about the rest,’ he spelt out.


What really is Economic Diplomacy?


Generally, the term `economic diplomacy’ is referred to as blending of both economic and trade issues with diplomacy. Economic diplomacy is also meant for furthering national objectives, without which, Toufiq Ali said, it would be rudderless. In other words, it means promoting and enhancing the country’s economic and commercial interests in the international arena and in maintainint bilteral relations. Thus attracting FDI, promoting exports and helping our people to find overseas jobs can be considered. We have not been able to include soft power like culture and tradition apart from our strategic importance and economic potential as components of our economic diplomacy.


Unfortunately, foreign aid was a major focus of our economic diplomacy but globalisation and new global agenda have led to a significant shift in development priorities. Eventually, the issue of trade facilitation (trade diplomacy) has overshadowed the aid diplomacy.


However, for a country like Bangladesh external assistance still plays a key role in the development process. The thrust of our economic diplomacy has been to ensure the continuation, and if possible, the enhancement, of such assistance; at times this has meant dealing with irate donors and their complaints. For many years, the bi-annual meeting with donors and lders has been the high point of the government’s economic agenda. The meeting has been viewed by some as the critical factor in determining the success or failure of our economic diplomacy.


Lack of ownership, missing inter-agency coordination


It is not also clear who owns economic diplomacy. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is supposed to be focal point of the policy pursuit and there are other ministries and agencies that were seen acting on their own. The case of India’s $1 billion credit line is a classic example of lack of coordination among various government agencies. The two South Asian neighbours inked the deal on 6 August, 2010 in presence of the then Indian Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee and his Bangladesh counterpart Abul Maal Abdul Muhit.


At the initial stage, the government bargained for changing some of the conditions including that of 85 per cent of purchasing various products from India. Once the issue was settled, Bangladesh could not finalise all of the projects under the deal. Then some ministries and divisions started direct communications with India though the Economic Relations Division (ERD) under the finance ministry was the focal point. And when rhe concerned ministries failed to resolve their issues with India, New Delhi started communicating with the foreign ministry. Such lack of coordination took long three years to finalise the projects under the deal.


A foreign ministry official said the country should not bother about the ‘sermons’ given by the donors and lenders, as the volume of development assistance has declined drastically, especially in proportion to the county’s gross domestric product (GDP) in recent years.


New directions or trendsetting?


There are two opinions about Bangladesh’s foreign policy pursuit – (i) The perception of the regime matters in determing and pursuing policies and (ii) still there has been a broad-based consensus between the two main contenders for power – ruling Awami League and opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) – since they have no effective difference in terms of political ideology. Their external policy remains mysterious since they hardly present the country anything written in this regard and we do not see debates on foreign policy issues in public forums and parliament. So, foreign policy issues have been neither democratic exercise nor made a sophisticated practice.


Dr Toufiq Ali said bipartisan consensus would come up only in the context of a long-term approach. Many countries have a bipartisan approach to foreign policy – which means that parties agree on long-term goals and fundamentals, not necessarily on each and every single action of the government, he pointed out. This is something that Dhaka now needs to start to set the trends.


Humayun Kabir said unfortunately, the present regime does not have such diplomacy and it has failed to understand the process and content of economic diplomacy. `If you want to succeed, you have to put diplomacy in the steering. You have to create institutions both at home and abroad to pursue economic diplomacy,’ he added.

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