The original report was published in The Time on Monday, December 19, 2011
Presenting Bangladesh to the rest of the world
Highly educated, independent and quietly forthright, Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister Dr Dipu Moni has become a popular face on the international diplomatic scene
At home, Bangladesh’s newfound stability under the Awami League government is allowing the country to flourish with the introduction of a more efficient bureaucratic system and regulatory reforms. Overseas, it is increasingly taking a more significant stance on the world stage on a range of issues, including climate change, women’s empowerment and poverty reduction. Furthermore, while many countries around the world search for ways to break out of serious financial difficulties, Bangladesh has never defaulted on its payments or gone bankrupt.
“Bangladesh is probably one of the best-kept secrets,” says Dr Dipu Moni, Bangladesh’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. “The perception around the globe in many areas is due to the international media. Whenever they talk about Bangladesh they talk about the challenges, the floods, the cyclones and boats capsizing, as well as overpopulation and climate change. But they do not talk about the other realities.”
Bangladesh is the seventh most populous country in the world. Its population exceeds 158 million people – roughly half that of the United States – in an area only twice the size of Ireland. Yet despite such population density, and a reduced availability of agricultural land, it now meets almost 100 per cent of its domestic food requirement. By comparison, in the 1970s its population was half it is today and only about 60 per cent of its food crop was produced. “This is a great achievement,” says Dr Dipu.
The Minister attributes the resilience and adaptability of the people as the country’s greatest asset that should be acknowledged internationally. Climate change, overpopulation, poverty, the struggle for rights, and the sacrifice of lives for an independent, democratic country are all cases where Bangladeshis have had a chance to show their true colours.
“In any part of the world you have natural or man-made disasters or riots, looting and all sorts of things. But here, even during the worst disaster, people come together and help each other. They are hard working and honest, and the best thing is that they have never accepted anything less than democracy,” says Dr Dipu. “This is a country where, despite all these challenges, we are achieving our Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).”
People-to-people links are at the core of the close relationships that exist between the UK and Bangladesh. Today, almost half a million British nationals are of Bangladeshi origin – a community whose contributions to UK society have not just impacted on the nation’s palate, but are also visible in government, politics, business, law, education, innovation and technology.
The UK has provided a great deal of support for Bangladesh since its liberation in 1971. The Department for International Development (DFID) in the UK has the largest bilateral grant aid programme in Bangladesh. It has pledged to spend an average of £250 million per year on development initiatives there until 2015. According to the British High Commission in Dhaka, the UK is also looking to support the Bangladeshi leadership in key international institutions, for example in the latter’s role as a major provider of UN peacekeeping forces and in multilateral bodies responsible for climate change negotiations.
Prime Minister David Cameron welcomed Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on her visit to London in January, commenting: “We have a good and strong relationship between Britain and Bangladesh. We have a great shared interest in tackling issues like climate change.”
In addition, both Britain and Bangladesh have been targets of indiscriminate terrorist violence. During the January visit, both leaders reaffirmed their commitment to continue working together to counter the threat by building up the capacity to pursue terrorists and protect against attack, and also through addressing the root causes of extremism.
“We have now become an example to the world in terms of disaster management where we have involved the whole community in a disaster management programme. We have also become an example in terms of counter terrorism and counter extremism,” says Dr Dipu. “In our society there is no room for extremism or terrorism because people do not like it. Even though at some point in our history some regimes did support these groups, the population rejected it completely.”
This determination to draw the line at extremism has allowed Bangladesh to become a pluralist society where ethnic and religious harmony is present, not because of any imposed force, but rather from something that has come from within. Dr Dipu says, “The influence of Buddhism is where men are carriers of knowledge, but women are carriers of wisdom. The Hindu influence is also there. In Islam the first person to become a martyr was a woman, and in our Prophet’s life there was a great influence of women around him. There is violence against women in this society, like anywhere, but in our culture there is a special place for women.”
Dr Dipu is a firm advocate of women’s participation in politics. She is one of two master trainers who have trained women political activists under a programme she helped design and implement in close relationship with the National Democratic Institute (NDI) of the US. “This is a great country for women and everyone, because if women move forward, then the whole country moves forward,” she says. Dr Dipu has also played an important role in many other sectors, including health and human rights, both locally and globally.
The Foreign Minister stresses the importance of good international relations. “Our main motto with regard to our foreign policy is to be friends with everyone,” she says. The US is Bangladesh’s biggest trade partner and largest source of foreign direct investment, followed by the UK. It also has growing business, trade and investment relationships with China. Dr Dipu adds: “If you look at our infrastructure, a sizeable proportion of it has some kind of Chinese influence. We are definitely looking forward to cooperating in the energy, power and infrastructure sectors, as well as other areas including science and technology, agriculture, research and innovation.”
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