Bangladesh continues 'remarkable' socioeconomic advances

The new Bangladesh foreign minister predicts that the country is on "on track" to overtake China as the world's number one exporter of garments, reports Martin Banks.

By Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at the Parliament Magazine

01 Apr 2014

Speaking on Monday during a short visit to Brussels, Abul Hassan Mahmood Ali said he also wants to elevate relations with the EU and its member states to a "higher level".

The foreign minister was in Brussels to attend an international conference on genocide, organised by the Belgium foreign ministry, and discuss Bangladesh's foreign policy priorities.

On Tuesday, he was due to have meetings with the EU climate commissioner Connie Hedegaard and MEPs Elmar Brok and Jean Lambert.

The EU is by far Bangladesh's biggest export market and Bangladesh's garment sector is a multibillion euro industry, with about 60 per cent of clothes going to Europe.

But Ali does not believe the Rana Plaza building collapse almost one year ago which killed over 1100 people, mostly ready-made garment workers, had damaged confidence in the country's crucial garments sector.

"On the contrary," he said at the start of a two-day visit to Belgium. "While I concede there has been a slight fall in the rate of growth in the garment industry exports are still growing and we are well on track to becoming the world's biggest exporter of garments. I am confident we will overtake China in the next few years."

The minister pointed out that predictions show Bangladesh's ready-made garment industry expects a 10-15 per cent growth in exports for the current fiscal year ending June, despite the factory safety issue and recent political instability.

The first eight months of the fiscal year saw a "morale- boosting" 16.68 per cent rise to US$16.13bn compared to last year's US$13.83bn.

This shows "we are on the right path," said Ali, adding the country is "ready to leapfrog" industry rivals in the garments race.

Aside from garments, he has now urged Brussels to support upcoming sectors in Bangladesh such as ship building and "state of the art" pharmaceutical industry.

His visit comes in the wake of national elections earlier this year and last week's European parliament delegation to Bangladesh, led by Lambert, a Green MEP, who said afterwards that a democratic and politically stable environment in the country was required "to keep up the continued success in economy and social development".

Lambert, who led a four-member, cross party team as chair of parliament´s delegation for relations with South Asia, praised Bangladesh's "remarkable" socio-economic achievement.

Ali expressed satisfaction in the elections on 5 January and believes that the risk of political instability in 2014 has diminished in recent weeks, as the Awami League (AL) government has settled into a second term of office. He said the government remains willing to find a compromise with the BNP, the main opposition party, and it would continue to adopt "very much a proactive" stance against terrorism and the threat of radicalisation.

"I should also point out that the BNP is taking part in the current local elections in Bangladesh and the political situation is now settling down, albeit with sporadic outbursts of violence which are not unusual in local elections," said Ali, who served as the Bangladesh ambassador to Germany (1992-1995) and high commissioner to the UK (1996-2001) before he was appointed foreign minister at the end of last year.

He supports a resolution adopted by the European parliament in January which calls for the banning of all Bangladesh political parties with links to terrorism, saying "there is a need for all political parties to dissociate themselves" from terrorism.

Ali also stressed his government's commitment "to uphold democracy, rule of law and good governance".

He backs calls by the EU for all political parties to engage in dialogue and said the factory safety and workers' rights issue was being addressed ahead of first anniversary of the Rana Plaza building collapse. There are more than 5000 garment factories in Bangladesh.

The US and EU have both linked Bangladesh's continued access to trade preferences to making urgent improvements in labour rights and workplace safety.

The EU says, however, it will keep importing clothes from Bangladesh at preferential tariffs despite concerns over worker safety after the factory cave-in in April last year.

The minister stressed that a "massive" inspection programme of garment factories had almost been completed and this will improve the health and safety standards in the industry. He said Bangladesh will enact a new labour law this year and boost the number of factory inspectors from 200 to 800.

"The number of factory inspectors has been considerably increased and there have also been improvements in working conditions for those in these factories," he declared.

He also addressed the issue of the Bangladesh war crimes tribunal's conviction and execution of those found guilty of committing atrocities during the 1971 war of secession with West Pakistan (now Pakistan).

Bangladesh says at least three million of its citizens were killed and 200,000 women were raped during the nine-month war against Pakistan in 1971.

So far, Ali said there had been only one execution carried out in connection with the tribunal but he also pointed out that, unlike war crimes tribunals in the past, Bangladesh had introduced an appeals procedure for those found guilty.

He said, "There are quite a few people in the appeals process and I want to stress that we shall continue to pursue those involved in the genocide and defend our hard earned freedom."

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