America’s Partnership with Bangladesh: Broader, Deeper, and Stronger than Ever
It seems like yesterday when my wife Grace and I arrived in Dhaka to take up our new assignment as America’s ambassador to Bangladesh. Exiting the plane, we were so tired. Grace got off first and I followed behind, dragging a huge bag. It was heavy, but I dragged it through the terminal and thumped it down the stairs and into the lounge, where I held a press conference. Just as the press event was ending, a journalist queried, “What do you have in that big bag?” “Oh,” I responded, “that is my mandate—my mandate to broaden, to deepen, to strengthen America’s partnership with Bangladesh—and the sky is the limit.”
One may wonder why my mandate is so big. Well, the answer is simple: Bangladesh is big—the world’s eighth largest country, and the world’s third largest Muslim-majority country. Bangladesh is a country of deep strategic importance to America and, simply put, Bangladesh matters to America.
Bangladesh is a moderate, tolerant country and valued security partner that offers a viable alternative to violent extremism in a troubled part of the world. As Bangladesh bolsters relations with its neighbors, it fosters greater regional stability. As a leading contributor to international peace support operations, Bangladesh sustains global peace. Bangladesh is critical to achieving global food security for the world’s surging population. We are important trade and investment partners, creating jobs in both countries. America believes a democratic Bangladesh, a Bangladesh that respects its citizens’ human rights, will be a strong partner for us. Finally, America seeks to help Bangladesh cope with natural disasters, adding another 130 cyclone shelters to the 550 we have already built or rebuilt, and we partner with Bangladesh, as it thinks the unthinkable of responding to a major earthquake.
In sum, America’s interests in Bangladesh are considerable: countering terrorism and violent extremism, fostering regional security, sustaining global peace, achieving global food and nutrition security, expanding trade and investment, promoting democracy and respect for human rights, and helping Bangladesh cope with disasters, especially earthquakes.
To advance these many interests, America promotes a Bangladesh that is peaceful, secure, prosperous, healthy and democratic. In this context US Mission Dhaka endeavors to broaden, deepen, and strengthen the partnership between America and Bangladesh—with great success.
When then Secretary Clinton visited Dhaka in May 2012, she signed an agreement to establish a Partnership Dialogue that provides an annual high level review of the United States-Bangladesh partnership to acknowledge successes and identify where more could be done. The third annual Partnership Dialogue is slated for October in Washington, where delegations headed by the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs and the Bangladeshi Foreign Secretary will assess the relationship, identifying course corrections, as necessary.
Complementing this strategic review, the two countries instituted a Security Dialogue to assess security aspects of the partnership. The third annual Security Dialogue in April gave a comprehensive review of security considerations around the region and of prospects for deepening our security partnership. In October, the third annual bilateral military-military dialogue in Hawaii will hammer out a schedule of military training and other engagement for the next five years.
This year we added a new annual bilateral engagement to the mix. In April, we held the first ever Trade and Investment Cooperation Framework Agreement (TICFA) meeting. TICFA is quite simple: it provides a forum for the two countries to meet at least once a year to identify obstacles to increasing trade and investment and how to overcome those obstacles. Our maiden TICFA meeting was successful in launching this new forum. Each side shared clearly its views on how to increase bilateral trade and investment.
To recap, America and Bangladesh over the past two and one-half years have created a broad, comprehensive framework that institutionalizes our partnership. As Secretary Clinton observed during her 2012 visit, the relationship is so important that it must have its own enduring framework for engagement.
Our security partnership has four key elements: countering violent extremism, enhancing maritime security, supporting international peacekeeping, and advancing humanitarian assistance and disaster response. We jointly have made much progress on these fronts. America contributed a cutter to the Bangladesh Navy, the Somudra Joy, which at 378 feet is the largest vessel in the Bangladesh Navy. Bangladesh has put the vessel to good work, providing disaster relief to the Philippines and joining the search for Malaysian Air Flight 370. Bangladesh’s success with this vessel is so great that in August I announced that America is contributing a second cutter to the Bangladesh Navy, thus further enhancing its capacity to secure Bangladesh’s maritime assets.
We also help Bangladesh build its own Navy Seals. We have provided the Bangladesh Navy and Bangladesh Coast Guard 25 foot and 38 foot ultra-fast boats, the fastest on the Bay of Bengal. Using these enhanced capabilities, Bangladesh has slashed robberies in the Bay by 70 percent and reduced insurance rates by 40 percent, thus removing Chittagong from the international listing of high-threat ports.
America and Bangladesh also partner with the First Para Commanders and the Border Guard Bangladesh to enhance Bangladesh’s ability to secure its land borders. Increasingly, along both its land and maritime borders, Bangladesh now better protects against trafficking of drugs, arms and people, better stops the movement of terrorists, and better protects its fish and other economic assets in the Bay.
America was and remains a key partner in supporting Bangladesh’s contributions to international peacekeeping. Nearly 15 years ago, we helped Bangladesh set up the Bangladesh International Peace Support Operations Training Center. More recently, America provided another $5 million to help Bangladesh expand the training center so it could train even more Bangladeshi soldiers, policemen and policewomen along with peacekeepers from other countries of the region. Bangladesh currently is the world’s largest contributor of forces to peace support operations.
The recent signings of Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) on counterterrorism and drug trafficking portend deeper cooperation.
Another critical element of our partnership is helping Bangladesh prepare for an earthquake; the Bangladesh government is imagining the unimaginable as it strategizes on responding to a devastating earthquake. A major joint training exercise in August tested emergency communications and preparations for utilizing aid from other countries. As a next step, I hope the government will establish a disaster response center to enable decision makers to control rescue and recovery efforts.
Our partnership has helped Bangladesh progress toward achieving Millennium Development Goals for slashing maternal and child-under-five mortality, and enabling Bangladeshis to have the family size they want. We support Bangladeshi efforts to achieve food and nutrition security. Last year, we worked with 2.2 million farmers to use new methods for utilizing urea, thereby increasing yields while reducing fertilizer costs; we helped 350,000 farmers use new saline-tolerant, drought-tolerant, or flood-tolerant seed varieties. We partner with Bangladesh to adapt to the effects of global climate change. Our success in the development partnership is a long story, but I must move on.
One of the great strengths of our partnership is people-to-people engagement. I am at the very end of my quest to visit all 64 districts to learn more about this wondrous country and to foster connections between America and Bangladesh. I must be having success, as Bangladeshi applicants for non-immigrant visas have increased five-fold over the past year and a half! This includes hundreds of Bangladeshis who visit the United States each year on professional, academic and cultural exchanges. In the United States, I continue to reach out to Bangladeshi-Americans to keep them engaged in Bangladesh; most recently I was in Miami, New York and Washington, DC. I have a four-part message for the prosperous Bangladeshi-American community: explore investing in Bangladesh, advice that a growing number is taking; mentor emerging Bangladeshi entrepreneurs, we have created a new program to connect Bangladeshi-American mentors with budding Bangladeshi entrepreneurs; donate to Bangladesh, we have set up an on-line portal that allows Bangladeshi-Americans to receive a US tax deduction when they donate to vetted Bangladeshi nongovernmental organizations; and expand the number of Bangladeshis studying in the United States.
America’s relationship with Bangladesh, like all relationships, has areas of concern. Allegations of involvement of Bangladeshi security forces in extrajudicial killings and disappearances are disturbing. I raise these concerns with the government, making clear that such activities must stop, and I urge the government to hold accountable those responsible for these actions as well as those who perpetrate violence against religious and ethnic minorities.
The plight of the Rohingya refugees is both a humanitarian tragedy and a major obstacle to regional integration. I am pleased that the Bangladesh government has developed a comprehensive strategy on this issue, and we will continue to support government and international efforts to meet the refugees’ basic humanitarian needs. We will continue to urge Bangladesh to provide refuge and protection to those fleeing persecution.
A pillar of Bangladesh’s success is its vast, vibrant, varied civil society, which contributes mightily to the nation’s socio-economic development. We urge the government of Bangladesh to ensure the operating space, continued independence, and inventiveness of civil society. We urge the government to ensure the integrity and continued success of the Grameen Bank and to preserve its unique governance structure. Additionally, we urge the government and opposition parties to engage in dialogue to find a way to hold free, fair, and credible elections that reflect the will of the people.
A key element of our partnership is supporting Bangladesh’s efforts to transform the apparel sector to ensure that the country never again experiences another Rana Plaza building collapse disaster or another Tazreen Fashions fire disaster. I believe Bangladesh is on the road to bringing the apparel sector to international standards in terms of fire safety, factory structural soundness, and respect for workers’ rights.
I believe President Obama’s decision last June to suspend Bangladesh’s Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) privileges is an important driving force in effecting this transformation. The Sustainability Compact agreed last July by Bangladesh, the United States and the European Union codifies Bangladesh’s commitment to undertake measures identified in the Action Plan for restoring Bangladesh’s GSP privileges in the United States. Additionally, the brands and the buyers for the first time in history are contributing nearly $100 million to undertake inspections in their over 2,000 source factories. Many also have made available significant resources for revolving loans to help factory owners undertake needed remedial actions to bring their facilities to standard. Meanwhile, Canada, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom contributed funds to enable the International Labor Organization (ILO) to orchestrate inspections in the rest of the factories. The ILO has launched the largest Better Work program in its history with the goal of bringing hundreds of factories to standard. America and other donors are engaged; many workers have undertaken to organize real unions, and the government has recognized nearly 200 of them over the past year and a half; many owners support deep change in the sector; and the government has given strong leadership to these efforts. Of course, there are some owners and others who oppose change, but I am hopeful that in the end this transformation will make Brand Bangladesh a Premium Brand, a Preferred Brand, in fact, the number one brand in the world.
As you can see, the United States-Bangladesh partnership is now broader, deeper, and stronger than ever. As I look back over the past nearly three years since my arrival, I am pleased with the great progress America and Bangladesh have made in fostering our partnership. As I look forward, I am confident that America and Bangladesh will continue to broaden, to deepen, and to strengthen this partnership to the benefit of the people of both nations.
United States Ambassador to Bangladesh
United States Ambassador to Angola, 2007-2010