Economic diplomacy and Bangladesh syndrome

by M Shafiullah

Unfolding his vision the Foreign Minister stated that economic diplomacy would dominate the foreign policy of Bangladesh. Besides, winning friends for Bangladesh the job of the Ambassadors would be to become salesmen to increase exports, procure foreign investment and employment for Bangladeshis abroad. In a nutshell these basic elements constitute economic diplomacy of Bangladesh. All Foreign Ministers before M Morshed Khan harped on the same tune in varied emphasis. What distinguishes the new Foreign Minister is that he heads a successful business house, was Special Envoy of Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia in 1991-95 and chaired the Special Committee on Foreign Affairs which recommended extensive reform to tune the ministry to modern time. He is now in saddle to take the horse to drink.

Trained in the Japanese school of entrepreneurship Morshed Khan has the insight how Tokyo developed economic diplomacy to transform the country into power house of enormous influence without being a military power. He would be rated a successful Foreign Minister if he can generate a minimum of Japanese economic diplomacy to Bangladesh Foreign Office and the missions abroad. Foreign Minister asked the Ambassadors to act as salesmen but did not mention to turn our embassies into showrooms of Bangladesh products. There are instances where with a bit of initiative and imagination and support of the Export Promotion Bureau the embassies became window of Bangladesh exportables. Where direct participation of home entrepreneurs in international fairs was not feasible the mission with the samples of the display centre had taken part to introduce a range of items to foreign buyers.

Field experience tells us, whereas our neighbours are responding to demand of market forces we offer a sort of take it or leave it option. In this context an experience in North African countries is instructive. Traditionally Arabs enjoy strong liquor tea. Even in desert after pitching tent the first thing an Arab will do is to boil his tea. A huge quantity of tea is imported from abroad. Although Sri Lanka tea is a favourite the importing government agency assured Bangladesh Ambassador a share of market provided Bangladesh supply the same quality of tea as Sri Lanka or India.

Thinking that his initiative was about to bring fruit the Ambassador procured a number of tea packets of Sri Lanka, India and Kenya from market and sent through diplomatic pouch to famous tea houses like James Finlay, Ispahani, HRC, and a few others to compare with Bangladesh tea and to confirm whether they could supply the same in volume. Reply was sharp which, however, dampened the enthusiasm of the Ambassador. Bangladesh gardens produce CTC brand of tea that is powder or dust tea but the Arab markets, demand is for leaf tea or Orthodox variety. Such is the market in Iran. Not that all Arabs drink leaf tea but this variety has a sizable demand .The incident is mentioned just to bring home the fact that our competitors diversified their gardens to retain markets and have comparative advantage over our single variety. The necessity to diversify Bangladesh export base was even underscored on 20 November by European Commission Director for Asia in the context of Ready-made Garments [RMG]. In the bilateral EU-Bangladesh meeting he emphasised that Bangladesh diversify its export base, reduce dependence on ready made garments and look for items where rules of origin do not apply. In other word-advice offered not to keep all eggs in one basket in the light of adverse effect on global trade due to attack on America on 11th September 2001.The worldwide campaign of the environmentalists to discourage use of synthetic material may have a favourable effect on the recovery of jute market. Jute bags are extensively used in the North African countries like Libya and Tunisia for storage and movement of wheat and corn. In a good harvest year Libya procure about five million and Tunisia six million pieces of jute bags. They generally meet their requirement through intermediary source in Europe. The Ambassador’s effort to sell Bangladesh jute bag direct to the government was not, however, without irony. Negotiation with Libya was conducted in close liaison with BJMC headquarters. When the deal for three million pieces was almost through BJMC found it difficult to accept Swiss Franc as mode of payment while Libya was unable to pay in US dollar since Tripoli stopped official transaction in US currency in the absence of diplomatic relations between the two countries. The debacle in economic diplomacy for the Ambassador did not end with this episode, he had another cup of bitter taste in his pursuit to sell jute bag to Tunisia.

His cultivation of high officials in the Tunisian Office Des Cereales helped him obtain assurance that about five million jute bags would be exported from Bangladesh although recent directive required floating of tender to meet technical formality. The tender document was in French and gist was forwarded to BJMC headquarters with request to submit the document. BJMC advised the Ambassador who was resident in Tripoli that its European office in Brussels would submit the tender and take all follow-up action.

On subsequent query with the Office Des Cereales revealed that BJMC Brussels office did submit tender but a Brussels-based company won the tender beating Bangladesh by mere 50 cent per 100 bag in the negotiation that followed after opening of tender. The Tunisian officials ‘consoled ‘ the Ambassador saying that they insisted supply should come from Bangladesh for its proven quality. The head of BJMC office in Brussels was a model to emulate by bureaucrats in the sense that he opened the office almost 20 years ago , manned it until he closed it at his retirement in 2000.

The Jute Minister in mid-November said that with at least 50 years old machinery mills are running at a very low capacity and are unable to accept new order. Replacement of old units with the latest equipment is on hold due to lack of fund. Bad news for Economic Diplomacy! If mills cannot produce what will the Ambassadors sell.? Bad news for the Minister too. He is to run state owned enterprises under him with recurring loss due to low productivity. The World Bank South Asian region Vice-President made plain observation on 22 November in Dhaka that WB would stop funding loss-making state-owned enterprises and strongly advised those for privatisation.

The jute sector is the second highest foreign exchange earning entity and the largest employer. The Jute Minister may only beg the bosses to bid farewell to Iftar parties at public expense and to rein in mayhem of mass entertainment of elitists establishments of the government to save money to upgrade the mills to sustain economy. His prayer will fit in the framework of World Bank vice-president who asked the Finance Minister to stop wasteful public expenditure to qualify for loan.

The writer attended observance of red letter days of some of our donor countries in prayer at the principal church and concert in national theatre with no refreshment served at the public expense or at best vin de honour to keep the public expenditure at the minimum. Money thus saved goes to the fund for development assistance program to Third World countries like Bangladesh. The representatives of the donor countries in Dhaka mock at our extravaganza with borrowed money. A set of officers are posted to economic, commercial and labour wing of our Embassy to assist the Ambassador to protect and promote economic interest of the country. Most of these officers qualify to foreign posting for serving as private secretary to Ministers or Deputy Commissioner or unfit for further promotion in certain establishment or on compassionate grounds. They are ignorant of the professional skill necessary for the challenging job of economic diplomacy abroad where other countries are competing the same ground. As they are found wanting in their assignment, a long list of grievances against the Ambassador are reported to the sending ministry to cover up incompetence. In Bangladesh work culture parent Ministry in general uphold its own officer right or wrong. The wings in the Missions are de jure under the Ambassador but remain de facto under the parent ministries. Dual control of wings takes its toll on economic diplomacy of the country.

Bangladesh wage earners abroad and their average annual two billion dollar remittance is the most important element of economic diplomacy. Unfortunately the golden goose that lays golden egg has been under threat of being slaughtered at the hand of a section of greedy recruiting agents and their unholy collaborators in the government sectors. It calls for immediate intervention. A laissez faire prevails in exporting manpower overseas at the peril of the interest of workers both at home and abroad. Strict compliance of the existing recruitment rules together with amalgamation of Bureau of Manpower Employment and Training [BMET] and Bangladesh Overseas Employment Services Limited [BOESL] into a single entity under Department of Overseas Bangladeshis to monitor market, to rein in unscrupulous recruiting agents, produce semi-skilled and skilled workers and look after welfare of the wage earners brook no further delay to sustain flow to retain overseas employment.

Bangladesh economic diplomacy may begin at home with convening of meeting of Labour Attaches, Economic and Commercial officers and Ambassadors in the ten manpower importing countries to take stock of field situation. Such a meeting was held in Dhaka in 1994 spreading into 22 sessions in ten days encompassing both public and private sectors provided a clear direction to Envoys to pursue economic diplomacy for Bangladesh. This pragmatic approach is more relevant today.

 Source: The Daily Independent, Dhaka,  December 27, 2001