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A review on the book of Navigating New Waters: Unleashing Bangladesh’s Export Potential for Smooth LDC Graduation; edited by Dr. Mohammad Abdur Razzaque, BEI, The Financial Express, 03 September 2020

Thorough exercise to outline a meaningful LDC graduation

Thorough exercise to outline a meaningful LDC graduation

The development journey of Bangladesh reached a new height when the country became formally eligible to leave the Least Developed Country (LDC) league in 2018. Three years back in 2015, the country also elevated to the category of Lower-Middle Income Country (LMIC) from Lower-Income Country (LIC) category. While the LDC criterion is set by the United Nations (UN), lower or middle-income status is set by the World Bank. No doubt, both types of status have varying significance for Bangladesh and change in these statuses reflect the onward journey of the country with many opportunities and challenges. The book titled Navigating New Waters: Unleashing Bangladesh’s Export Potential for Smooth LDC Graduation tries to explore these opportunities and identify the challenges in the external trade front of the country.

Edited by Dr Mohammad Abdur Razzaque, it primarily focuses on export trade as it is critical for the country’s employment and revenue generation.  The editor argues: “For Bangladesh, the most important change that LDC graduation is likely to bring will be associated with preferential market access for exporters. Within the set of LDC-related privileges, Bangladesh has primarily benefited from unilateral trade preferences granted by many developed and developing countries under their respective Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) schemes. Amongst the least developed countries (LDCs), only Bangladesh has been able to utilise the trade preferences in a commercially meaningful way, although such utilisation has largely been limited to some important markets. Currently, Bangladesh enjoys preferential market access in at least 46 countries. Almost three-quarters of Bangladesh’s export earnings are sourced from the countries that offer tariff preferences.” (P. 3-4)   

Divided into three thematic parts, the first part of the book deals with the preparation of LDC graduation.  The authors highlight some of the longstanding challenges facing the country’s export sector and try to shed light on the possible effects of graduation from the perspectives of the private sector. They rightly say: “Graduation from the group of LDCs also means a substantial loss of policy space in supporting the private sector. Having recognised their supply-side constraints and weak economic capacities, LDCS are often exempted from making commitments and implementing provisions of stringent agreements. WTO members are also generally reluctant about raising concerns or lodging official complaints about individual LDCs’ policy support measures that would otherwise be deemed inconsistent or non-compliant with international trade rules and regulations. As an LDC, Bangladesh has made significant use of such policy space in supporting the private sector. LDC graduation will require making the necessary adjustments for the conformity with WTO agreements” (p-67). In fact, over the years, the country’s private sector has enjoyed many waivers in international trade.  Some sectors have taken the advantages of the waivers and also earned additional benefits in the domestic market and avoided fare competition. These discourage efficiency and compel consumers to pay excessive prices. LDC graduation is likely to address the issue in the near future, and the beneficiary sectors will face some shocks initially. In this connection, the book presents several existing direct policy supports which will be curtailed or lessened due to LDC graduation.

The second part focuses on export promotion during post-graduation period and analyses the country’s current bilateral trade relations with four major trading partners. These are the European Union (EU), the United States (EU), India, and China. While the first two partners are two major export destinations of Bangladesh, last two partners are two major sources of import.

The authors of these chapters identify scopes of engagement with these partners ‘in the light of LDC graduation realities.’ For instance, analysing the apparel exports to the EU and policy options for adapting to competitive challenges, the relevant chapter of the book finds ‘that graduation from LDC status is likely to dent Bangladesh’s competitiveness in the EU.’ It is not unlikely that readymade garment (RMG) industry, the leading export item and disproportionately subsidised over the decades, will face the significant blow. To counter the possible setback, the authors outline some strategies. These include:  securing a favourable trading arrangement with the post-Brexit UK, industrial up-gradation for moving up the global value chain, ensuring compliance as expected from credible suppliers for global consumers and attracting foreign direct investment in the RMG sector. In a similar vein, the book suggests exploring a free trade agreement (FTA) deal with the United States as an option to ensure market access along with other options like conditional non-reciprocal market access. Again, the authors argue: “To improve export market prospects, reinvigorated policy initiatives, including consultations with India, will have to be undertaken to address non -tariff barriers (NTBSs) and non-tariff measures (NTMs) including the recent imposition of anti-dumping duty on Bangladesh’s jute product” (p-189). Finally, the book suggests a comprehensive bilateral framework for cooperation with China in the medium and long run.

The final part presents the export potential of leather, plastic, furniture, pharmaceutical, jute, and services and outlines ‘the policy support needed to expand exports from those sectors.’ This part of the book also identifies a number of difficulties and limitations of these sectors.

Regarding leather sector, it says: “Despite its long presence, strong backward integration, and good product quality, Bangladesh has not been able to realise much of the potential of the leather sector. The decline in exports after the relocation of tanneries of Savar has become a cause for concern. This call for revisiting the leather-sector specific policies as well as other general factors affecting overall exports competitiveness.” (p-262)

Again, the book rightly points out, though very briefly, the environmental issues associated with the production and recycling of post-use plastic products. Environmental hazard originating from plastic is a growing concern globally, and it will be a big challenge for Bangladesh to unleash the export potential of plastic goods. On pharmaceuticals, the book argues that despite a dynamism in the industry, the sector is far from realising its export potentials and entirely focusing on the local market.  Observing a rosy potential of jute and jute goods exports in the global market, the researchers stress on active promotion of the diversified and high-value-added goods rather than traditional items. It is also interesting to note that they recommend reviving the Bangladesh Jute Mills Corporation (BJMC), the public entity designated to deal with production and exports of jute goods.

An important addition in the book is a dedicated chapter on services exports which is side-lined over the years. The country’s trade in services is growing, and Covid-19 has already shown that services will be more critical in the near future.

The book is an outcome of rigorous exercise by a group of economists and analysts. They are: Ahsanuzzaman, Parvez Abbasi, Hamim Akib, Abu Eusuf, Emran Hasan, Nafiz Ifteakhar,  Mahfuz Kabir, Rabiul Islam Rabi, Jillur Rahman, Mahtab Uddin, and Mohammad Abdur Razzaque. The work has been completed under a project of Bangladesh Enterprise Institute (BEI), a Dhaka-based think-tank. Dr Razzaque, the editor, is a professional economist who started his carrier as a teacher at the Economics department of Dhaka University and later joined the Commonwealth Secretariat and served in various capacities there for more than a decade. Having strong command on international trade and development economics, Dr Razzaque is now research director of Policy Research Institute of Bangladesh (PRI) and chairman of Research and Policy Integration for Development (RAPID). In the overview, he argues: “Bangladesh is likely to graduate in 2024 and in a number of instances there are provisions for a transition period of varying years. Therefore, there are several years in hand to prepare for a graduation process, thereby containing any adverse consequences while building the overall economic resilience through improved competitiveness. A renewed focus on developing productive capacities in the export sector and promoting its external competitiveness, thus now constitutes one major broad policy priority.” (p12)

Nevertheless, the graduation path of Bangladesh is now facing some uncertainties due to the outbreak of deadly coronavirus (Covid-19). A debate is already there on whether the country should lobby for deferment of graduation. Economists and experts are placing their arguments and analyses in the debate. It is, however, yet to get any space at the policy agenda. The policymakers need to take the debate seriously. For them, the analysis and suggestions in the book, though completed before the pandemic, will be a guideline to set a revised strategy on LDC graduation during the post-Covid period.


Faiz Sobhan, Senior Research Director, Bangladesh Enterprise Institute was quoted in Singapore’s Straight Times in an article on India’s Covid-19 diplomacy, August 28, 2020

India initiates Covid-19 vaccine diplomacy

Indian firm Zydus Cadila's indigenous vaccines have finished phase 1 trials.
Indian firm Zydus Cadila’s indigenous vaccines have finished phase 1 trials.  PHOTO: AFP 

NEW DELHI – When Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla was in Dhaka last week to try and mend a frayed relationship with Bangladesh, one of the offers he made was that of a potential Covid-19 vaccine. Bangladesh, he said, will get priority access to a vaccine produced by India.

“When the vaccine is produced, it goes without saying that our closest neighbours, friends, partners and other countries will be part of it,” he told reporters in Dhaka, according to The Daily Star newspaper.

India’s “vaccine diplomacy” comes at a time when its strategic rival China has made a similar offer to Bangladesh. According to China’s nationalist tabloid Global Times, the Chinese ambassador in Dhaka Li Jiming has even offered to be the “first volunteer” for a phase three trial of the Chinese Sinovac vaccine in Bangladesh. Dhaka, after deliberating for more than a month, allowed Sinovac’s trials to proceed in the country on Thursday (Aug 27).

China has offered similar priority access to its vaccine to Pakistan and many other countries in Africa and South-east Asia in an effort to further reinforce its clout.

An Indian government source told The Straits Times that finer details of a vaccine-sharing programme will be worked out when India is certain of having a successful product to offer. “When we do, India will follow its Neighbourhood First policy,” he said.

But before it supplies a Covid-19 vaccine to other countries, India, which has one of the world’s biggest caseloads of coronavirus infections, will need to vaccinate its 1.3 billion population. China, on the other hand, could have a better head start in exporting a vaccine, given that it has largely contained the pandemic within its territory.

Indian firms, however, retain the advantage of having a longer established track record as a globally trusted manufacturing partner and supplier of vaccines as well as medicines, said Dr Rory Horner, a senior lecturer at the University of Manchester’s Global Development Institute.

“This may give them an advantage in terms of having trusted relationships, quality approvals and partnerships with other firms, governments, international organisations and donors for the global supply of Covid vaccines, if found to be effective,” Dr Horner told The Straits Times in an e-mail. In comparison, Chinese firms do not have a similarly well established position to supply vaccines around the world, he added.

The Pune-based Serum Institute of India (SII), the world’s largest manufacturer of vaccines by volume, has secured a manufacturing contract for two leading Covid-19 vaccine candidates – those from AstraZeneca and Novavax. It has also partnered with Gavi, a global alliance for vaccines, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to speed up manufacturing and delivery of up to 100 million doses of potential Covid-19 vaccines for India and other low and middle-income countries in 2021.

This week, SII began phase two trials for AstraZeneca’s Covishield vaccine in India. Bharat Biotech and Zydus Cadila, two Indian firms that have developed indigenous vaccines, have finished phase 1 trials.

Russia is also exploring the possibility of manufacturing its Sputnik V vaccine in India, whose producers remain critical to any global vaccine rollout plan given their vast manufacturing capacity as well as competitive edge.

SII has set a ceiling price of US$3 (S$4) per dose. Its CEO, Mr Adar Poonawalla, has even told the media he plans to allocate one half of what he produces for India and the other half for the rest of the world. On Friday, Beximco Pharmaceuticals Limited, a Bangladeshi firm, announced a deal with SII, securing priority access to a potential vaccine.

While the Indian government is yet to finalise how it intends to share a vaccine with others, Dr Bhaskar Balakrishnan, a Science Diplomacy Fellow at Delhi-based Research and Information Systems for Developing Countries, told The Straits Times that it could do so through the Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation Programme set up in 1964.

“Judging from similar things in the past, the government is more likely to provide vaccines and drugs under its aid programme on a grant basis,” said Dr Balakrishnan, a retired Indian ambassador. He added that this approach could be different from that of China, which has reportedly offered its vaccine through loans requiring repayment.

Recipient countries, meanwhile, are hedging their bets to ensure they are among the first to get access to any successful vaccine.

Mr Faiz Sobhan, senior research director at the Dhaka-based Bangladesh Enterprise Institute, told The Straits Times in an e-mail: “Ultimately whichever vaccine Bangladesh goes for will likely depend on the following factors – which manufacturer is among the first to produce the vaccine, if they can make sufficiently large quantities of the vaccine available to Bangladesh, and the cost of the vaccine.”


Article written by Amb. Farooq Sobhan, Distinguished Fellow, BEI on “Taking Bangladesh’s LDC graduation seriously”, Dhaka Tribune, 26 August 2020

OP-ED: Taking Bangladesh’s LDC graduation seriously

book cover

A division that does us little good?

We cannot afford to lose any more time

The global economy is going through a severe and prolonged health and economic crisis inflicted by the Covid-19 pandemic. Like other developed and developing economies, Bangladesh has also been seriously affected by the pandemic. 

Earlier in the year, the shutdown of economic activities to contain the spread of the virus resulted in massive socio-economic consequences which led to a loss of jobs and a consequent increase in poverty levels. Export receipts plummeted in March-May 2020 but produced better than expected results during June-July 2020. 

However, returning to a robust growth trajectory in a sustainable manner will depend on how fast the global economy recovers from the ongoing pandemic-induced recession in the leading economies in the world. 

For Bangladesh, there is an additional burning issue which is its upcoming graduation from the group of least developed countries (LDCs). Before the coronavirus pandemic hit the global economy, Bangladesh was preparing to graduate from the group of LDCs in 2024 with the expectation that it will meet the required criteria for LDC graduation at the United Nations triennial review which is scheduled to be held in 2021. 

The recent official data seems to suggest Bangladesh’s registering a much stronger economic performance in comparison with most global economies and if this should continue to be the case at the time of the UN triennial review next year, it is more than likely that Bangladesh will qualify for graduation from the group of LDCs in 2024. 

Given its impending graduation, Bangladesh needs to be well prepared to tackle any likely adverse consequences arising from LDC graduation, particularly in relation to the export sector. Apparel exports, which have single-handedly propelled export growth, are under pressure due to the global economic downturn. 

The loss of duty-free preferences in many different markets following graduation in 2024 — such as Australia, Canada, India, Japan, the EU, and the UK — would put severe pressure on Bangladesh’s competitiveness. Therefore, as the global economy recovers from the pandemic, restoring and sustaining a robust export performance will be a critical factor in ensuring Bangladesh’s smooth LDC graduation. 

As export diversification has been a long-standing challenge, the imminent LDC graduation requires unleashing the export potential of various promising export sectors while sustaining and perhaps even expanding the export of readymade garments (RMGs). Moreover, graduation also demands that engagement with the country’s trading partners is expanded and strengthened. 

It is in this context that the Bangladesh Enterprise Institute (BEI), an independent and non-profit think tank, which works closely with the private sector and policy-makers on trade policy and development issues, has published a substantive report which details evidence-based policy inputs to deal with the challenges of LDC graduation, in particular with the issues of export diversification and export competitiveness. 

The publication, Navigating New Waters: Unleashing Bangladesh’s Export Potential for Smooth LDC Graduation, is based on a detailed analysis of several key issues that need to be given serious attention in the run up to graduation.

The study, which was undertaken by a team of economists led by one of Bangladesh’s leading trade economists, Dr Abdur Razzaque, highlights the country’s impressive export performance over the past decade just before the advent of the global pandemic. 

The report makes a detailed analysis of long-standing challenges related to external competitiveness and export competitiveness and how these challenges should be addressed. In this context, the analysis has made insightful comparisons of Bangladesh with its main competitors such as China, India, and Vietnam.

The book examines four major export destinations — the EU, the US, India, and China — with a view to considering various options to promote Bangladesh’s exports in these markets after its LDC graduation. It explains various existing provisions such as duty-free market access to the EU, India, and China, and possible transition strategies. The analysis also provides various routes through which the trade partnership with the US can be strengthened. 

One salient feature of the publication has been a comprehensive analysis of the export potential and prospects in six selected sectors: Leather, plastic, furniture, pharmaceuticals, jute, and services, and the policy support required to expand exports in these sectors.

For each of the sectors, the research shows the export prospects in the global market on a country-wise basis; how Bangladesh is faring with other competitors; areas of bottlenecks for an enhanced export response, and how certain policies can help in expanding exports in each of these sectors. The analysis draws on inputs and suggestions from industry experts and provides specific policy recommendations.

Given the graduation timeline, Bangladesh needs to take the relevant issues seriously. We hope that this publication can make a meaningful contribution to the policy discourse by identifying and bringing together the most pressing issues which require urgent attention. 

Amongst the many suggestions in the book, it has been pointed out that currently, only the EU allows an additional three-year transition period after graduation. This means that Bangladesh can continue to enjoy the current market access to the EU until 2027 even if it graduates in 2024. Bangladesh should, therefore, engage with other important preference-granting countries such as Australia, Canada, China, and Japan, urging them to follow the EU model of offering an extended transition period. 

Another important recommendation made in the report is that since India continued to offer the same market access to the Maldives even after the latter’s LDC graduation, through a specific article under SAFTA, Bangladesh should enter into negotiations with India seeking the same concessions following its graduation as an LDC.  

Overall, the publication has put forward a number of practical policy options and recommendations in dealing with the emerging and evolving circumstances arising from Bangladesh’s impending LDC graduation. It is now important to debate and discuss these recommendations and craft a detailed export strategy within the framework of a medium-term plan covering the period 2020-2030. 

Along with the loss of preferential market access, Bangladesh will also lose many other policy concessions that it currently enjoys as an LDC. Therefore, it is of immense importance to consider how the available policy space can be best utilized over the next few years to develop a new policy framework geared to meeting all the challenges the country will face following its graduation from LDC status.

While it is perfectly understandable that both the government and the private sector are preoccupied with dealing with the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the economy, it is important that the preparations for LDC graduation are not neglected. 

While some people believe that Bangladesh should opt to delay LDC graduation, until now there has not been any change in the official position. Suffice it to say, that along with mitigating the Covid-19 induced consequences, preparation for LDC graduation cannot afford to be placed on the backburner.    

Collectively, the country’s think tank community can be a source of useful support for policy-makers in charting a future course of action to ensure a smooth and sustainable LDC graduation. It is important to recognize that Bangladesh seriously lacks capacity in matters relating to trade policy, trade negotiations, and implementation-related issues. 

Rather than lose any further time, work should begin immediately on developing a comprehensive, coherent, and implementable policy framework addressing the multiple challenges that Bangladesh will face in the lead up to LDC graduation and the decade thereafter.

Farooq Sobhan is Distinguished Fellow and Board Member, Bangladesh Enterprise Institute.


A review on the book of Navigating New Waters: Unleashing Bangladesh’s Export Potential for Smooth LDC Graduation; edited by Dr. Mohammad Abdur Razzaque, BEI, The Daily Star, 26 August 2020.

There is nothing to challenge the graduation of the country because it happened in reality as certified by the UN body. And it is also internationally recognised.

The UN Committee for Development Policy (UN CDP) is scheduled to review Bangladesh’s progress in graduation in 2021 and it is expected that the country will finally come out from the LDC bracket in 2024.

We are very proud of and happy over our country’s unimaginable and amazing success story.

Here, the success story is of course greatly supported by the export-oriented sectors over a journey of four decades.

It is like turning tragedy into strength, ashes to gold. The country boasts to be the second-largest apparel supplier worldwide.

Three important heroes must be credited for this achievement: the governments over the years, resilient entrepreneurs and our beloved workers.

Now, let us talk about the graduation to be a developing country. 

So far, our economic trajectory has been well appreciated as we are performing well in international trade.

Here, local entrepreneurs who have been engaged in business are doing fine on the back of preferential trade benefits.

Bangladesh is one of the luckiest countries in the world and of course among the LDCs as it has been able to take advantage of nearly 70 per cent of the trade benefits given to the LDCs by the EU.

The country has been enjoying the generalised system of preferences (GSP) to the EU since 1973.

Probably this is the highest ever consumption of preferential trade benefits given for the LDCs by any trade bloc like the EU in history.

That’s because the EU is the largest export destination for Bangladesh as the local exporters send 58 per cent of their goods there.

Let us think about the cumulative impact preferential trade benefits given by the EU had in our exports, job creation and our whole economy.

In one word, it is almost unimaginable. Here it is not my purpose to highlight the great deeds of the EU for my country. It is just an example of how an economy can be turned into a robust one on the back of trade preferential benefits.

In fact, it is only trade that has been playing the main role in eliminating poverty and creating a level playing field at least in economics.

It is a proven fact in the history of humankind. Let us also think about the post-graduation scenario of the trade.

First, the country will face stiff competition in the same markets from peer countries, especially Vietnam, Cambodia and Pakistan.

It is estimated that the country will lose 5 per cent of its trade every year because of graduation.

It will also annually lose $2 billion in trade in international arenas.

So, it is a big loss for any country as it will put pressure on employment and the overall economy. So, we need to bolster the economy.

“Navigating New Waters” Unleashing Bangladesh’s Export Potential for Smooth LDC Graduation has vividly described these issues. It is like a guideline for our economy.

We can form regional trade blocs like Greater Seattle Partner. Here the northern side of the US signed agreements with Canadian companies despite having bilateral trade agreements.

We can also think of regional versus country-specific trade agreements to yield trade benefits.

Bangladesh will have to choose some stringent policy options once the country graduates.

Firstly, the country will have to sign free trade agreements (FTA) with potential trading partners or comprehensive economic partnership agreements for the continuation of preferential trading systems.

Until now, Bangladesh could not sign any FTA with any country in the world although perhaps a few million US dollars have been spent for lobbying purposes and travel expenses by bureaucrats over the last four decades.

Secondly, if the country fails to sign the FTAs, it will have to try to obtain the GSP Plus status to gain the trading benefits.

In this case, Bangladesh will have to improve dramatically in four important areas: environment, good governance, labour rights and human rights.

So, the country will also have to ratify 27 important conventions of the UN.

In this case, if Bangladesh fails to satisfy the EU with the improvements, the latter might not grant the GSP Plus status.

The EU suspended the GSP Plus status to Sri Lanka because the South Asian country failed to improve the conditions stipulated by the bloc.

Thirdly, Bangladesh needs to diversify markets and products by improving the quality of goods to compete with other countries under a new trade regime without any preferential treatment.

In this case, Asian countries like Japan, India and China might be better options apart from the existing export destinations.

The other inside options are to strongly develop the private sector by providing them with a lot of opportunities like policy support and other incentives such that they can cope up with the international competing countries and can sustain their businesses.

Fortunately or unfortunately, economic growth of the Asian economies is largely export-led.

Bangladesh is not an exception.

The export-led economic growth has a lot of vulnerability because of externalities, which have manifested in different occasions over more than a decade.

Moreover, the domestic economy can also affect export-led growth. This is why Bangladesh needs to strengthen the domestic economy as well.

Some countries like Malaysia and Vietnam were at the level of Bangladesh in the race of economic development.

These two countries are glowing examples of success stories. Their exports contributed to their employment and economic development.

The right policy support and implementation of planning aided their economic growth sustainability. Bangladesh has many things to learn from these two countries.

The reform programme of Vietnam Doi Moi is very much remarkable as it showed the steps taken by the Vietnamese governments for developing a war-ravaged country within a short period.

In most of the cases, the Bangladesh government’s plan of action for boosting exports was not correctly implemented.

As a result, the same work had to be done repeatedly consuming valuable time and money.

Such kind of bureaucratic red tape and unskilled or lethargic thinking only enhance exporters’ dependency on government cash incentives.

In Bangladesh, export is highly incentivised although the potential sectors have been taking money from the government year after year.

But they are not becoming capable of showing their performance and only one apparel sector’s contribution to the national export has been increasing.

In fiscal 2018-19, the government paid $623 million in cash incentives against the export receipts of $36 billion.

So the question arises as to what the exporters are doing, whether they are doing business with their foreign trading partners or doing business with the government for receiving the cash incentives against the export receipts.

The highly spoon-fed exports-led development might not be sustainable for the country as the pandemic exposed this weakness. The sudden emergence of coronavirus exposed the country’s weaknesses in different sectors.

All the aforementioned issues of the country’s economic progress over the years, how the country came to a new global economic position now after a four-decade-long journey in export and what the country needs to do after the graduation have been nicely written and presented in the book “Navigating New Waters” Unleashing Bangladesh’s Export Potential for Smooth LDC Graduation.

The book has been edited by Mohammad Abdur Razzaque, a former head of International Trade Policy at the Commonwealth Secretariat in London.

In it, he nicely presented the contribution of different sectors for graduation and also suggested what needs to be done afterwards.

In September 2017, Bangladesh Enterprise Institute (BEI), a local think-tank working closely with the private sector, requested Abdur Razzaque to lead a research project to provide a fresh perspective on the issues of export competitiveness and diversification to prepare practical recommendations for the policymakers.

In the process and over the next two years or so, several papers and analysis were undertaken.

As Bangladesh’s graduation from the group of LDCs became a critical issue, Razzaque and his co-authors utilised the research undertaken to develop this comprehensive volume on LDC graduation.

Along with the statistical analysis, the preparation of the book involved extensive consultations with relevant stakeholders. 


Faiz Sobhan, Senior Research Director, BEI was recently interviewed about Bangladesh’s close ties with China and India, India Today, 24 August 2020

Chinese President Xi Jinping with Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in July 2019. (Credit: Reuters)

The Indian foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla’s surprise visit to Bangladesh on August 18 would not have made as much news if it weren’t for the fact that he became the first foreign official to visit the country in the midst of a pandemic and the fact that news about Bangladesh turning to China for financial help with as many as nine infrastructure projects for a total of $6.4 billion had burst into the media spotlight.

Indian news reports highlighted that Bangladesh had asked China for close to a billion dollars to manage the Teesta river which has long remained a friction point between the two countries. Though both India and Bangladesh have come a long way and have closed the chapter on other long-standing disputes, the Teesta water pact has failed repeatedly. It failed once in 2011, then again in 2015. Talks have continued ever since.

But that has not stopped Bangladesh and India from maintaining good relations. Joyeeta Bhattacharjee, an expert on Bangladesh at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), a think tank in Delhi, said credit had to go to Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Hasina, Bhattacharjee said, has been able to tactfully define Bangladesh’s relationship with the regional rivals who have continuously offered financial assistance to the state to pursue their own geopolitical interests.

Just as China launched the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013, India, in 2014, formulated a new ‘neighbourhood first’ policy to boost regional ties. (India hasn’t joined BRI; Bangladesh has.) In 2016, the Chinese President Xi Jinping offered Bangladesh a $24 billion economic package—which became Dhaka’s biggest foreign credit line—for a number of projects across multiple sectors. Xi also enhanced ties with the country to a strategic partnership. In 2017, India offered a $5 billion loan, the largest ever line of credit India offered any country at a single go. The loan was a clear attempt to wean Bangladesh away from Chinese influence.

But a closer look at the BRI projects suggests another story. As of mid-2019, only $981 million of the $24 billion economic package had been disbursed to Bangladesh. A lot of bureaucratic hurdles had slowed down the process. Similarly, in 2016, Bangladesh had cancelled Chinese funding for a deepsea port after India, the US, and Japan raised concerns. They feared that it would have given China an advantage in the Indian Ocean, an important area of maritime rivalry between India and China. Bangladesh assigned the project to Japan instead. At the same time, even at the apparent displeasure of Delhi, Bangladesh went ahead and purchased two submarines from China worth $203 million in 2017.

Faiz Sobhan, a senior research director at the Bangladesh Enterprise Institute, a think tank in Dhaka, said that the “China factor” or its role in Bangladesh is “being somewhat overplayed,” in light of recent reports. He said that China and Bangladesh were not new friends and have long held strong ties. “Bangladesh views China as an important partner and both countries share a cordial and friendly relationship. But Bangladesh equally shares strong economic and development ties with Japan, India and other countries,” Sobhan said.


Amb Farooq Sobhan, Distinguished Fellow, BEI, spoke at a webinar on branding, image building to reduce trade gap between Bangladesh and Malaysia on 22 July 2020

Speakers at a webinar on Wednesday laid emphasis on branding and image building to reduce the trade gap between Bangladesh and Malaysia and urged the government to take initiative in this regard.

Bangladesh-Malaysia Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BMCCI) organised the virtual discussion with all former High Commissioners of Bangladesh in Malaysia to address key issues from their experience.

Former High Commissioners Farooq Sobhan, Wajid Ali Khan Panni, Masood Aziz ndc, Shafi U Ahmed, AKM Atiqur Rahman, BMCCI Past Presidents Salahuddin Kasem Khan, Syed Moazzam Hossain, Syed Nurul Islam, Vice President Md Answer Shahid and Secretary General Mahbubul Alam attended the virtual meeting.

Welcoming the honorable guests and participants, Raquib Mohammad Fakhrul the President of Bangladesh Malaysia Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BMCCI) initiated the discussion.

Masood Aziz, former high-commissioner, revealed export-import and trade gap data between the two countries during his tenure and later.

He said $ 209.8B was the lowest trade gap between the two countries, which is now $329B.

The Highest trade gap was $465B while the highest remittances were $856.87M.

“To reduce this trade gap we need technical knowledge and appropriate technology,” he said, adding that the main exports product from Bangladesh side should be halal meat (as a traditional Muslim dominated country).

Farooq Sobhan (1984-1987), also Foreign Secretary of GoB, shared his experience and said, “We needed to develop a special relationship with Malaysian counterparts.”

He emphasized on branding and image building to reduce trade gap with Malaysia.

He also urged the government to take initiative in organizing regular meetings at the highest level between both the countries.

He also proposed to give a red-carpet reception to the investors.

Wajid Ali Khan Panni (1997-1999), also former State Minister of Foreign Affairs, emphasized on labour issues.

He said many Bangladeshis are working in different sectors in Malaysia like electronic items manufacturing unit, palm oil industry, agro-based industry etc.

He proposed exploring the opportunities to develop the relationship with the high end in Malaysia.

Shafi U Ahmed (2004-2007) said the trade gap depends on competitiveness. To overcome the issues, he recommended competitive capacity building in both product and service sectors.

He also emphasized on duty-free excess, ago-processing, leather and footwear, ceramic, jamdani and non-traditional products. He mentioned that Halal certification has nowadays become a global requirement.

AKM Atiqur Rahman (2009-2014) said, “If we need to reduce the trade gap, the government should consider a Free Trade Agreement (FTA).”

Former President Syed Moazzem Hossain acknowledged the contribution of all past High Commissioners of Bangladesh in Malaysia.

He said that there should be a special economic zone for Malaysia in Bangladesh.

BMCCI President conducted the interactive session and facilitated the whole virtual meeting.


Road to Reforms Episode 1- Bangladesh’s Foreign Policy in the wake of COVID-19 Pandemic

On July 18, a virtual panel on ‘Bangladesh’s Foreign Policy Priorities in the Wake of the Covid Pandemic’, was hosted by jointly by BEI and the Youth Policy Forum (YPF). The Guest Speaker was Md. Shahidul Alam MP, the State Minister for Foreign Affairs, while the two discussants were Amb. Humayun Kabir, Acting President, BEI, and Dr. Akhtar Mahmud, formerly with the World Bank. The discussion was moderated by Amb. Farooq Sobhan, Distinguished Fellow and Board Member, BEI.

COVID-19 Update until 19 June 2020


COVID-19 Update until 3 June 2020


A solution scan of societal options to reduce SARS-CoV-2 transmission and spread

A solution scan of societal options to reduce SARS-CoV-2 transmission and spread