Ambassador Mozena Reiterates Dhaka-Washington strategic partnership to play critical role in growing Asia
By Khawaza Main Uddin
Energy generation, software development, agro-processing, and consumer products are among the many areas where American companies can invest, outgoing US Ambassador to Bangladesh Dan W Mozena points out. The country will also need expanded infrastructure, such as seaports and land ports, roads and railroads.
‘I believe American companies would be natural choices for many of these projects,’ he says about the prospects for increasing trade and investment.He also feels that Bangladesh could make it a more attractive investment destination to investors by minimising red-tape and bureaucratic inefficiencies and by enhancing infrastructure and energy availability.
Dwelling on the issue of improving standards and compliance with rules in garment sector, Ambassador Mozena has observed that a transformation would ensure no recurrence of accidents like that of Rana Plaza collapse and establishment of Brand Bangladesh in the global apparel market. He has all praises of development in various sectors — generic pharmaceuticals, small freighters, shoes, finished leather goods, high-tech software development and production of advanced semi-conductors, solar-powered nano-grids, frozen shrimp, flowers, jute products, silk products and so on.
The diplomat describes Bangladesh as a country of deep strategic importance to America and a tolerant country which ‘offers a viable alternative to violent extremism in a troubled part of the world’. ‘America believes a democratic Bangladesh, a Bangladesh that respects its citizens’ human rights will be a stronger partner for us,’ he told ICE Business Times in an exclusive interview.
You have served as American Ambassador in Bangladesh at a transition period of history. Is it, in any way, a business-as-usual situation for both the countries or have you witnessed newer challenges? What is your evaluation?
In June, during my latest trip to the U.S., I gave a major policy speech in Washington at the Heritage Foundation, one of the leading think tanks in Washington. The title of my address to that event was: ‘America’s Partnership with Bangladesh: Broader, Deeper, and Stronger than Ever.’ Truly, never has the partnership between our two countries been more comprehensive and effective than it is today in supporting Bangladesh’s quest to become a middle-income country. With every passing day, this partnership goes from strength to strength as America continues engagement to support Bangladesh, the people of Bangladesh, and the democratic process. I am really proud of the continuing growth of this partnership.
In terms of cooperation in trade and investment, could you please mention a number of areas where the two countries are yet to make much progress for mutual benefits?
I prefer to focus on the progress that America and Bangladesh are making to bolster trade and investment. 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 a good success in launching this new forum. Each side shared clearly its views on how to increase bilateral trade and investment
Prospects for increasing trade and investments are excellent. As Bangladesh undertakes to become Asia’s next economic tiger, it will need expanded infrastructure, such as seaports, land ports, roads, and railroads. I believe American companies would be natural choices for many of these projects.
Energy is another area for deepened investment. Bangladesh has tremendous potential for developing its natural gas resources. Doing so in an efficient way would lead to reduced energy imports, lower energy prices, and a more attractive environment for foreign investment. Furthermore, natural gas is a clean source of energy and would make Bangladesh more eco-friendly. Several U.S. companies are already involved in helping Bangladesh boost its energy independence, and they are eager to work with the government of Bangladesh to move forward quickly.
Energy generation, software development, agro-processing, and consumer products are among the many areas where American companies can invest. I am confident that America will remain the single largest foreign investor in Bangladesh.
Has the suspension of GSP facility for Bangladesh dealt a certain psychological blow to Bangladeshi businesses, especially the export-oriented readymade garments industry? Was it more than a business issue in view of the reactions – both compliance and criticism – from the stakeholders here? Why or why not?
When President Obama assessed last June that Bangladesh no longer satisfied the conditions for benefiting from GSP benefits in the American market, he suspended these GSP privileges; at that time he gave the Bangladesh government a roadmap for regaining the benefits. Much of that roadmap was subsequently incorporated into the Sustainability Compact, which Bangladesh acceded to last July in Geneva along with the U.S. and the EU, and in association with the ILO. The measures outlined in the roadmap and Sustainability Compact would transform the apparel sector in terms of bringing it to agreed standards in terms of fire safety, factory structural soundness, and respect for workers’ rights to freely associate and organize. This transformation would help ensure that Bangladesh never again has another Rana Plaza building collapse, that Bangladesh never again has another Tazreen Fashions fire, that Brand Bangladesh becomes a Premium Brand, a Preferred Brand, and the number one brand in the global apparel market place.
As reflected in official data and business trends, there is a serious lack of confidence among potential investors while making investment decisions in Bangladesh at present. Would you please shed some light on how to improve the investment climate?
With a highly competitive labour force, an entrepreneurial business community, and a resilient and steadily growing economy, Bangladesh offers promising opportunities for investment, especially in the energy, pharmaceutical, and information technology sectors, as well as the infrastructure and other projects previously mentioned. The Government of Bangladesh offers several incentives to attract foreign investors. These variables make Bangladesh an attractive destination for foreign investment. Bangladesh could make itself even more attractive to investors by minimizing red-tape and bureaucratic inefficiencies and by enhancing the infrastructure and energy availability.
What are some of the brighter sides of Bangladeshi businesses that impressed you over the years and what are some of the things where Bangladesh needs to make improvement on an urgent basis?
Where do I start? I am dazzled by the many exciting developments in various sectors of the Bangladeshi economy: prospective transformation of the apparel sector, generic pharmaceuticals, small freighters, shoes, finished leather goods, high-tech software development and production of advanced semi-conductors, solar-powered nano-grids, frozen shrimp, flowers, jute products, silk products, and the list goes on and on. Bangladeshis are hardworking, entrepreneurial and resilient, which accounts for their continuing success. The Bangladeshi people are Bangladesh’s greatest asset as it undertakes to build a middle-income country.
May I see your comments on some of the Bangladeshi achievements and traditions such as social sector development, arts and culture and microcredit operations? What kind of branding would you, as a friend of Bangladesh, suggest for this country?
One of the great strengths of our partnership is people-to-people engagement. I will conclude in September my quest to visit all 64 districts to learn more about this wondrous country and to foster connections between America and Bangladeshis. I must be having success, as Bangladeshi applicants for non-immigrant visas to visit America for tourism, business or studies have increased five-fold over the past year and a half! Also, hundreds of Bangladeshis visit the United States each year on professional, academic and cultural exchanges. In the U.S., I continue to reach out to Bangladeshi-Americans to keep them engaged in Bangladesh. I have crisscrossed America from New York, Washington, and Florida to Oregon, California, Texas and Michigan to connect with the prosperous and influential Bangladeshi-American diaspora. I have a four-part message for them: explore investing in Bangladesh, advice that a growing number is taking; mentor emerging Bangladeshi entrepreneurs, and we have created a new program to hook up Bangladeshi-American mentors with budding Bangladeshi entrepreneurs; donate to Bangladesh – we have set up an online portal that allows Bangladeshi-Americans to receive a U.S. tax deduction when they donate to vetted Bangladeshi NGOs; and expand the number of Bangladeshis studying in the U.S. That’s my message to the growing Bangladeshi-American community, and I am pleased that it is resonating effectively across the U.S.
How far are you optimistic about a new generation in Bangladesh that will be taking over the responsibility of the country in different fields in the coming years? Do you think the so-called demographic dividend would bring much benefit to this densely populated country? How?
I am incredibly optimistic about Bangladesh’s rising generation of civil society leaders, entrepreneurs, innovators, and creators. They are Bangladesh’s present and future. I find myself renewed after even a short conversation with Bangladesh’s brightest – the young women and men who are pursuing their dreams and building the Bangladesh they envision, whether it’s creating a high-tech startup or bringing quality education to the country’s poorest children. Bangladesh’s young people are making things happen and this means great things for the country. They are networked, making opportunities, and creating linkages within the country, in the region, and with the United States. Young Bangladeshis inspire their peers to think big and turn ideas into action. They so inspire me, too.
BRIC countries have recently formed a new development bank which is widely being described as an alternative to IMF or the World Bank. Do you think a new alignment in the global economic order is now in the making, and what would be the American response to it?
I hope that the new BRIC development bank will make additional resources available for emerging economies. I doubt establishment of this new bank portends a new global economic order.
How would you define or redefine the role of the United States in Asia, given the dynamics of Indo-Chinese collaboration in trade and development, if not politics yet? Will Washington remain as active as it was in the whole of Asia in the recent past?
The Obama administration’s rebalance to Asia is a strategic bet on the consequential role of Asia’s 4.3 billion people in the 21st century and Asia’s growing importance to America’s security and prosperity. Asia’s growth to 50 percent of global GDP, as some project, would require Asian citizens and their governments to make the right choices to foster sustainable and inclusive growth, to promote open and free trade, and to combat terrorism and extremism. In all of these areas, I am sure Bangladesh will continue to play an important role in advancing Asia’s growth.
Is Bangladesh the major focal point of America’s foreign policy in Asia? On the other hand, do you observe any change in Bangladesh’s policy towards the U.S.?
I arrived in Bangladesh in November 2011 with a mandate to broaden, deepen and strengthen the bilateral partnership … and ‘the sky is the limit.’ Perhaps, you wonder why my mandate is so big. Well, the answer is simple… Bangladesh is big… the world’s eighth largest country (by population)… the world’s third largest Muslim-majority country… Bangladesh is a country of deep strategic importance to America. 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 stronger partner for us. America seeks to help Bangladesh cope with natural disasters, adding another 130 cyclone shelters to the 550 we have already built, 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 security, expanding trade and investment, promoting democracy and respect for human rights, and helping Bangladesh cope with disasters, especially earthquakes. I am so proud of this partnership and the benefits that it brings to America, to South Asia, and, most especially, to the people of Bangladesh.