The Economic Relations Division (ERD) under the Ministry of Finance, in cooperation with UNDP recently organized an International Seminar on ‘NRB (Non-Resident Bangladeshi) Engagement in National Development: Strategies and Way Forward’ under the ministry’s Knowledge for Development (K4DM) Project. The one-day event had a paper presentation on current NRB scenario and three working sessions on engaging NRBs through philanthropy, investment, and expert affiliation. The seminar was attended by numerous government officials and expatriates and took place at the Bangabandhu International Conference Center (BICC).
Changing Patterns of Bangladeshi Diaspora
We have a diaspora community ranging from the figures of 8 to 10 million in numerous countries across global and their contribution to the economy of Bangladesh has always been noteworthy. Previously, the United Kingdom boasted the largest number of Bangladeshi non-residents, but the figures are changing fast. Today, Saudi Arabia has the largest number of Bangladeshi expatriates, with Malaysia having the second largest, whereas the UK, and US are further down the list.
Engaging the Population Abroad
I believe annual conferences are critical in engaging the expatriates. The frequency of such events need to be increased, and such conferences do not necessarily have to be organized in Bangladesh alone, perhaps organizing them abroad can have greater effectiveness as well. The government and the Ministry of Finance, in particular, is working towards creating incentives for expatriates to invest in the Bangladeshi economy. Mechanisms of recognition already exist, but these need to be developed further. We are also working towards engaging the expatriates in the national election. They have always had their voting rights, and a good number do register for the voting process, but to date, no initiative has been taken to provide voting facilities in their country of residence. However, in the upcoming election, we hope to set up a few voting centers in North America, the UK and other parts of Europe, as well as the middle-east, Saudi Arabia and Malaysia more prominently.
Engaging the Huge Pool of NRBs in India
It has always been easier for me to work with expatriates, as I am one myself, only residing from the other side of the border, and this allows me to recognize the feeling that an expatriate never loses their touch with their motherland despite the number of years they have lived or worked abroad. While working in Iraq, I became familiar with an organization named Iraqis Rebuilding Iraq, which worked with Iraqi expatriates in rebuilding post-war Iraq, which again shows that we as non-residents never lose our connections with our nations. For Bangladesh, perhaps the largest number of non-residents just live across the border in India, and there’s a 90% chance that if you see a successful Bengali, they originate from this side of Bengal. Economist Amartya Sen is a prime example, and one should never underestimate the love these people have for Bangladeshi and their abilities to contribute to the country.
On a Policy Level: How NRBs Can Drive Change
Bangladeshi NRBs are doing well to the extent that they have made it to numerous policy-making level positions in many countries. In the recently concluded Inter-Parliamentary Union Assembly and Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference in Dhaka, I had the opportunity of meeting Bengalis holding posts of MPs from Canada and the UK. These are Bangladeshis influencing policies and opinions in other nations, and now is the perfect time to engage with such people and drive economic growth through the diaspora community.
The current generation of NRBs or diaspora as we like to call them are all economically well-established in their current resident nations. We need to engage them as they will be able to help us develop the trajectory of development for Bangladesh by pushing the curve upwards further. NRBs are already contributing back to the nation in various forms, as a USAID research shows that an average Bangladeshi diaspora adds about $4,000 in philanthropic contributions to Bangladesh.
Lesson Learned: Taking the Best Practices from Other Nations
Bangladesh has a lot to learn from numerous other developing nations. Lebanon, for example, has a dedicated crowdfunding platform towards their diaspora, which raises contributions for social causes such as water and sanitation, building schools, etc. and have goodwill ambassadors to carry out the effectiveness. The African diaspora has contributed over $10 billion for philanthropic contributions. For India, the brain drain has now converted back into brain gain, with over 4,000 professors and 35,000 doctors returning to the economy and contributing. The Indian government’s initiative for involving NRIs in SME investment is also playing a huge role. And in China, about 70% of its entire Foreign Direct Investment is owned by its diaspora.
A Better Bangladesh: Ensuring a Prosperous Future
The questions that need to be asked now are where will the diaspora engage, and once the first engagement is done, how to make it sustainable. Will a one-stop-shop be a suitable solution? These are questions that need answers through engagement, and we at the same time are working on increasing NRB engagement through three avenues – philanthropy with recognition, an investment with reward, and expert affiliation with remuneration.
Creating Better Opportunities Overseas
The Ministry of Expatriates’ Welfare & Overseas Employment was developed to help migrant workers overseas and to monitor their welfare, but the ministry is now working towards developing programs dedicated towards expatriates under the Welfare wing. The ministry’s current objectives include the welfare of expatriates and job creation of overseas workers. They are working towards multiple research projects as to how more and better jobs can be made available to our migrant workers.
Supporting NRBs at the Home Stretch
I had the opportunity of meeting an expatriate, having resided in the US for 25 years, returning to Bangladesh to establish a hotel in Rajshahi. Upon our conversation, it was pleasing to know that he faced no harassment or challenges in setting up his business, something which expatriates often fear while investing in Bangladesh. The ministry is always ready to help the expatriates in their queries regarding receiving knowledge and assistance. We also have three dedicated Probashi Kallyan help desks at three international airports across the country. The ministry also acts in providing CIP recognition to expatriates for their contributions in sending remittance, importing Bangladeshi goods and investing in the economy, something which we believe is extremely important in further increasing NRB engagement.
The Global Bangladeshi Population
It is perceived that about 10 million Bangladeshis are living abroad of which approximately 2.4 million Bangladeshis are living abroad permanently either as citizens or with other valid documents in as many as 162 countries. While reasons for their departure vary, the individuals within the diaspora communities maintain a particular affinity with Bangladesh and a desire to maintain a connection and ultimately be able to contribute back to Bangladesh. This massive Bangladeshi diaspora is growing and engaging them in a well-coordinated, concerted and effective way would allow them to contribute while bolstering the developmental efforts of the country as well.
Challenges Restricting NRB Engagement
Numerous policy and institutional level challenges exist, which are hindering increased diaspora engagement, starting with the absence of an online database that contains information on long-term migrants. The difficulty also lies in collecting data from and engaging permanent migrants who do not have legal stay permits in their country of residence. Also, there are no clear policy provision relating to diaspora engagement means that involving the members of the diaspora and keeping them interested at all times in every step of the national initiative would be a critical challenge which is easier said than done.
Government’s Commitment towards Bridging the Gap
A national initiative has to be taken with a strong government ownership to start increasing NRB engagement. With the help of Embassies, Missions, and Consulates, the Government of Bangladesh should immediately start taking necessary initiatives to develop a database of the international diaspora community. Issues of expatriates facing mistreatment, harassment and demands of illegal gratification by officials at the country’s entry points and insecurity of properties and local investments are also major issues that must be addressed. In general, a culture and platform of confidence need to be established to start having greater NRB engagement towards the development of the nation.