HomeInterviewsH.E. Alison Blake CMG, British High Commissioner to Bangladesh

H.E. Alison Blake CMG, British High Commissioner to Bangladesh


The Woman of the Hour

An interview with the British High Commissioner to Bangladesh

What is your opinion about the business environment and the possibilities of Bangladesh in the future? Will BREXIT affect Bangladesh-UK trade relationship?
We think there’s a huge potential. The business environment in Bangladesh is very exciting, you see economic growth rates of which countries in Europe would look at with great envy. We have many British businesses throughout many sectors of Bangladesh who are experiencing great success and we are encouraging this trend to continue. Of course, there’s more we can do to encourage this growth as British government representatives by working with the leaders of the British businesses who are present in Bangladesh now or maybe reaching out through our Department for International Trade in UK to different companies who have not considered Bangladesh for investment. Our local Department for International Development (DFID) team helps to further the work of the Bangladesh International Investment Development (BIDA) authority and others in the government are also trying to remove barriers to Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). Thus, even though Bangladesh has a phenomenal Ready Made Garments (RMG) sector, diversification has been slow and FDI can help alter that.

Diversification has been a challenge partly because Bangladesh suffers from an inadequacy of skilled human resource. DFID, along with British Council has designed programs to tackle that. We have some of the most traditional development work which is centred around primary education. We are working with the Ministry of Primary Mass Education to guarantee that all children up to the age of 16 receive formal education.

But the greater task is upscaling the workforce. RMG sector employs 4 million women and has been an amazing engine for growth. But automation in all major industry of the world threatens the livelihood of people across the globe. The challenge exists everywhere including UK where many of the white collar jobs are being replaced with AI. Some of the challenges here in Bangladesh stem from scaling. Bangladesh has a huge youth population and creating enough good quality jobs is a challenge. We have some specific programs with RMG manufacturers to develop the workers’ skills, such as finance and citizenship skills. We also provide training for the trainers in English language as English is the international language for commerce and it opens doors.

If there is an effect of BREXIT, our effort would be to make the relationship between the two countries, even stronger. My government has been taking the legislation through parliament that will ensure that Bangladesh still has the duty/quota free access to everything (other than arms deal) when UK leaves the EU. When we are no longer a member of EU, we are free to explore what happens next. My offer to everyone I see is to ask what ‘better’ looks like and what more can we do to achieve it. We are committed to strengthening relationships with countries where we have deep historic ties and trade and investment is a big part of that. So while the future is bright, getting to that point will take time and experience.

In the first 6 months (July to December) of the FY 2017-18, Bangladesh’s export to the UK increased around 19 percent to US$1981.66 million from US$1665.81 million in the period of FY 2016-17. What were the contributing factors? Other than, RMG, what other products from Bangladesh can gain a better foothold in the UK market?
Both governments, when we launched our new strategic dialogue, committed to increasing trade into each others country. We set quite a challenging target of increasing trade to $3billion between us and we have met those targets. I think this success can be attributed to the genuine commitment by both the parties involved to increase trade.

A lot of the time I have to remind people that I am the British High Commissioner to Bangladesh and my interest is to increase British exports which is centred around services and consultancy and the UK is the 3rd biggest market for Bangladeshi export of RMG. So this contributes to the picture where both countries and companies can see the bigger picture and work towards the set goals. We have done things in the UK as well. We have raised UK export finance from $150 million to $650 million. This also shows our confidence in the Bangladeshi market. UK published an industrial strategy only last year and it is quite new for us. We want now to focus on improving the transport sector and integration of complex project.

I have already talked about the trade barriers which can be a hindrance to trade, which are not necessarily tariffs. But there are serious concerns also around investor confidence, the repatriation of profits, differential rates of taxation and lastly the business models. As per the Bangladeshi laws, foreign firms must have a joint venture with local firm where there ownership is capped at 49% and for some of our firms that simply does not work. We have communicated all this with the Bangladeshi government. The UK also works through the EU Bangladesh business climate dialogue where we have been discussing VAT; more specifically a more transparent way of applying VAT and collecting it. So while all of our companies are flourishing these are some of the issues that get in the way.

In a recent high-level event co-hosted by UK and France, the co-chairs made urgent calls to the international community to take actions for the Rohingya exodus. What kind of cooperation can Bangladesh expect from the UK when it comes to sending back the refugees?
The British and Bangladeshi governments have been extremely clear that the true home of the Rohingya people is Myanmar. And thus they should be allowed to go back home voluntarily, safely and with dignity. We work with international organizations such as UNHCR and also across the border in Northern Rakhine state where we are actively working with the Myanmar government to create genuine conditions for the return of the Rohingya people. As you well know, this Rohingya issue has been ongoing for decades where the people have been continuously subjected to humiliation and forced out of their homes.

A big focus of the discussion in New York was to find a way for those in Myanmar who are responsible for this atrocious crimes to be held accountable. We were in the forefront with the EU to impose sanctions against the military leaders of Myanmar. EU did this before many other and we have a strategy to support progressive elements where we want genuine democracy taking root in Myanmar. We have spent a £129 million in our bilateral effort in Bangladesh in the past year, as a show of support for Bangladeshis and the Rohingya populations. The money has been put to use for the humanitarian efforts to provide safe spaces for the million refugees in Cox’s Bazar, the most crowded refugee camp on earth and the strains on host population.

I have been going to Cox’s Bazar for nearly 3 years and the impact it has had on the hosts, the environment and livelihoods is heart wrenching. So while the hosts have been generous we need to recognize the strain on them too.

Many students from Bangladesh are interested in pursuing their higher education in the UK. How are the two countries cooperating to further the needs of the education sector?
We want a deeper relationship with Bangladesh focused around higher education, tech and knowledge economy. I have had discussions with foreign ministry where we want to raise the skill set of the population through higher education and training. There are lots of higher education institutions in the United Kingdom who want greater access to the Bangladeshi further education sector. We truly feel that with continued partnership in the educational field we thicken the ties as well as raise the skill set of the Bangladeshi youth.

There is an engaging diaspora of the Bangladeshi community in the UK. Have you thought about engaging them with the local development projects?
The Bangladeshi-British diaspora is incredibly well connected and extremely active. And almost all of these businessmen are involved in some form of CSR by engaging in some form of commerce or charity both in the UK and Bangladesh. Some of these British individuals of Bangladeshi heritage have built schools or conserved cultural heritage sites in Bangladesh. Whenever I am back in the UK I try and meet the people to get a better idea of their current need. Our PM’s trade envoy is Rushnara Ali, MP. She is not only one of three Bangladeshi British MP’s but also the Constituent MP for a very large and vibrant Bangladeshi community in London. She’s a fantastic role model and a signal of the contribution of Bangladeshi people to British life and the British-Bangladeshi diaspora. So, I suppose this is a long and winding way of saying, yes! Yes, the British-Bangladeshi are in all parts of our lives in Britain having a huge impact despite being a relatively small number of half-million.

There’s a vibrant start-up culture in Bangladesh. Pathao and Shohoz, for instance, have attracted large investments from abroad. Does UK businesses have any interest in investing in the start-ups of Bangladesh?
We are delighted with the start-up culture although we haven’t followed it systematically. In order to pique investors’ interest we want to work with the Bangladeshi High Commission in London because these investments are good for both Britain and Bangladesh. We have, thus far, focused on the traditional sectors like consultancy, infrastructure and energy simply because we are already present there.

I have a fantastic Department of International Trade team here who work very closely with British Business Group. One of their roles is to have their eyes and ears open for sector with great potentials and report that back to our colleagues in London who then disseminate it. But my personal opinion of innovation and business is, that if an opportunity exists it will be identified. I have never heard of Pathao, even a year back and now you cannot step out without spotting a Pathao helmet. This gives me hope that there will surely be further investment in the start-ups of Bangladesh.

Many notable figures have talked about Bangladesh’s needs to rev up its game when it comes to economic diplomacy. How can we start improving in this area?
Economic diplomacy is quite a new idea for many of us. There are some countries who are very skilled at it. I believe that in order to attain economic diplomacy you need traditional diplomats and diplomats who have come from a slightly different background as this will help better integrate your idea with the business leaders of a country. The old fashioned diplomacy of having a face-to-face chat has changed with the changing times.

Social media has a huge role in this by helping information (both correct and fake) spread. When you ask a British person to picture Nepal, they will most likely picture The Everest; for India it might be Taj Mahal. But for Bangladesh, it might be Brick Lane in London or cyclones as that’s all they have heard or read about in social media or news. And when I show them the photos of the development of the RMG factories, beaches or traditional dance videos, they are quite amazed.

This need to change the narrative about the country in people’s minds about Bangladesh, is imperative. There’s a need to tell Bangladesh’s story in a more positive and modern way and then sell that story in the best way possible, because I truly believe that Bangladesh has a great story to tell.

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The writer is the Managing Editor of ICE Business Times & ICE Today and health and human rights enthusiast.