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One of the mandates it has is the promotion of the visual and the performing arts ever since EMK Center was established back in 2012. It is not supposed to promote established artist and performers, but people who have proven talents who have not been exposed to the public as a performer or an artist as deserved. The Center established two signature programs for its performances, the ‘EMK Platform’ and the ‘EMK Happy Hour’ under that mandate. The former is solely dedicated to newcomers and the latter is dedicated to slightly better-established artists who have a certain following or fame. Other than the usual genres of Bengali music, performances have included various forms of fusion, jazz and blues, hip-hop and Bangla rap, Electronic Digital Music (EDM), and vocal orchestras.

In terms of exhibitions at the Center, the philosophy of choosing the artists has been the same, except that we also added the categories of arts that are historical, rural, or in need of promotion or preservation. In that regard, the Center promoted the almost extinct traditional metal sculptural art, pot chitro, and rickshaw art. Workshops were also held in conjunction with these exhibitions about the process of these art forms. Innovative concepts such as the promotion of fabrics derived from pineapple waste and how to incorporate them into modern fashion trends have also been held.

The philosophy of the Center is centered around providing a space for anyone for any innovative projects, be it technical, academic, leadership or entrepreneurship, and in the arts as well. Currently, the Center’s footprint is very Dhaka centric. Given the size and scale of Dhaka, an outlet for cultural programming is rather limited. The major one, Shilpakala Academy is based on the southern end of the city, nowadays avoided by the northerners due to the sheer logistical nightmare of the traffic. There are some performance spaces, in the public and private realm, but it is also not enough. Dhaka also deserves festivals year round instead of the crammed schedule of the month of November when all festivals are held. Realistically Dhaka needs at least three more venues like the Academy dispersed on the other three corners of the city and every neighborhood has a neutral space like the EMK, Bengal, Goethe, and IGCC, where small-scale cultural and other activities geared towards the youth can be held and patronized. Corporates can also be nudged through their CSR programs to establish and operate these centers.

Cultural interactions, from the Center’s experience, has been a positive one in that, it also brought in engagement with other youth groups, triggered dialogues about access and the greater cultural outlook, and also forced, up and coming artists to come up with an innovative concept of arts and performances. Especially these days with the society being in a flux with fundamentalism and the newly opened genie of extremism, the lack of outlets of expression in the cultural sphere is rather jarring. More than two decades ago, the enthusiasm we used to have to be a contestant in‘Notun Kuri’, a nationwide competition of all categories of performances is no longer there. Wherever the monopolistic BTV had their coverage, applicants came in from those areas. It did produce some bonafide celebrities, such as Tarana Halim, who, from her classical dance background, evolved into an accomplished lawyer, then an activist, and finally a member of the parliament. We have seen similar ventures from other channels these days, and they did introduce us to some new talents who made it to the mainstream, but the impact and popularity for these participatory programs never seem to have peaked to the levels of yesteryears. It is synonymous with the cultural prevalence of ambivalence and apathy, and the emphasis from the household on academic grades, and mainstream careers. The once existing practice of employing a house tutor for reciting, singing, and painting amongst all middle-class households have mostly disappeared, replaced by tutors for mathematics, physics, biology, and accounting.

In the process, liberal arts and values are ebbing. Such ambiguity in the cultural realm can have long-term repercussions. Once a solid cultural identity is lost, so does a sense of belonging to one’s roots, which is also tied to patriotism and the sense of public service on behalf of one country. Thanks to social media and the internet, we are no longer confined mentally, intellectually, and culturally to one region but to the rest of the world. However, before being unleashed to this worldwide phenomenon, which definitely has its positive side, one must be rooted locally in terms of one’s own foundations. We are seeing an increasing number of young teenagers who cannot fluently express themselves, in either Bangla or English. They do not appreciate a taste of local delicacies. I am not advocating cultural purification here in terms of our linguistic abilities and cultural practices, but rather, given in our interconnected world, we need to be adept of our own first. It is all that of more importance since, we are one of the most homogenous countries of South Asia, without major tensions based on religious or ethnic lines, no black and white segregations, or that of geographical differences. The only division there has been that of a socio-economic one, and even that being fluid. However, we, instead, have created those through an artificial division based on political-religious lines taken to borders of intolerance of each other. One of the major sufferers of this division has been local cultural norms and practices, or rather, its declining practice. This trend did not happen overnight, and nor will the reversal of this process can be achieved overnight. Furthermore, it is not the sole responsibility of just one entity, of the government, or a foundation, but collectively for all of them. 

*Photo Credit: Abhijit Nandy

Photography & Original text: Din Muhammad Shibly
Translated by Maruf Billah Tanmoy

Dhalchar, formerly known as Char Shatyen, is a remote and isolated island in the Bay of Bengal and located in the Char Fashion upazila of Bhola district. As the impacts of climate change become more pronounced, the island on the bay is constantly exposed to rising sea levels and climate change. The island faces a threat of extinction due to severe erosion of its landmass that began since 1990. The rise of a new island to Dhalchar’s north has aggravated matters in recent times as all three of the island’s primary schools were washed away in the River Meghna due to erosion. The photo story depicts the state of land erosion Dhalchar has experienced in the last 15 years which is also a reflection of the state of other neighboring islands. 

Md Azhar Uddin, better known as Azhar Master, is 57 years old and headmaster of Dhalchar Government Primary School. He took charge of the school founded by his father in 1976 and continues to serve the school. This school is the only means of delivering education in remote areas such as Dhalchar for the last 42 years. After the schools were washed away, Azhar Master and the school staff took refuge at a cyclone shelter built by Action Aid.

There were around 250 families living on the island by 1976. In the 1990s, around 1930 families were listed as residents of the island. Although the island was gradually growing into a township, it was always marred by cyclones and land erosion. Almost all 65 families residing on the island were washed away in the cyclone of 1970. Only 40 people managed to survive the disaster as they had managed to go to the island’s lone cyclone-shelter at that time. In 1985, another devastating cyclone occurred which caused immense damage to the entire island. 109 people died in the cyclone that occurred in 1991 and only 71 of the bodies were found.

Although cyclones like Aila and Sidr did not cause much damage to the island after 1991, the island became extremely vulnerable to erosion in the last few decades and many families left the populous island and settled in nearby Char Manika, Char kocchopiapiya, Char Letra, Char Aicha, Char Kolatoli and Char Mojammel and others.

Although erosion initially began in the east, it later picked up the pace to the north of the island when a new island emerged there. Water from the river Meghna hit the new island and lashes on the east of Dhalchar more fiercely than before. This has caused the island’s large marketplace, a few villages, all forest department offices, the schools and the guest house to be lost to the river. A total of four wards were washed away by the river. Only a third of the island remains above the water now.

Bangladesh is ground zero for climate change. We cannot change the practices of the world but we can create solutions for those who are the most affected by it.  

It started with 80,000 Rohingya refugees arriving in Cox’s Bazar in 2016; they were escaping a violence that was yet to reach its peak. At a time where nations across the world were focused on defining borders, deporting the oppressed and building walls, Bangladesh welcomed a population that only knew repression and persecution as a way of life. At present, there are 900,000 Rohingyas located in the Kutupalong-Balukhali Expansion Camp; it is now the largest camp of refugees in the world. The hills have become thousands of makeshift homes made of plastic sheets, tin, and bamboo.

The people speak of violence, murder, and abuse as if it were the norm. It goes beyond tyranny. They have been denied their basic rights to access health and education. The children are not vaccinated with cholera shots; a disease that is no longer a worldly concern. They paint recollections of murders of their family member, arriving with those they had barely escaped with. Some of whom they had lost in the process. We have created child-friendly spaces and health care centers for a sense of normalcy. But normal is not the goal. Ultimately, we want to change their narrative. We want them to be citizens of a nation they can call their own. Mark Pierce, the Country Director of Save the Children Bangladesh, expounds on their activities to support the Rohingya population. 

Understanding the needs of the Rohingyas start in 2012 for Save the Children. They provided education and child protection in two of the registered camps in Cox’s Bazar. Mark Pierce recalls increasing their operations in October 2016. “Years of interventions in the area made Save the Children aware of the existing conditions and needs of the area. A few months before August 2017, we were aware of the violence that was occurring in Myanmar. Our concern of an influx was apparent when the 1,000 arrived on the 25th of that month.” Although they knew the crisis would expand, they were not prepared for the sheer size. The number of refugees had increased from 100-folds to 700,000 in a matter of six to seven months. Rohingya refugees were fleeing Myanmar by walking for weeks or taking unsafe boats to arrive at the coast of Bangladesh. “We witnessed 12,000 to 15,000 Rohingya refugees crossing over every day. It came to our attention that 80% were women and children. So we used the presence we had to provide basic food supplement and shelter for unaccompanied children.” Save the Children eventually started a family tracing and reunification process but a significant percentage of them have lost one or both of their parents.

Pierce emphasizes preparation for a crisis must be conducted months in advance. “I arrived in 2016 and we came to the conclusion that we were not prepared for major emergencies or disasters. This realization came because Bangladesh was vulnerable to natural disasters as witnessed during Bhola and Sidr.” Save the Children was only prepared for small-scale emergencies at the time and Pierce wanted that to change. He initiated training for major emergencies and prepositioned supplies throughout the country: “We started to identify vendors that we would use in advance. They would supply us with everything from tarpaulin to dairy cans. This way we were ready to tap into our global resources and provide victims with immediate assistance. We dispensed essential food and non-food items. People also need cooking utensils, plastic, and tarpaulin for shelter and mats to sleep on. The organization’s largest program is the Life-Saving Program. It reaches about two-thirds of the Rohingya refugees, providing them with basic staples. “Our biggest concern is keeping these people alive in such dismal conditions. Basic provisions such as sleeping mats, tarpaulin, and cooking utensils make a significant difference. Every individual’s first concern is food, water and a place to sleep.”

MARK PIERCE, Country Director, Save the Children, Bangladesh

The severe cases of malnutrition, lack of vaccination, and trauma made health and nutrition the principal concern within the Rohingya refugee camps. “We have ten health facilities that provide health care to 6,000 patients every week. The World Food Programme is our partner in providing therapeutic feeding and sustenance to malnourished children in both the camp and the host community.” Their attention for children goes beyond providing the staples. Additionally, Save the Children has just opened a 20-bed Primary Health Care Center. It has a maternity unit, a pharmacy, separate buildings for triage, inpatient and outpatients. They have also installed a water tower and generator in the facility. “The center is the only one that administers 24/7 in-patient care. We will serve 20,000 people from both the Rohingya and host community. There is also an ambulance to bring patients who have been referred from facilities without the capacity to keep them overnight.” Save the Children trains Rohingya community volunteers to promote hygiene practices and raise awareness of health services. “When you teach the people of the community, they become the first point of assistance for patients. They are aware of where refugees can seek help. Community volunteers are also trained and empowered to identify and refer vulnerable children and families who need medical care.”

Save the Children has one of the largest numbers of child-friendly spaces. “We have around 90 spaces that are child-friendly and this includes girl friendly spaces. These children need a space where they feel a sense of normalcy and play. Furthermore, we are also able to address the psychosocial aspects of their conditions. We also have separate centers for adolescent girls because their safety becomes a paramount concern as they get older.” They have counselors for those children that have problems adjusting. Art therapy is one the most successful ways to help these children. “When you give a child a paper and crayon, you allow their imagination to foster. They can express their emotions and over time it helps them deal with such traumas. The child begins to feel more comfortable in their surroundings.”

Save the Children places an emphasis on learning. Their temporary learning centers teach English, Rohingya and Burmese tailored specifically for the population. “Our future plan includes scaling to another 75 learning centers to the nearly 100 we have now. It is one of our key concerns because the literacy and numeracy skills are very low within the population.” The International NGO also protects and manages 3,000 children who either have no parents or a single parent. “Children are the most marginalized within any population. That is why our efforts are conducted with them as the top priority.”

Solutions are based in such a densely populated area must be qualitative. Save the Children has placed 800 latrines and Pierce would like the next step to be a more strategic one: “We are building the latrines near our education and health centers. This way the WASH facilities are not exhausted in their traditional settings.” They also work as a support program for dozens of WASH committees. These entities work to promote good hygiene practices. “Our health promotion activities are managed through community mobilizers. They go from house to house to share WASH messaging. We also complete slope protection work around latrines to protect them from landslides during the monsoon.”

19 years-old, gets a cup of water for her baby Laila* (22 months) at Leda Camp, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.
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Large-scale emergencies such as the Rohingya Crisis have their share of peaks and valleys. Every emergency needs to be accessed differently because it has a unique context according to Pierce. “I wish we had conducted simulation testing prior to the emergency. We had planned one for November 2017 but that was too late. In such large scale situations, you will have to take your successes and assess them for later interventions; this includes learning to manage the best and worst of the situation in the best course of action possible.” Save the Children conducts real-time evaluations every three to four months of a crisis situation. Pierce understands that this is the most critical course of action; “These evaluations allow your team to understand what works and what does not. Furthermore, you can disseminate the information to other organizations and create a larger scale of awareness and knowledge.”

The most chaotic period of any catastrophe is the first 90 days. During this time, concerned organizations centered on saving the largest number of lives. Pierce’s experience of the Rohingya situation was challenging because this time frame was much longer. “We witnessed one of the longest tumultuous periods; it lasted from August to January. During this time Save the Children’s target was only on the most marginalized people and not everyone was receiving assistance.” Matters within the camp started to stabilize by the seventh month; a time during which Save the Children geared some of their aid towards those in the periphery of the camps. The monsoon season in May would usher in a number of new matters that would need to be solved. “The monsoons were soon recognized as an emergency within an emergency. We expected the potential of a cyclone, landslides, and flooding forced us to identify a new set of impacts. Furthermore, their reliefs were health risks and water-borne diseases associated with the monsoon.” While a stabilized and systematic response along with proper infrastructure provides continued relief, the dangers of this season are still a primary concern. “If you recall, Cyclone Bhola happened in November 1970. Therefore we must be alert and prepared for the worst weather conditions until December or January. It is our current plan while we anticipate what is to happen next.”

During the monsoon season, the organization is working to create shelters that would protect them from high winds, flooding, and monsoon. Pierce explains that Save the Children turns their attention to construction during these times. The first step entailed assessing what provisions were necessary for the area. “We build covers to facilitate drainage and bridges to make it easier for them to travel across the camp. We also reinforce the hillsides with sandbags to prevent water levels from rising. A larger part of our safety procedures on providing knowledge and raising awareness is on handling extreme weather.” Their provision includes strengthening shelters, healthcare centers, and temporary learning centers. However, some facilities were required to be temporarily suspended while others were decommissioned for welfare purposes. “We hope to bring these places back into their everyday functionality but the limitation of space poses a major challenge.”

Save the Children is now devising long-term solutions and going forward with the local government.”We want to provide assistance as we have from the beginning while allowing the government to take more control. We exist to reinforce the capacity of the government. Save the Children is about extending the systems in place. For example, we expand medical facilities with funding from the USA known as health system strengthening.” Pierce commends the actions of the host community while recognizing that they also require support. He was to work with the local institution to improve the existing health and education services in the area. “You have to focus on the areas where the government is not able to reach. Development organizations should work on informal education for the Rohingya population which does not fall under the official education system of Bangladesh.”

There are 20 subcamps in the Kutupalong-Balukhali Expansion Camp. Pierce explains that a coordinated effort is more important than expansive coverage. “There is a lot of coordination in the various sectors including health, protection, and education. We have to work carefully with the government to ensure that the hundreds of actors and 30 NGOs coordinated in providing maximum effort across the camp.” This poses a great challenge because numerous organizations may exhaust their attention into the same efforts. During risky weather season, Save the Children would turn their learning centers and child-friendly spaces into temporary shelters. “We have to attend to the priority at the moment. Six months ago, our efforts were geared towards health and disease outbreaks; the entire international community was concerned with the diphtheria outbreaks; it was a disease that you would barely see around the world.” Save the Children and other agencies handled around 40,000 suspected cases and a number of fatalities. The vaccination phase was executed successfully. Nonetheless, the high levels of fecal matter that increase the risk of acute diarrhea require careful monitoring.

Many of the activities require the encouragement of those in charge of camps. In such instances, a more integrated approach is devised in order to address the matters of that particular camp. “There are various institutions on a local and civil level that provide the necessary assistance to the communities. We work with influential members who are often known as the mahjis. They are elders or recognized leaders within the Rohingya community. Though it is a new methodology, it has proven to be an efficient one. We run awareness sessions with these leaders, parents, and children to help protect children from issues like trafficking, child, and child marriage.” Community-based approaches are challenging when people have to wait in lines for food, resources and health facilities. Save the Children is trying to establish local governance and democratic principles within these communities.

Pierce indicates that it is easier to create structure at a household level, “These matters include a smaller number of individuals. Our concentration is on the neediest households and their children. We distribute plastic sheeting, mats, education, and protection.” Pierce concludes that infrastructural improvements trickle down for the most substantial effect. “When you build roads and bridges, people can transport clean water easily, eliminating the chances of diseases. Additionally, there are many organizations that work on electricity generation and lighting, and signboard creation. There is also a wristband intervention for children that help children be reunited with their families if they get separated during a storm or flood.”

Children walk through a camp for Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, as monsoon rains pour down.

Pierce accredits the local community as the initial players. The host community consists of 336,000 people who have taken in a population that is nearly three times their size. “The citizens of Bangladesh have offered their limited resources to the incoming Rohingya refugee population. This is a tremendous effort by a marginalized community.” Approximately 38% of them lack food security. These actions were followed by the generosity of the Government of Bangladesh who has allocated 580 acres in the region to house the Rohingyas. “I applaud Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her efforts. She instantly acted and offered to house nearly a million people. I met Rohingya children and pregnant women who had walked for nearly a month. Others were on boats drifting in unknown waters.”

The Bangladesh Foreign Ministry has proposed to move approximately 100,000 of the Rohingyas to the Bhasan Char region. Pierce observes that there are a number of matters to take into consideration: “We respect any of the government’s decisions as they have been continually effective. They must consider a number of factors. The safety of the region is the first concern, particularly for children. The population that is being moved must be informed about their new location which includes providing knowledge regarding the region.” Relocation of such a large population would also include their consent; a decision that the Rohingyas will make if they are ensured safety. “The new location should have better conditions and freedom of movement. When you provide mobility, a population is able to conduct income-generating activities. Additionally, they have access to employment, education and health facilities. And these conditions would apply prior to their repatriation to Myanmar. International organizations and the Government of Bangladesh have demonstrated their collective ability to provide refuge for nearly a million people. We will ensure that they are able to live with the same dignity.” 


For some years now, Bangladesh has been the second largest apparel producer in the world after China. Despite a slow growth rate in the latest fiscal year, the RMG sector exported apparels worth $28.15 billion in the just-concluded fiscal year. Despite international backlashes following safety and work hazards, the industry has continued to churn out clothes in massive amounts, being exported to and worn by people all across the western world, which begs us to think, where do these clothes ultimately end up at the demise of their life cycle?

The Wasteful West: A Culture of Squandering Clothes
The western world’s ever-growing desire for fast and disposable fashion which is fuelled by the ready supply of affordable manufactured products from countries such as China, Bangladesh, and India, means the global population is consuming and disposing of an ever more significant quantity of garments annually.
This growth surprisingly is also being fueled by charities and recycling companies, who channel these old clothes to new owners for reuse.
The Waste & Resources Action Programme (Wrap), a UK government and EU-backed agency tasked with reducing waste, estimates that almost half of the garments people in the west now throw out end up going to a new home rather than ending up in a landfill or at an incineration plant.
Most would believe that diverting old clothes away from landfills and giving it a new purpose is a responsible practice. However, Dr. Andrew Brooks, a lecturer in development geography at King’s College London, argues that most donors do not realize that the majority of the clothing they are giving away to charity will be traded abroad for profit.
Wrap estimates that more than 70% of all the UK’s reused clothing heads overseas – joining a global second-hand trade in which billions of old garments are bought and sold around the world every year.
According to the latest available UN figures, the UK is the second largest exporter of used clothing after the US. It exported more than $600 million, or 351,000 tons, worth of discarded fashion overseas in 2013. Top destinations were Poland, Ghana, Pakistan, and Ukraine, whereas the US’s key trade partners were Canada, Chile, Guatemala, and India.
According to another recent report from Wrap, the average piece of clothing in the UK lasts for 3.3 years before being discarded. Other research puts the lifespan of UK garments at 2.2 years, which can probably be halved for younger demographics. But as fashion companies tell their buyers to remember that a dress will stay in their wardrobe for only five weeks, it can be expected that this discarding phenomenon will only grow further, with ever-changing consumer behaviors.
The way people get dressed now has virtually nothing in common with the behavior of previous generations, for whom 1 garment could be worn for decades. Wrap estimates that people in the UK purchased 1.13 million tons of new clothing last year. Another survey commissioned by Sainsbury’s found that 235 million clothing items ended up in landfill sites as people readied their wardrobes for summer.

Ever-changing Apparel: In One Season, Dismissed the Next
The global fashion industry has developed a pretty controversial reputation for its exploitation of human capital and outsourcing production to the world’s lowest-wage economies, i.e., the South-Asian nations. The 1,133 garment workers who were killed in Dhaka, half a decade back, worried global manufacturers about what was next.
For those in and around the fashion and apparel industry, the control of garment waste has long been considered to be the next big scandal. Globally, levels of production and consumption are forecasted to increase as fashion waste becomes the next environmental crisis, rivaling plastic pollution in oceans. This trend is the consequence of over-production and supply, powered by the relentless “fast fashion” system of production that over the past three decades has revolutionized both the way we dress and the way clothing is produced.
Much of the waste surrounding the fashion industry is hidden along a chaotic supply chain and does not consider the negative externalities being generated and make it into the environmental accounting that underpins a Wrap report. Perhaps the worst of it comes in the form of readymade garments, assembled and sewn but discarded because of an order mistake or an issue with the color. According to industry insiders, this waste represents 3-5% of every factory’s inventory, and a large factory in Dhaka can produce around 240 million pieces a year.
There is no verified figure for the amount of clothing produced each year globally, predominantly in low-wage textile hotspots like Dhaka, which has little to no waste management systems. Mostly, the waste is nowhere to be seen, where it becomes highly visible is on the outskirts of large production areas, such as the garment districts of Dhaka. This is where the production waste leaves the factories and is absorbed by the air and earth in the local community. Waste from the cutting rooms, called jhut, often ends up in so-called go-downs. These makeshift sorting operations are the stuff of legend in Dhaka, with fires often being a regular occurrence.

Is Fast Fashion the Problem?
As the global fast-fashion booms, a YouGov report found that 75% of adults in Australia alone have thrown clothes away in the past year, with 30% having tossed more than 10 garments. This throwaway culture is creating a severe environmental problem, with 24% saying they threw out a garment after one wear. 1 in 6 people binned at least 3 garments they had worn only once.
The report also showed a generational divide in attitudes towards clothing. Millennials enjoy buying new clothes, with almost 1 in 4 saying they had purchased at least half the clothes they own in the past year. They are also more likely to throw out their clothes within 2 years.
Online fashion shopping is also part of the problem. An Australia Post report showed 22% of online purchases were fashion items, with significant growth for 3 years running. Australian households received an average of 3.2 parcels of fashion items in 2016. So, this greater convenience in purchasing is also speeding up the binning process. The increasingly disposable nature of fashion is causing enormous problems for the environment, with more than 500,000 tons of textiles and leather sent to landfill in Australia alone.
But there are ways to fix the problem as well. Retailers could do better, such as offering more take-back schemes. The Swedish fashion brand H&M encourages customers to return all unwanted garments, which can be sold on as secondhand items, converted into other products or turned into textile fibers. Similarly, the outdoor wear company Patagonia offers free repairs and recycling to all customers. Hence, there is a role for brands to recognize that their responsibility does not stop at the till.

One Man’s Waste Another Man’s Treasure: The Potential $4 Billion Industry
Despite growing consumptions leading to greater castoffs, garment waste management exemplifies the idea of one man’s trash being another man’s treasure. The local garments industry itself produces recyclable scraps, which if tapped correctly, can generate a further $4 billion annually.
The idea is to turn the accumulated scraps into materials which are greatly demanded in the fashion world. By doing this, both business growth and addressing of climate change – can be harmoniously intersected in each other’s paths.
In a recent study, Reverse Resources, an Estonia-based software company trying to develop an online marketplace for garment waste for ensuring its maximum utilization and better value, showed that the total volume of annual leftovers from the county’s garment units is around 400,000 tons. Whereas, if these leftovers are recycled for making new yarns and used in re-manufacturing garments, it has the potential to generate business of more than $4 billion.
As per the findings of the study, more than 25% of resources are discarded in fabric and garment factories, which can go up to 47% in some cases. Even if the country’s 4,500 active garment units gain efficiency and ensure optimum use of fabrics, there will be an unavoidable amount of waste at different stages of production. Using waste from one cycle of production in the next through remanufacturing involves practical challenges but recycling it surely has a business potential within the country’s garment sector.
While dreams of $4 billion industry can be taken with a grain of salt, the environmental concerns surrounding apparel waste is not something to be overlooked. Fast-fashion, being fuelled by changing consumer behaviors, is undoubtedly here to stay. Nevertheless, both producers and consumers need to find sustainable ways to reduce the environmental impacts. Finally, shoppers must also consider whether to snap up the next best deal or wait it out, so that the hardly worn piece of clothing lying in their wardrobe, doesn’t meet an early demise at a local landfill.

While the RMG sector has always been the limelight of Bangladesh, another sector has been slowly building itself up and growing at an astounding rate. One of the oldest industries of the country, the leather and footwear industry has now become one of the key engines of growth in Bangladesh.
The first ever tannery was established in 1940 by RP Saha, a business man in Narayangonj, and since then this industry has amassed a rich history of 77 years. What really kick started this industry was when BATA, an international footwear company, started full fledge operation in Bangladesh in 1972. Their contribution in the local market of Bangladesh made a big difference.

By 1995 206 tanneries had been established which consequently led to an annual growth rate of 8.5% in the leather goods industry and 15.4% annual growth rate in the leather footwear industry between 1992-2002. Leather footwear accounted for 28% of export earnings from leather and leather products in 2007-08.
According to a study in 2014, there are around 100 small-to-medium leather goods manufacturers, and a small number of niche larger manufacturers.
In 2001-02 export earnings from the leather, leather goods, and footwear were approximately $210, $10, and $40 million accordingly. After 10 years, in 2011-2012 export earnings from the leather, leather goods, and footwear increased to $330.16, $99.36, and $335.51 million accordingly. To put things into perspective, in between those 10 years there has been a roughly 50% increase in export of leather, 900% increase in export of leather goods and 700% increase in export of footwear. As a result, the leather industry achieved a growth rate of 19.42% in 2011-2012. This led to an FDI of $ 57.29 million in the leather industry of Bangladesh in 2012-13.
In FY 2016-17 (July-February) FDI in EPZ area in leather, footwear and leather goods industry were $252.41 million and investment outside EPZ area in leather, footwear and leather goods industry with joint venture investment were $3.33 million. On top of that, during the same time frame there was a local investment in leather, footwear and leather goods industry were $130 million.

The leather sector generates direct and indirect employment for about 850,000 people. The ratio of female and male workers is 65% and 35% accordingly. The industry currently has approximately 65,000 tannery Workers and 5,00,000 leather collector and hoard Labor. According to the Export Promotion Bureau of Bangladesh, the leather industry achieved the milestone of $1 billion in 2012-13 fiscal years for the first time, whereas the International leather industry size is $233 billion approximately.
Bangladesh is currently exporting 0.53% of the global leather, leather goods and footwear market. International leather goods industry size is $72 billion approximately, where Bangladesh shares 1% of the whole market. International leather footwear market size is $52 billion approximately, where Bangladesh shares 1.07% of the whole market.
Bangladesh was ranked 8th, in terms of footwear production in the world in 2016, with a production of 378 million pairs. The traditional market of Bangladeshi leather products comprises of Japan, Germany, Italy, UK, Belgium, Spain, France, Poland, the US and Canada.

Local Scenario
Bangladesh, a country with a population of 160 million (approximately) consumes 300 million pairs of footwear annually. Consequently, the local footwear market is growing at 10-15% per year.
Popular local brands comprise of Apex, Bay, Jennys, Zeil’s, and Leatherex. Among them Apex is the largest with 224 retail stores countrywide. Combined, they have imported approximately 24 million pairs of footwear in fiscal year 2016-17, which values approximately 93 million USD with an average unit price of USD3.87.

Future prospects
Given the steady rise in growth of the leather industry, Bangladesh government has targeted export earnings of $5 billion by 2021 from this sector. Keeping that target on sight Bangladesh government is currently implementing Skills for Employment Investment Program (SEIP) through Ministry of finance in cooperation with Asian Development Bank (ADB) and targeted to train 15,000 skilled workers by December 2020.

Source :
1. http://en.banglapedia.org/index.php?title=Tannery
2. http://www.assignmentpoint.com/business/marketing-business/report-on-marketing-strategies-of-bata-shoe-limited.html
3. http://jbbc.co.jp/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/A-Report-on-Leather-Leather-Goods-Industry-of-Bangladesh.pdf
4. http://www.aplf.com/en-US/leather-fashion-news-and-blog/news/35381/bangladesh-footwear-market-expands-fast-as-demand-rises

Eminent litterateur Hasan Azizul Haque once wrote that people consider their birthplace to be the center of their existence. They don’t want to sever their ties from that place in any way. Despite the circumstances, people still cling to their birthplace, as it is a reminder of their being. This bond becomes permanent over the years. With regional change comes behavioral change; just like nature and everything around us, mankind’s self-esteem evolves, the writer added. According to him, while death is the final chapter for mankind, if there’s anything else in between that affects one’s existence most brutally, it’s becoming a refugee. In fact, death and becoming a refugee might seem almost synonymous to one another. A refugee may live to see another day; however, the days ahead of him or her may not be progressive.

Migratory birds fly for hours, days and months to evade the extreme cold and atrocity of nature. But the atrocity of human being upon the same creature is second to none. Nothing is more disgusting than to watch people are fleeing from home leaving everything just to save the lives.

Since September 2017, Bangladesh rescued almost five lac new Rohingya refugees. In addition to the ones rescued previously, there are now 1 million Rohingya refugees residing in our country. The Rohingya situation isn’t a result of a war-torn affair; rather it’s a ploy that was carried out by the Myanmar military force in the form of a successive slow genocide. Since the late 70s, the Rohingya Muslims in the Rakhine state of Myanmar has been subjected to inhumane torture for centuries. Time and again, the massive exodus has led to the loss of countless lives.

As a photojournalist, I have witnessed numerous hungry, helpless and fearful refugees that were based in temporary refugee camps in Ukhiya and Teknaf. Their terror-stricken experiences will surely break the hearts of anyone who has even a shred of empathy left for mankind.

Half of the new refugees are made up of children; many mothers have walked into this country in search of shelter, carrying their malnourished children. Fathers have carried their children in baskets like peddlers and sought refuge here. This special photo story captures the innocent faces of those tired, starving, and terrified children. Theirs is the kind of trauma that is sure to leave a gaping hole in the hearts of many.

These wide-eyed angels strike our hearts with numerous questions. Will the world be able to answer those questions? Only time will tell.

Age: 2 years (on 14.09.2017)
Mother: Sanjida
Father: Rahmat Ullah

Mohammad Rihan
Age: 1 years (on 14.09.2017)
Mother: Morium Khatun
Father: Khairut Ullah

Age: 1.5 years (on 14.09.2017)
Mother: Hasina Begum
Father: Abul Hossain

Age: 1.5 years (on 14.09.2017)
Mother: Mustafa Khatun
Father: Mohammad Hojiullah

Age: 2.5 years (on 14.09.2017)
Mother: Sajeda,
Father: Abdus Samad

Age: 3 years (on 14.09.2017)
Mother: Zaheda
Fathre: Mohammad Rofiq

Age: 1.5 years (on 14.09.2017)
Mother: Rasheda
Father: Imam Hossain

Age: 3 years (on 14.09.2017)
Mother: Chhuru
Father: Korim Ullah

Age: 2 years (on 14.09.2017)
Mother: Taiaba Khatun
Father: Nur Islam

Too much talk of “social media”, “influencer marketing”, storytelling etc etc. All things that are not new. They have all been key to good marketing for literally thousands of years, they are all important considerations for a marketing plan and but they are certainly not new ideas. Like most people marketers are very suseptible to fads and fashion. The marketing media ( yes just like this publication ) need to keep selling “news” and so they like to make things seem amazing breakthroughs. Using modern mediums, and thinking through tactics is important BUT to be effective over time marketers need to focus on building a strategy that will mean something to the people you want to convert and reconvert and reconvert to consumption.

And that means understanding WHAT REALLY MATTERS TO PEOPLE ( and not just to people as they are consumers I.e. consumers … see Lessons Learned no. 1 )

More specifically what matters to the people you want to consume your brand/product/service. What matters to them as people? What matters that makes your category important to them? What matters about your offering that might differentiate it from their other choices ( and there are always multiple choices ) ? What matters about their media choices?
The problem is that too many marketers forget their real role : “ to find out what matters to people and then decide how their product/service can meet that need, desire, fear, hope ”. Everything else like price, distribution, media selection, promotion, use of celebrity or influencer are just tactics. Yes tactics that also rely on knowing “what matters” to those people.
I learnt the lesson while doing research in to infant milk products, first in Thailand and later in China, Indonesia and Taiwan. A big multi-national company asked the advertising agency I led to come up with a new campaign to get “good mums” to buy their brand. I asked the obvious … “ how do you define ‘good mums’ ?”.
The client’s response was “well any mum is a good mum”. Obviously not true. Not all mums are good mums. Some make many mistakes, some don’t try hard enough, some just don’t want to be mums. And how do you define a good mum? Do mums have different definitions? What matters to mums that help them define they are doing a good job?


1. A mum who sacrifices absolutely everything and cuts back on everything else to afford only the best products for her child
2. A mum who studies every possible piece of information available (asks friends, studies the pack information, reads anything available off-line or on-line) to make a choice
3. A mum who checks what other mums do and buys what she sees them buying
Then we asked the 1,000 mums to choose which definition they liked and wanted to be and which one they thought they really were. Over 90% said they wished they were no 1 or no 2 but in reality 70% told us they were no 3. The first to types of good mum are ideals. Admirable but for most just too difficult. For most mums across all the countries I did this research in it was just too risky not to buy the brands they saw in other mums shopping baskets. What mattered was to follow the popular brands that provided the security that other mothers would not question their judgement. And therefore they would be seen as good mums.
So what? Well that led to some basic decisions like making sure we “planted” the clients brand in shopping baskets at stores so mums would see others were buying it. It meant getting word of mouth campaigns started. Yes using Facebook would be an option today but also maybe just good old fashioned tactics like having influencer mothers talk about it and/or giving samples to mums to give to friends. The tactics of course will change depending on “what matters” to the mums you are targeting. More in the next lesson.

LESSON 2 : there is no more important question you can ask yourself, again and again, than “what matters to the people I want to reach?”

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The country next aims to achieve an upper-middle-income status by 2021 for which favorable economic conditions are much needed. The conditions may require the country to have an annual GDP rate of about 7.5% to 8% and entail overcoming significant obstacles to seize new opportunities brought by the changing global circumstances.
However, the current scenario of the RMG export at its lowest growth of 0.20% in last 15 years depicts an entirely different story. The Export Promotion Bureau shows the total exports in the 12 months (ended June 30, 2017) to be $34.8 billion, or 5.85% below the target of $37 billion. The annual percentage gain was also the smallest since FY 2001-02 year when exports reduced as a result of the global economic downturn. This is a matter of concern as Bangladesh’s export mostly depends on the RMG sector.
It is worth mentioning here that our government has set overall export target at $41 billion, with a growth target of 7.87%, riding on apparel products, for the FY2017-18. The government wants to earn $30.16 billion from the RMG sector with an 8.12% growth. A very significant question that arises at the moment is that whether the goals set have a proper analysis behind them or not. Also, addressing the root of our export growth failure is very necessary before such targets are set.
With USA being the number one destination for the RMG sector, Bangladesh’s export to the USA has declined drastically over the past few years.
The RMG leaders state that factors such as compliance, investment, strong currency, and lower global demand are behind such export rate failures and strongly propose government’s devaluation of the currency, more incentives, and reduction of the source at tax which is currently 0.7% while corporate tax is 15%.
However, how realistic is it for the government to do so?
Bangladesh is heavily dependent on imports, so devaluating the currency will have a catastrophic impact on the economy. 93% of our required cotton is imported whereas all types of machinery, chemicals, and yarn are imported. The knit has a strong backward linkage; however, the woven sector does not. The sector is solely dependent on the import of fabrics which makes the demands of the RMG leaders quite irrelevant.

Source: EPB

As international trade is a competitive market where many different factors come into play, the government cannot solely focus on the RMG sector. The buyers are always on the lookout for attractive opportunities to do business. Thus, the country requires new ways to attract them to stop exports from declining gradually. The industry essentially needs to shift its focus towards differentiation as providing the very basics will not do much to attract new opportunities. Including higher value-added products to the portfolio such as lingerie, sportswear, jackets, business suits, fashionable tops, etc. along with the basic T-shirts, shirts, and pants might result in a significant growth in exports.
According to a 2017 Fashion Industry Benchmarking Study by the United States Fashion Industry Association, Bangladesh was termed as the riskiest destination even though it offers the best competitive price. The report further explains the factors that have the most significant impact on US companies’ sourcing decisions, such as:

• The speed of outsourcing: It isn’t much surprising, that the United States, Mexico and members of the Dominican Republic of Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR), have been outperforming other Asian suppliers because of their geographic location. The respondents of the study mention that shorter lead time while sourcing from China and Vietnam was behind this success.
• The cost of outsourcing: The responses followed by members of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) and several other Asian suppliers, state that Bangladesh offers the most competitive price in comparison, to that of the United States, Mexico, and CAFTA-DR.
Should Bangladesh follow Vietnam?
Recently a number of claims have been made that Vietnam offers more incentives to its RMG Sector in different forms such as the no tax policy for businesses during the first five years and 10% tax imposed for the next nine years. However, such benefits are only enjoyed by investors from abroad, and not by the local manufacturers. Here’s how Vietnam doesn’t qualify as a typical example in the context of Bangladesh.

1. The applicable Corporate Income Tax (CIT) in Vietnam is 25%. However, a preferential tax treatment of 10% and 20%, including tax exemption, tax reduction, and preferential tax rates is available for investments in encouraged sectors such as health, education, high-tech, infrastructure development, and software. Encouraged economic zones or areas with difficult socio-economic conditions also made it to the list. As a part of the same policy, investments attract a corporate income tax exemption for the first four years of operations. Moreover, the income tax in Vietnam is charged at 50% of the preferential rate for the nine subsequent years, and at the preferential rate for two consecutive years whereas the corporate income tax rate remains at 25% throughout. Also, as a part of the same tax regime, losses are allowed to be carried forward for five years.
2. Vietnam fixed its export target at $188 billion followed by a highly diversified export basket, whereas, Bangladesh is only aiming for $50 billion.
3. Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) dominates most of the Vietnam’s RMG sector, where FDI driven firms account for 60% of Vietnam’s total garment and textile export revenue. According to the Vietnam Textile and Apparel Association, there are 3,000 garment and textile firms in the country, 25% of which are FDI funded. Whereas as a matter of fact, Bangladesh has just approved of FDI in its RMG sector outside the Economic Processing Zone (EPZ) area.
4. The Vietnam Textile and Apparel Association (VITAS) is making full-fledged efforts to coerce the government into enabling more foreign direct investment in the textile sector with a view of revising the development plan for the year 2020. They have also charted out a futuristic vision document for the progress of the sector by 2030.
5. Despite being a developing country member of WTO, the Vietnamese government is prohibited from providing any subsidies or incentives, neither directly or indirectly to the textile and garment manufacturers. Similarly, no special low-cost financing scheme is available for the garments and textile industries.

Across the region, productivity gaps remain considerable, reflecting the low-value nature of the industry (figure above). In Bangladesh, garment sector productivity is defined as the gross value added to current prices per employed person which were less than $1,000. In Cambodia, India, Pakistan, and Vietnam, productivity levels in garments, textiles, and footwear ranging from $1,700 to $2,300. In contrast, Thailand’s labor productivity exceeded $8,000 and was more than $4,000 in Indonesia and the Philippines. Therefore, Bangladesh has the lowest productivity in this region comparatively. (Source: ILO report)


Source: Estimates based on official data from national accounts and national labour force surveys (various years); World Bank, op. cit.

Note: Labour Productivity is defined as gross value added in current prices per employed person, with official nominal exchange rates applied; ‘p’ = projections; GTF = garments, textiles and footwear.

As per a report called “Lack of expertise in Bangladesh’s laborer market” by Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS) only 8% of RMG workers are trained while the rest of the 92% remain unskilled. The report also stated that the RMG sector is short of 119,479 skilled workers, 48,130 semi-skilled and 8,577 unskilled laborers.
With very few institutions for skill development and no long-term plans for building more the country still remains devoid of skilled human resources in spite of being, in the RMG business for 30 years. Furthermore, no steps have been taken in this regard by the private sector. Thus, the government shouldn’t be held solely responsible for this.


Bangladesh never played the long term strategy goal and is good at defensive strategy. As export to Europe is doing good, we should really concentrate on EU market. This means organizing trade delegation to Europe, attending all exhibitions held in Europe would be of commendable significance. Just like many other RMG experts, I also think it is high time to host a sustainability or Made in Bangladesh conference either in China or Europe. We should definitely focus on China as Chinese companies are relocating. Chinese companies are used to working in environments similar to our country so they are more suited to set up factories in Bangladesh. Finance Asia (Haymarket) has a done a good job for the last five years organizing “Investment Bangladesh” events in Singapore and Hong Kong. Professional organizations should be hired to promote Bangladesh. We have proven that we are not good at marketing and branding so let the professionals do it and get rid of that problem.

In the end, alongside the general blame being placed on strong currency, investment in the safety of factories and Accord Alliance, the rationality of Bangladesh’s aim remains questionable. Having the lowest wage rate in Asia, lowest productivity among the competitors, low percentage of skilled workers, and the worst safety records make the country more prone to criticism for setting such high targets.

* www.vietnamdpep.com/about-vietnam-whyinvest.asp?lk=vaitnam3
* www.textileexcellence.com/news/details/1736/sun-shines-on-vietnam%27s-textile-and-garment-industry- despite-rece…
* www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—asia/—ro-bangkok/documents/publication/wcms_534289.pdf
* www.ids.trade/files/actif_report_on_vietnam_textile_and_garment_industry.pdf

Submerged houses, displaced families and miles and miles of flood water. This is the scene which can be found in most of northern and southern Bangladesh, at present. Above average rainfalls in this monsoon season coupled with water diverted from India has led some to speculate that the flood in 2017 may rival that of 1988. Bangladesh being one of the largest deltas on earth is particularly prone to natural disasters. This leads to hundreds being killed, thousands losing their homes and being displaced and billions incurred in financial losses. In a 2015 report by Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics titled ‘Bangladesh Disaster Related Statistics: 2015’ reveals that the country suffered losses amounting to $2.33 billion from 2009 to 2014.

The future looks bleaker since an expected 3-foot rise in the sea levels will most likely plunge could displace a significant portion of the population. And to add insult to injury Bangladesh is not even a responsible for this global change. It only contributes about 0.3% of the global emissions. But that hasn’t stopped the government’s efforts to push for cleaner fuel to decelerate the effects of climate change. I say ‘decelerate’ and not ‘completely halt’ climate change because that would be naivety on my part. The Government of Bangladesh (GoB) hopes to produce ethanol from some of the grains the country produces such as broken rice and molasses. Ethanol, with its benefits of being easily producible and usage of locally produced grains, are a boon for countries looking to reduce their Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions and excess of grain production. In fact, according to growthenergy.org, a website representing the producers and supporters of ethanol in the USA, ethanol reduces GHG emissions by 59% relative to gasoline.

However, I must reiterate the part of excess grain production. Our country is a net importer of grains and a move towards producing ethanol has been termed as ‘suicidal’ by Moshiur Rahman, who convenes the Bangladesh Poultry Industries Coordination Committee. Currently, Bangladesh only produces half of the maize it requires while importing the rest from USA and Brazil. Similarly, we also import molasses and rice. A rise in the demand for these grains means a direct impact on the food prices which we all know will disproportionately affect the poor and the lower middle-class income groups. With such a heinous impact on food security and prices, does ‘going green’ really add value to the life our citizens? Food security is a major issue of climate change with an absolute impact on for key areas: food availability, food access, food utilization and food stability.

Bangladesh is already on the precipice of being the worst afflicted region due to the irrevocable change to its food production capacity. Agriculture plays a vital role in the economy by accounting for 20% of the GDP and 65% of the labor force according to World Bank reports. But environmental degradation poses the risk of detracting all forms of economic benefit. Severe environmental degradation, due to population pressure on marginal lands will eventually lead to a fall in productivity in food production and per capita production.

To make matters worse, the cultivation of marginal lands is largely done by lower income groups; a group who can least afford to bear the losses of producing in these low-quality land. Thus overuse and changes in resource quality place further pressures on the scarce land and water resources thus further confirming the lives of these people to the vicious circle of poverty.
Bangladesh’s Vision 2021 and the consequent Perspective Plan aims to achieve complete food sufficiency for the population by 2021. In addition to this, the global community along with Bangladesh have adopted the second Sustainable Development Goal (SDG), or SDG 2, which aims to “end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture” by 2030.

But while the GoB has gamely made promises of adapting the SDGs, policy decisions need to be revised to ensure that we achieve our SDG’s with the same speed and effectiveness that we had for the Millennium Development Goals. To start with, we need to address the financial incapability of the poor farmers. The government already had policies and programs in place which extends agriculture credit to farmers, but more often than not, it is the farmers with who already have large land who benefits from this. Furthermore, ‘almost 30% of the households do not own any land and another 30% own only up to half an acre.’1

Overhauling the existing land ownership related policies is another factor which can significantly change things for the better. ‘Tenancy farming is order of the day. People who own land largely don’t do farming while people who don’t own land mostly do the job as lessees’2. The end result of this is growing income disparity between the two groups in the rural regions and the social evils which follow when income disparity exists.

Another reason for growing food insecurity is the discrepancy between high food demand and limited choice scenario. Resources such as land are scarce while food demand continues to rise with the rising population rates. This also means greater demand for housing, roads, and industries which are simply taking away the farming lands. But the government has tried to be proactive with their environmental policies. In 2009, Bangladesh Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan (BCCSAP) was created which added to the country’s list of climate related interventions through effective policies and projects. The BCCSAP is a 10-year program which is dedicated to building the readiness of the systems to confront the aftermaths of climate change. ‘In order to cope with the threats to food security, efforts have been concentrated on community-level adaptation, agricultural technological extension, surveillance systems installation to track patterns of weather, pests, and diseases, and sanitation program implementation (BCCSAP, 2009)’3

However, here is the problem with BCCSAP. Almost nine years into its existence, no efforts have been made to upgrade its disaster management system. Given that this program looks into the problem of food security for Bangladesh, that is indeed a worrying thought. Nonetheless, not all is lost just yet. Bangladesh has made great strides in achieving its MDG’s and with proper policy implementation, investing in technology and quick thinking we can hopefully do the same with the SDG’s.

For instance, ‘in 2013, Asian Development Bank (ADB) inaugurated a $2.5 million experimental program to introduce crop insurance to Bangladeshi farmers. Supported by the Japan Fund for Poverty Reduction and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and the Bangladesh government – will design and carry out the trial of WIBCI (Weather Index Based Crop Insurance) aimed at the small and destitute farmers who are in the most danger of losing everything to hostile environmental factors.’4

The insurance would enable a farmer to retrieve remuneration from the insurer when calamities occur. This form of safeguard would enable farmers to plan and save for long term despite their harvests being destroyed by tumultuous weather. One other way is to deal with the food shortage would be to scale up the public grain storage system. Most farmers do not have access to proper storage facilities which forces them to trade their entire harvest in bulk, leaving none for selling or consumption during disastrous times. ‘Currently, grain storage capacity provided by the Bangladesh Government is 1.62 million tons, provided mainly through conventional granaries and warehouses where the typical shelf-life of grain is less than 1 year.’5

Climate change, bad neighbors or poor governance: who are we to blame for all natural calamities? Perhaps, we should stop with the finger pointing and start coming up with solutions to better equip our citizens to fight these catastrophes. Government also needs to have cohesive relief plan for the victims which would act as some form of safety net for them. Frequent update of government disaster management policies is also advisable. And for all of us who are safe (till now) in our comfortable homes, maybe we should loosen our purse and heart strings and reach out to those who needs it the most.

1 Food security: It’s not only about production, The Daily Star, February 04, 2016
2 Same as 1
3 Climate Change and Food Security, The Daily Star, February 26, 2017
4 Proposed Grant Assistance People’s Republic of Bangladesh: Pilot Project on Weather Index-Based Crop Insurance, ADB, March 2013
5 mfsp.gov.bd/project.php

By M. Rokonuzzman, PhD

After creating enormous success stories in India and Philippine, the outsourcing of call center services has started to decline. Once, the progression of technology had helped such services to migrate from advanced economies to developing countries. However, further progression in that area is now enabling the software agents to take over these jobs. Does it mean that the high-paid job opportunities offered to the large student population of developing countries like Bangladesh through service globalization are heading towards the end? The question remains that in this era of outsourcing, what makes Bangladesh lack behind where previously, countries like India and Philippines have already seen success?

Technological progress has eliminated the barriers between people living in the remote areas and work processes to quite an extent. Such development has also contributed to the globalization of work processes, often termed as service value chain globalization or Business Process Outsourcing (BPO). During such transformations, certain work processes performed by human resources are often being taken over by technology. As a result, geographic redistribution of work along with the reallocation of job roles between humans and technology also takes place. For example, the expansion of international telecommunication circuits led to the globalization of call center services which transferred such service jobs from advanced countries to developing ones. On the other hand, the further development of technology has opened the opportunity of transferring such roles from remote service providers (call center agents) to software agents. However, that does not necessarily mean that the opportunity in service globalization is rapidly being eaten up by intelligent machines. Technological advancement is also opening the opportunities for globalization for many other work processes. For instance, it was previously an unthinkable option to create a linkage between older adults living in the remote areas and health services. Now technologies such as smart sensors, semi-autonomous assistive devices, or affordable augmented reality technologies have opened the possibilities of connecting the aging population of advanced economies like Japan or Western Europe to millions of potential remote care providers of Bangladesh as well as many other developing countries. Such translations are creating far greater global service opportunities than contact center jobs which are being transferred to machines from humans.

ITC (International Trade Center) has mentioned that the share of the developing countries in the world service export rose from 11% in 1990 to around 30% in 2010. This was aided by the increasing technological sophistication which led them to shift from the more traditional Transport and Tourism sectors to IT and other Commercial Services (business services). Service off-shoring activities accounted for $252 billion in export revenues in 2010 and employed 4 million people globally; UNCTAD’s 2012 World Investment Report points out that foreign direct investment in the service sector reached $570 billion in 2011. According to the World Bank database, commercial service export (other than travel and transportation) has increased from little over $1500 billion in 2000 to more than $4000 billion in 2011. Despite this growth potential, the share of the developing countries in world service export is still only 30% as very few of these countries are taking advantage of new opportunities that would arise from specializing in the export of services. Although low cost, low latency and high capacity broadband connections have created tremendous opportunities, Bangladesh is still failing to take substantial advantage by scaling up the piloted success of more than 200 export oriented software firms, IT service companies, ITES, and BPO organizations. On the other hand, among success stories, Philippines has succeeded in creating $18 billion BPO revenue while generating a million jobs.

Moreover, the reason behind the failure of scaling up these 200 firms must be addressed and worked upon to unlock Bangladesh’s potential. There are several reasons behind such failures. One of them being the demand driven expansion strategy of the local firms. These firms have insufficient access to risk capital. Moreover, the capacity in managing the risk of these businesses is also very limited, and they tend to serve small overseas clients. In serving small work orders of many small clients, Bangladeshi firms failed to benefit from reuse of digital assets, learning curve benefit, and economies of scale as well as scope. As a result, the cost of delivery of these firms is high which reduces the profit margin—limiting the ability of expansion using profit.

The decoupling of humans in getting the work done with the support of machines has been occurring and is expected to keep progressing further. Advances in automation, low latency connectivity, and the Internet of Things (IOT) is opening the possibilities of connecting millions of Bangladeshis to operate robots in advanced economies, to perform $8/hour routine work in an unpredictable environment. No robot is intelligent enough to carry out these tasks. The Avatar Economy may have far reaching opportunities, but the bottom line is that globalization of service value chain is opening tremendous opportunities for the world as a whole, and Bangladesh in particular. The combination of technology and globalization will have a profound impact on the way we’ll work in the future. The globalization of work by connecting people from anywhere in the world to work processes by low latency connectivity and sensor rich semi-autonomous machines are being influenced by five major forces:
1. Technological development
2. Globalization
3. Demographic changes
4. Social trends
5. Low carbon development

The application of humans in getting job done can now be accessed seamlessly, anywhere and everywhere, as the costs of communication and coordination have dropped to almost zero. There are several driving forces behind this mass virtualization of work. The first one being the cost, as it’s the fastest way to have more efficient operations. The second reason is counterintuitive, yet more profound. Communications and co¬ordination and the information revolution emerging from social networks, telepresence and mobility are enabling new levels of collaboration, changing the way we deploy technology, where and how we work and how the organization itself is structured.

To benefit from such expanding opportunities of service or work process globalization, instead of following the success stories, we should prepare ourselves to be at the right place at the right time with right capacity for capitalizing the unfolding opportunities. Instead of waiting to replicate the success stories, we should monitor and step in to lead the process of creating success stories. It should be noted that once an emerging opportunity takes off, leaders capitalize on the scale, scope and learning curve advantage to become cost effective and better producers, sometimes by engaging more expensive human resources than what new entrants may have access to. In the past, Bangladesh’s strategy of following leaders to capitalize on the service globalization strategy at the matured stage, whether it’s the call center industry or IT services, has failed because of this. It’s time to monitor, predict and manage the risks of entering a target industry segment to capitalize on the dynamic opportunity before it takes off. Such a strategy has the potential to connect a portion of 40 million students to the rapidly globalizing services and work process value chains to create an industry, which is mostly unimaginable to many of us at this stage.

The writer is an academic, researcher and activist. He currently works as the Dean of the School of Engineering and Physical Sciences and as a Professor at the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at North South University. He can be reached at zaman.rokon.bd@gmail.com.