Fifty Years of Bangladesh-US Economic Cooperation
Dr. Atiur Rahman
Last year, I had the privilege of attending a three-day international program titled ‘Bangladeshi Immigrant Day and Trade Fair 2022’ in New York as a side event of UN General Assembly meetings by the heads of the governments. This non-governmental event was organized by the New York-based Muktadhara Foundation and USA-Bangladesh Business Link in association with the Greater New York Chamber of Commerce. The event showcased the existing cultural and diplomatic relations to further facilitate USA-Bangladesh bilateral trade and business. The delegates from the USA and Bangladesh, comprising noted professionals and representatives from business conglomerates and investors, participated in both the fair and seminars, highlighting the theme of why foreign investors should invest in Bangladesh. The seminars focused on varied issues, including ‘Investment opportunities in Bangladesh and promoting Bangladeshi products in the North American market,’ ‘Bangladesh’s digital revolution: IT outsourcing in Bangladesh, quality services at low cost,’ ‘Digital applications at massive scale-rise of Bangladesh,’ ‘The role of Non-Resident Bangladeshi intellectuals and professionals in the development of Bangladesh women empowerment’ and ‘Promoting formal remittances from the US to Bangladesh.’ There were also several vibrant cultural events highlighting the contribution of ordinary people, media, and elected representatives from the USA in promoting Bangladesh’s war of liberation in 1971. An exhibition of photographs of the Father of the Nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was also organized to celebrate his birth centenary. Besides the President and many directors of the Bangladesh Federation of the Chamber of Commerce and Industries (FBCCI), the former Governor of the central bank of Bangladesh and several policymakers from Bangladesh participated in these interactive sessions. Also, the representative from New York’s Mayor’s office, the state senators, and prominent US citizens who participated in the 1971 campaign for the liberation of Bangladesh actively participated in these people-to-people conversations. A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was also signed between the FBCCI and GNYCC (Greater New York Chamber of Commerce) to promote economic and commercial cooperation between the two countries. It is hoped that these trade and remittance fairs will eventually become a permanent annual event to promote trade and business between the two countries.
While recalling the fifty years of diplomatic relations between Bangladesh and the United States, it can safely be said that Bangladesh has emerged as an ‘important partner’ of the United States in the economic, climate, humanitarian, and security arenas. The recent document on Indo-Pacific Outlook by the Bangladesh Ministry of Foreign Affairs carefully projects Bangladesh’s emerging engagement in this region at a time when the whole world is in the middle of geo-political tensions and restructuring. The growing economic and trade cooperation between the two countries and people has also been emphasized by the Bangladesh Premier in her message to the souvenir published by the organizers of the above trade fair in New York. She wrote, “The USA has been a steadfast partner of Bangladesh in our journey towards this extraordinary development. In the last 50 years, both countries have enjoyed warm relations, development cooperation, climate change, counterterrorism, democracy, and human rights. Even during the pandemic, the USA extended support by providing many vaccines. I hope our partnership with the USA will be deepened to accomplish our shared goals in the decades to come.” Apart from government-to-government cooperation, the two people share the same aspirations of inclusive, democratic, and humane development as envisioned in their common history of anti-colonial struggles for independence. Recently, both nations have been fighting together in various global forums relentlessly against climate change challenges as a significant segment of their population has become victims of erratic climate events like hurricanes, floods, and wildfires. Also, the climate finance provided by USAID to various non-governmental and governmental organizations in Bangladesh has proven to be an extraordinary humanitarian gesture to the climate-affected people.
It may be noted here that this robust architecture of mutual relationship between the two nations originated in the tumultuous days of 1971 when the people and the leaders of the United States came forward to support the cause of Bangladesh’s independence despite opposition from the Nixon administration. Hence, the mutual relationship between the two nations is deeply embedded in the culture of freedom and democracy. We fondly remember the contributions of the late Senator Edward Kennedy, Senator Frank Church, and many other legislators across the board who came forward to enact the Foreign Aid Bill to stop economic assistance to Pakistan until they refrained from genocide in Bangladesh. The media also provided unprecedented support to the cause of Bangladesh by covering the grievances raised by the representatives of the wartime Government of Bangladesh, including Professor Rehman Sobhan. The US intelligentsia and members of various civic and cultural groups came out of their comfort zones. They aligned themselves with the students and other activists who condemned the genocide in occupied Bangladesh. We must pay our deepest respect to noted journalists like Sydney H Schanberg of the New York Times and Tony Clifton of Newsweek for popularizing the cause of Bangladesh not only in Congress but throughout the United States. Cultural icons like George Harrison and Ravi Shankar organized the Concert for Bangladesh at Madison Square in New York on August 01, 1971, to raise funds for supporting humanitarian aid for the refugees forced out of Bangladesh during the liberation war. That historic bond has been further cemented by the visit of Senator Edward Kennedy to the newly independent Bangladesh and subsequent support for its reconstruction by both the government and philanthropies of the United States.
There has been significant improvement in relations between the two nations during the last fifty years, paving the way for deeper cultural, economic, and strategic cooperation. The US educational institutions have been particularly attracting young talents from Bangladesh for quality higher education, many of whom are returning to Bangladesh and contributing significantly to its development as young professionals and creative entrepreneurs. There has also been a considerable flow of immigrants to the United States, and they are now playing an important role as small and medium entrepreneurs, and many are engaged in private and public services. We must appreciate American society for welcoming the non-resident Bangladeshis (NRBs) amidst them and providing a space for their development. It may also be noted that the NRBs from the United States now regularly send a significant portion of remittances to Bangladesh, contributing hugely to its macroeconomic stability and strengthening the pace of economic growth. The USA is now the second largest source of remittances of foreign exchange for Bangladesh. This formal inflow of foreign remittance to Bangladesh has been critical in maintaining macroeconomic stability during the global economic crisis. It is also one of the top destinations for our apparel exports.
Besides seeking a robust, multi-faceted, and mutually respectful relationship, both countries have been engaging in deeper economic ties. Over the fifty years, the United States has invested over eight billion dollars in various projects to improve the lives of Bangladeshis. It has supported sustainable agriculture, increased food security, modernized small-scale farming, provided the necessary support for climate adaptation, and conserved biodiversity. In addition, the US support for strengthening the trade and business environment, improving public health and education, responding to disasters, and promoting democratic institutional practices deserve to be noted here. Its robust support for hosting about a million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh who fled from neighboring Myanmar to avoid state-sponsored genocide must also be especially noted here. Recently, some of the members of the US Congress moved a resolution to condemn Pakistan for perpetrating genocide in 1971 against the freedom-loving people of Bangladesh. This gesture of the US lawmakers has raised hope that this genocide will surely get global formal recognition in the coming days. As noted earlier, our Prime Minister has acknowledged the support provided by the United States in procuring COVID-19 vaccines through COVAX. It also provided more than 121 million USD worth of lifesaving COVID-19-related health equipment and other assistance to Bangladesh to cope with the pandemic.
The US market for Bangladesh’s export of apparel, leather products, pharmaceuticals, and processed agricultural products has been gaining stronger ground as the latter’s economic growth has been gaining pace, defying most challenges, including the pandemic and the Russian- Ukraine War. The US is the second largest destination of Bangladeshi apparel, following Europe. It has been reported that Bangladesh has exported 6.64 billion US dollars of apparel during the first eight months of 2022. This sector earned 4.32 billion USD in 2021. This was only 3.48 billion USD in 2020. In other words, the export of apparel to the US market has been gaining traction despite the ongoing global economic downturn. That means Bangladesh’s apparel increased by 53.70% compared to that of 37.35% from global sources. China and Vietnam recorded 37% and 33% respectively. Simultaneously, the US companies are the largest foreign investors in Bangladesh, accounting for 4.3 billion USD of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in 2021. This was about 20% of the total stock of FDI in Bangladesh. These investments are concentrated in sectors like natural gas extraction, banking and insurance, and power generation. We also get support from US companies in the transportation and infrastructure sectors regarding receiving high-quality airplanes, locomotives, power generation turbines, renewable energy development, and dredging equipment.
The recently launched US-Bangladesh Business Council has been helping both countries in steering further deeper commercial ties between the economic stakeholders. In fact, the Bangladesh government has been pushing forward several proactive initiatives to enhance the production capacity and productivity of our export products, along with further diversification of these products through the improvement of related infrastructure, R&D initiatives, and smarter economic diplomacy. The US chambers and think tanks can help expedite this endeavor of Bangladesh. Many universities and research institutes now have a substantial number of NRB scientists and technology experts who are familiar with the ground realities of Bangladesh. Their technical inputs can indeed prove to be valuable in enhancing the manufacturing capacity of Bangladesh in alignment with the needs of the US market.
Besides the economic and commercial ties, the two countries are also on the same page in fostering strategic cooperation in building peace worldwide. It may be noted that Bangladesh is the largest contributor to peacekeeping operations and helping peacebuilding in the sectarian-strife parts of the world. Both countries work hand in hand with various global and regional organizations, including the IMF, World Bank, World Trade Organization, ASEAN Regional Forum, and many other UN-led multilateral organizations. Bangladesh’s leadership in promoting climate-friendly development and financial inclusion is deeply respected by the United States.
Indeed, both countries have benefited from the dynamic partnership in promoting issues of multilateral interests. It is hoped they will continue to work even more closely in the coming days as the post-pandemic and post-Ukraine-war world will be different. As already indicated by the rising inflation, energy and food prices, and increased protectionism, there is a need for deeper cooperation between the partnering countries to address these challenges. Both countries, therefore, need to be on their toes to fight for sanity and humanity in the changed context. And here, not only the state but also the non-state actors will have enough role to play in addressing the burning challenges thrown out by the Global Economic Crisis following the pandemic, the Russia-Ukraine war, and other geopolitical tensions in various parts of the world.
Finally, the people and the governments of both Bangladesh and the United States deserve profound appreciation for successfully completing fifty years of their robust diplomatic relations. I hope a much deeper mutual understanding and respect between the two nations will follow in the next fifty years, embracing aspirations for freedom and climate-resilient inclusive development for their people and environment.
The author is a noted economist, former Governor of Bangladesh Bank, and Emeritus Professor at Dhaka University. Email: email@example.com