British High Commissioner to Bangladesh Alison Blake delivered a speech at the DCAB in Dhaka on 14 November 2016.
Ms Angur Nahar Monty, Mr. Pantho Rahman, ladies and gentlemen of the Diplomatic Correspondent Association, Bangladesh, diplomatic correspondents and friends, I am pleased and honoured to be able to talk to you today and I am particularly grateful to you all for allowing me to invite you here to my Residence in Baridhara.
I have met many of you since my arrival in January, and so you will already know that I have an abiding and passionate interest in empowering women; so as the first woman British High Commissioner to Dhaka, I am delighted to congratulate Monty on being the President of this powerful professional body and to congratulate the DCAB on showing your support for women’s empowerment in this very tangible way.
I have been in Bangladesh for 10 months, but my family’s links to undivided India, and to Bengal date from the 1840s. And as a Londoner and an East Ender too with a fondness for eating what I used to think was “Indian” food but what I now know was - and still is – mainly cooked by Bangladeshis, I am struck by how much at home I have felt, by the warmth, generosity and hospitality I receive wherever I go, and the strength of friendship for the UK. Certainly for me, the first half of the old saying that all visitors “cry on arrival in Bangladesh and cry on departure” simply hasn’t applied.
I would like to share one recent episode that captures so many of the themes I want to say more about today. Last month, the UK and Bangladesh shared an extraordinary and historic moment when the Bangladesh test cricket team beat the England test team in a test match in Mirpur. This was the last fixture of an extraordinary series of matches which had people here, in the UK and across the cricket playing world, on the edge of their seats.
For me the tour wasn’t only about the shared British and Bangladeshi love of cricket, or the ECB and players’ confidence in the ability of the government, authorities and people of Bangladesh to ensure their safety. Something else amazing happened: the England team took time to meet some of the women survivors of violence and acid attack that the UK aid is supporting here in Bangladesh. And not only did the bravery of these women move the cricketers to salute their courage, but it impelled the sports journalists who were accompanying the tour to devote precious column inches – and airtime on test match special – to talk about this coming together of the UK and Bangladesh, women, activists, cricketers and development work. It marked our common humanity, our development partnership and our joint endeavour to tackle intolerance, violence, help rebuild lives and build a brighter future for the people of Bangladesh.
This past month or so – with the joyous and peaceful celebrations of Eid, Durga Puja, Ashura and Purnima and the other religious and cultural festivals, and of course the cricket – has felt different. This was because despite all the very positive aspects of life here in Bangladesh - the warmth, hospitality and generosity, the astonishing growth and development, the inspiring activists and young people, the entrepreneurism and optimism - my earlier months here were under a growing evil shadow caused by acts of intolerance, violent extremism and terrorism. The perpetrators are relatively few, but their actions blighted and still blight the lives of many.
And so my first months were busy working in partnership with the Government to address a real and immediate threat to aviation and the security at Dhaka airport. The work isn’t yet completed, and the shocking stabbing of the security personnel a week or so ago shows the continuing need for the highest vigilance, but as anyone who has used the airport can testify, real improvements have been made and I am hopeful that these will continue. There is unfortunately still more to be done before the UK can consider the removal of the suspension on direct cargo flights. But we remain committed to working alongside Bangladesh and our other partners to deliver this.
The terrible events of 1 July at the Holey Artisan Bakery which shocked the world also showed beyond all reasonable doubt that the global extremist terror networks had extended their influence, their reach, into Bangladesh too.
Though many people had been affected by the violent incidents before July 1st, after July 1st, normal life here in Dhaka changed overnight. Since then we have seen the strong will of the Bangladesh Government and people to fight this scourge and action continues to be taken to identify and disrupt the militant networks. Things have improved, and confidence is coming back. But it is far too early for any of us to relax our guard and many of the crimes over the past years are still unsolved. But the UK and other international partners will continue to work with the Government, authorities and people of Bangladesh to help address the threat so that all Bangladesh’s citizens, residents and visitors can go about their lives peacefully, in safety and security.
There is no magic formula for identifying who is at risk of being radicalised and what prompts them to take the terrible steps that lead to the murder of innocent people in the name of a cause. But in today’s global and interconnected world, a young, educated person, from a good home and with access to social media, can be radicalised anywhere in the world without leaving their bedroom. It is easy for our young people to lose their way; and the need for young people to believe in a better future, a safe future with opportunity - jobs, prosperity, a voice in the running of their country and a positive outlet for their longing to make a difference - has never been as important.
In the UK we believe that a democratic and inclusive state offers the best possible model for the stability and prosperity for all its citizens. Free and fair elections are crucial for giving all citizens a stake and a voice in the government of their country. But democracy is about more than about what happens on election day, or even the electoral process and the weeks and months before, and the need for all to have confidence that the process will be a free and fair.
Democracy is also what happens between elections. A healthy democracy is one with strong and respected institutions and a responsible civil society. At its heart is the rule of law, with good governance, transparency and accountability, equality before the law and tolerance and respect for peacefully expressed differing views and beliefs. Corruption and impunity corrode the bonds that tie a society together.
Like many Bangladeshis I have been saddened by the attacks on bloggers, teachers, minorities, individuals and communities, over the past years, and also by the frequent reports of rapes, attacks, and killings, looting, vandalising or land-grabs and especially but not exclusively the violence against women and children. Like many friends of Bangladesh I fear for the impact on the country, its international reputation and the proud belief of its people that they live in a tolerant country with a vibrant and inclusive culture.
I welcome the strong lead given by the Hon’ble Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and agree with all those who say that there cannot be – there must not be - tolerance of these terrible crimes. Every uninvestigated or unpunished crime, murder, act of violence or attack, especially against the innocent but also against detainees and suspects, whoever it is carried out by, undermines the security and safety not just of the poor, of the vulnerable and the marginalised communities, but also eats away at the rule of law itself and may ultimately threaten the security of all Bangladesh’s citizens and residents.
So I am proud that the UK has been helping Bangladesh since its birth to strengthen democracy and its institutions, to uphold human rights and the values we both share, including as Commonwealth members, and to reduce poverty, where Bangladesh has made the most extraordinary progress in the past years.
Bangladesh has set itself some ambitious targets: middle income by 2021 and developed nation status by 2041. The UK has been for many years the largest bilateral grant donor to Bangladesh and we are determined to continue our development partnership to help Bangladesh continue to reduce poverty and deliver growth that benefits all, including the poorest and women and girls.
I am also proud that the UK remains committed to meet the UN’s target of spending 0.7 per cent of Gross National Income on overseas development aid, and that here in Bangladesh we will remain focused through DFID and the British Council on supporting Bangladesh in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. That means helping women give birth safely, helping people recover from natural disasters, providing emergency support, providing access to safe drinking water, sanitation, health facilities and clean energy, improving the rights and prospects of women and girls, helping more children receive a better quality education, connecting classrooms, providing scholarships, supporting active citizens who are helping their communities, and helping to develop technical skills for more young women and men seeking employment.
All British High Commissioners on arrival soon learn two things about the UK and Bangladesh. First the role of our people to people links and particularly the contributions to the economic, social, cultural and political life of both countries by Bangladeshi heritage citizens and residents in the UK.
Second, the role in Bangladesh’s development – past and future – played by its businessmen and entrepreneurs. I have learned so much from my many interactions with the business communities. A month ago I was in Chittagong to see for myself in that great Port City what the phenomenal growth of Bangladesh’s exports and trade looks like on the ground and to discuss with a wide range of people - senior officials, business leaders, navy and maritime officers, civil society partners, politicians - ways to boost our bilateral trade and business cooperation.
I tell everyone I meet that I am proud that the UK is currently the second largest investor in Bangladesh - 13 per cent of total FDI into Bangladesh last year, some $322 million so far this year - with the highest contributions in the banking, textile and food sectors. More than 200 UK companies in Bangladesh operate here, providing employment, transferring knowledge, running significant corporate social responsibilities initiatives and, it’s not a coincidence, are also some of the highest corporate contributors in tax revenue to the NBR. British exports span chemicals to consultancy, and our financial service and banking expertise has helped lay the foundations (sometimes literally) for Bangladesh’s economic growth and development. British companies are involved in some of the largest infrastructure projects in the country, including Payra Port and Padma Bridge.
The balance of trade is firmly in Bangladesh’s favour since we are the third largest market for Bangladeshi exports, taking about 10 per cent of the total figure - overwhelmingly ready-made garment products. It’s a gap we are determined to try to reduce, and to do that by growing our own exports, encouraging British companies, including SMEs, to judge for themselves the opportunities in Bangladesh and making sure that everyone knows what great experience and expertise British businesses bring. It is for this reason that our Prime Minister appointed Ms Rushanara Ali, MP as her Trade Envoy for Bangladesh and we are looking forward to her first visit in this capacity.
Following the vote in June by the British people to leave the European Union, which Mrs May our Prime Minister has been clear is what we are going to do, the UK will be leaving the EU. But we remain a globally engaged nation, open for business, open for international cooperation, open for investment and trade and there is every reason to believe that our trade partnership will be strengthened. Britain is the fifth largest economy in the world – the second fastest growing major economy in the world last year. We are ranked in the top 6 countries in the world as a place to do business. We have record employment. We can be confident about the fundamental strengths of the UK economy and optimistic about the role we will forge for the UK – building on our strength as a great trading nation, a bold, outward-looking nation thriving and prospering on the world stage.
And so my message today for our friends in Bangladesh is that we are committed to strengthening the bilateral relationship between the UK and Bangladesh, promoting bilateral trade and investment, sustainable and inclusive growth and economic development and supporting what contributes to a thriving tolerant democracy because this is not just in Bangladesh’s interest but in the UK’s interest too. Together we can build the best possible future for both our countries and a safer, healthier and more prosperous world for all.