Interview with the Minister of Foreign Affairs Dr. Abul Kalam Abdul Momen by Roy Lie Atjam
Prominent Bangladeshi economist, diplomat, and Foreign Minister Dr. Abul Kalam Abdul Momen came to The Hague on September 5th, 2021 to attend the Dialogue of the Global Center on Adaption (GCA), of which he is a board member. An open conversation with Diplomat Magazine set the point on Bangladesh’s goals and challenges.
The Prime Minister (PM) Sheikh Hasina has been setting out a road map for Bangladesh to move from the LDC status to that of a fully developed country by 2040. At the moment, the UN has declared that Bangladesh meets all the requirements to qualify as a middle-income country (MIC). This transition is “a great accomplishment for the young nation” said the Minister and he believes that the key factor behind it lies in the leadership of PM Hasina.
Dr. Abdul Momen expressed that “achieving the MIC status could be regarded as a miracle when one considers where the young nation stood 50 years ago”. It was a rough journey as there were only a few nations such as India and Japan that supported Bangladesh; the country had to be self-reliant to reach where it stands today.
PM Hasina leads with the motto “Where there is a will, there is a way; my land is fertile, and my farmers are hard workers” and under her guidance, Bangladesh today is a land of opportunities. The country has achieved food self-sufficiency, which allows for more funding in development projects that would have otherwise been used for food imports. These projects include energy production and Bangladesh currently generates 24,000 megawatts (MW) of electricity. As a food independent nation, it is not surprising that agriculture is an important sector of the economy.
Funds are made available to subsidize the purchase of fertilizers at 16 Taka per kg, which is a big drop from the previous price of 68 Taka some time ago. In addition to agriculture, the garment sector is a vital pillar of the Bangladeshi economy as well as the pharmaceutical sector. Exports in the former in particular are up from 12 to 40 billion USD per annum. Remittances also support the economy, which generated 25 billion USD in the past year.
Bangladeshi workers can be found in the Middle East as well as many other regions across the globe. The nation’s GDP growth rate is at 5.2 percent with a GDP growth rate per capita of 4.0 percent as of 2020.
Bangladesh’s successes over the years are not limited to economic achievements but also encompass social achievements as well. The literacy rate has reached a high of 99 percent, with female education participation on the rise. At the moment, 53 percent of females participate in education, a significant increase from the previous 35 percent figure. This is in part because the Bangladeshi government has put in place a free scholarship scheme for girls and 336 million books are freely distributed at the beginning of each school year. In addition, the country’s poverty rate is declining to 3 percent and the government is making strides to eradicate poverty completely. Furthermore, life expectancy has risen from 61 to 79 years.
All of this is part of PM Hasina’s plan to build a Sonar Bangla or Golden Bangla. This was originally the dream of her father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman – the Founding Father of Bangladesh – who wished for a prosperous Bangladesh that is free of hunger and poverty.
Bangladesh currently satisfies all the criteria of a nation en route to development and it is expected to be an upper-middle-income nation by 2030.
However, one of the greatest challenges posed to Bangladesh’s future development is climate change. The current state of our climate is exacerbating the river erosion problem in the country and a rise in sea level by one meter will have grave consequences for Bangladesh. If this is allowed to continue, approximately 30 million individuals of the population will be displaced. The recently published International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) report cannot be ignored. As many say, it is a wake-up call that stresses how climate change can affect an array of internationally guaranteed human rights; including rights to health, housing, water, and food. After witnessing the number of displaced people in the Balkans, Rwanda, Cambodia, and Myanmar, many say “never again” must this happen to any population.
However, Dr. Abdul Momen says “it is not enough to say ‘never again’ ” He stressed that industrialized countries must keep their promise of the 100 billion USD donation and suggested that 50 percent of it should go towards mitigating the impacts of climate change. Bangladesh is one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change and the country needs assistance to combat and adapt to the situation. As climate change is a global issue affecting the entire world population, countries must unite to save the planet and help one another when possible.
Dr. Abdul Momen is optimistic that something good will materialize at the GCA conference this time since the USA is back in the Paris Agreement. Its representative is Mr. John Kerry and together with the UK, these two countries are serious about moving things along. On a domestic level, the government of Bangladesh has also formulated Delta Plan 2100, which is a comprehensive development plan focusing on economic growth, environmental conservation, and enhanced climate resilience. It lays out holistic and cross-sectoral actions needed to improve productivity and minimize disaster risks.
Expanding on the issue of human displacement, Dr. Abdul Momen expressed that PM Hasina saved the face of the civilized world by taking in over one million displaced Rohingya that were facing ethnic cleansing. The Rohingya were part of the government in Myanmar in 1962 but this changed in 1982. Bangladesh has extended invitations to the Myanmar regime to come and talk to the Rohingya people but this offer has only been taken up once. The Rohingya case was brought before the International Court of Justice and the Myanmar government claims they have built houses for when the Rohingya returns.
At this moment in time however, not one Rohingya has returned to Myanmar. Dr. Abdul Momen called attention to those who comment on how sickening the situation is yet still invest billions of dollars in Myanmar. Meanwhile, the Myanmar military is prioritizing investments in sophisticated weaponry from China and Russia. He warns that “if no effective measures are taken, over time pockets of extremism and terrorism will emerge and attack Myanmar’s investors and friends. It is sad to see that a generation of Rohingya has been lost.” Dr. Abdul Momen is proposing to all media to start a global public awareness campaign regarding this human tragedy.
Similar to other countries throughout the globe, Bangladesh is currently battling against COVID-19. This pandemic has put strains on its critical agricultural sector; however, the first wave was successfully managed and the second wave was limited to 7020 fatalities in a population of over 166 million. President Erdogan of Turkey inquired how that was accomplished and Dr. Abdul Momen answered that Bangladesh has “God, a young population, and [it placed an] immediate halt to flights from the epicenter of contamination, and vaccination”. Bangladesh is among the first countries in Asia that started a COVID-19 vaccination program in January 2021. PM Hasina believes that vaccines are a public good which Western countries have a surplus of yet are reluctant to share. Instead, they have been used as a “negotiating tool”.
The G7 agreed to provide Bangladesh vaccines via COVAX and the UK also agreed to give vaccines directly. However, it was revealed that not a single vaccine has been provided by them. In addition, the country approached Russia for its Sputnik vaccine but the latter considers the demand too high; the current focus is on co-production but the project is on hold. On the other hand, an agreement has been signed with China’s Sinovac for co-production with Bangladesh’s Incepta. Bangladesh now has a free flow of WHO-approved vaccines to support the vaccination drive and the fight against COVID-19 in general.