Cablegate: Bangladesh Response: Qddr Global Context Section

Published: Tue 1 Dec 2009 04:56 AM
DE RUEHKA #1081/01 3350456
P 010456Z DEC 09
E.O. 12958: N/A
REF: STATE 120172
1. (SBU) Mission Dhaka welcomes the opportunity to contribute to
the QDDR process. Bangladesh is home to 150 million people crowded
into an area the size of Wisconsin. This desperately poor nation
faces immense challenges, including with regard to food security and
climate change. Bangladesh is also a moderate, Muslim-majority
nation that is proud of its vibrant democracy and secular tradition.
Located at the crossroads of South and Southeast Asia, it is
critical the United States support Bangladesh's quest to prosper
economically and politically.
2. (SBU) Answers to reftel questions follow:
-- To what degree will/can technology empower individuals, or civil
society in the host country, to exercise a more active role in
public life? Are host country officials and citizens attuned to (or
indifferent) to this issue? Is the host government supportive of or
hostile to expansion of access to social networks or other similar
tools? What non-state actors will be playing critical roles over
the next two decades?
Bangladesh boasts a vibrant civil society, with a strong tradition
of non-governmental organizations that have emerged to play a major
role as service providers within the country and outside its
borders. The Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC) is one
of the world's largest NGOs, while Bangladesh's Grameen Bank is a
pioneer in the field of microcredit. Despite the grinding poverty
that exists within Bangladesh, the country has witnessed an
explosion in the availability of mobile telephones, with an
estimated 35 million current subscribers. A key component of the
ruling Awami League's election manifesto prior to the December 2008
polls was the creation of a "digital Bangladesh" as a means towards
realizing the party's "Vision 2021." During the election campaign,
the Awami League pioneered the use of video conferencing and other
tools on its way to a landslide victory. The key to achieving the
goal of a "digital Bangladesh" will be creating an enabling
environment that allows Bangladesh's dynamic private sector to
invest in the spread of information technology. This has been the
key to the success of Bangladesh's readymade garment industry and
the success of social entrepreneurship like the leading mobile phone
provider, Grameenphone. Vibrant civil society organizations and a
grown private sector, buttressed by a free media, are critical to
the continued resiliency of Bangladeshi society to the appeal of
-- What attitude do critical publics in the host country display
toward the so-called rising powers - India, China, and Brazil, for
example - and how do they perceive other important international
players, including key international organizations?
Bangladesh maintains a complicated relationship with its larger
neighbor, India, and important sections of public opinion remain
suspicious of New Delhi's intentions towards smaller countries
within the region. The Awami League government led by Prime
Minister Sheikh Hasina assumed office in January 2009 with a strong
desire to improve relations with India and resolve longstanding
bilateral issues. The Prime Minister will visit New Delhi in late
December and hopes to reach a comprehensive settlement on many of
these issues. At the same time, the government's freedom of action
is constrained by fears of a public backlash led by the political
opposition and elements within the security services who continue to
see India as a potential threat. Over the long term, the challenges
of climate change, water scarcity, and illegal migration will
continue to put a strain on Bangladesh's relationship with India.
Bangladeshi elites are very interested in the status of Indo-U.S.
relations and have sought assurances from us that our strategic
partnership will not come at Bangladesh's expense. We regularly
face the criticism that the U.S. has "sub-contracted" our policy in
the region to India. We have sought to reassure our interlocutors
that the U.S. does not see its relationship with Bangladesh through
New Delhi's prism.
Within the region, Bangladesh has traditionally been a strong
supporter of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation
(SAARC). Former Bangladeshi President Ziaur Rahman was one of the
leading forces behind the creation of SAARC. Recognizing that
SAARC's effectiveness has been hampered by tensions between India
and Pakistan, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has proposed alternative
mechanisms for regional and sub regional cooperation. For example,
Hasina proposed a "South Asian Task Force" to counter terrorism,
which was intended to serve as a more flexible forum for cooperation
between Bangladesh and its neighbors. Envisioned as a "coalition of
the willing," the South Asia Task Force would also provide a
mechanism for participation by countries outside the region (e.g.
the United States).
As relations with India have been marked by suspicion over the
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decades, many in Bangladesh have seen improved ties with China as a
counter to Indian hegemony. In many ways, Bangladesh has emulated
Pakistan's efforts to cultivate relations with China as a balance to
India. China has been an important military equipment supplier and
the Chinese have been active in supporting major infrastructure
projects. There are fears that improved relations with India will
lead to a cooling of ties with China. The ruling Awami League
recently sent a high-level party delegation to Beijing to attend the
Chinese Communist Party Congress in an effort to allay these fears.
Some in Bangladesh also worry that China's interest in hydrocarbon
resources will eventually lead Beijing to side with Rangoon in its
maritime boundary dispute with Dhaka. For its part, China's
interests in Bangladesh often mirror our own, with a focus on the
investment climate and political stability.
Brazil recently opened an Embassy in Dhaka, but it remains to be
seen how active Brasilia's diplomatic mission will be. Bangladesh's
primary foreign policy interests relate to those countries that
provide development assistance, provide markets for Bangladesh's
exports, or provide jobs to Bangladeshi workers. While Bangladesh
has sought to play a leadership role among the Least Developed
Countries in the WTO and other international fora, it has not been
very active in bilateral diplomacy with others in the developing
world outside groupings such as the Commonwealth and OIC's formal
Bangladesh recognizes the importance of international development
organizations and international financial institutions. The World
Bank, International Monetary Fund, Asian Development Bank, World
Food Organization, United Nations Development Program, Food and
Agriculture Organization, and United Nations Children's Fund all
have active programs in Bangladesh. Bangladesh is also the world's
second leading contributor to United Nations Peacekeeping
Operations, sending between 8,000 and 10,000 troops and police to
UNPKO missions each year. This is an important source of national
pride and revenue for the Bangladesh Military.
At times, such as prior to the decision to impose a State of
Emergency in January 2007, the role of the international community
in "interfering" in local politics becomes controversial. Small
leftist-leaning groups also regularly criticize the activities of
multinational companies, aid organizations, and foreign militaries,
accusing them of violating Bangladesh's sovereignty. At the same
time, polls universally demonstrate strong popular support for the
role of the international community in helping to promote
Bangladesh's development.
-- What does the host country identify as the most important issues
(both internal and external) critical to its own development and to
international development writ large?
Bangladesh's primary focus is on maintaining (or expanding) access
to markets for its export oriented industries, which are a major
source of foreign exchange and employment. The ready made garment
industry, for example, employs 3 million workers and generates
billions in export earnings. Similarly, Bangladesh depends upon
remittances from the millions of Bangladeshi citizens working
outside the country. Official remittance flows now exceed $10
Bangladesh's development partners continue to provide much needed
support for programs to ensure food security, promote public health,
advance education, and prepare for (and respond to) natural
disasters. At the same time, Bangladesh is no longer the
aid-dependent "basket case" described by foreign observers in the
1970s. Bangladesh's development is often constrained by the lack
of capacity, inefficiency, and corruption within the public sector.
This has contributed to the rise of a vibrant non-governmental
sector which plays a critical role in advancing development.
For Bangladesh, the most pressing issue is ensuring food security
for the country's growing population. Already one of the world's
most densely populated countries, Bangladesh's population is
expected to nearly double within this century. At the same time,
the country loses 1% of arable land each year to environmental
degradation and urbanization. Feeding its people and avoiding price
shocks is a critical concern for any government.
-- What is the host country position on climate change issues, or on
any resource conflict questions? What steps is the host country
government taking to deal with potential future demographic
As one of the countries most vulnerable to global climate change and
sea level rise, Bangladesh has become increasingly active and vocal
in the run up to the Copenhagen Summit. It is estimate that a one
meter sea level rise would inundate up to one-third of Bangladesh's
land area and create over 30 million climate refugees. Bangladesh's
water resources are also under strain. Bangladesh also fears that
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global climate change will lead to more frequent and more severe
cyclonic storms and flooding, which could have a devastating effect
on the country. While impressive strides have been made in the
past in controlling population growth, more needs to be done by both
the government and development partners. Bangladeshis show
remarkable resiliency, but demography and environmental challenges
threaten to overwhelm the country in the coming century. This would
have serious effects not just in Bangladesh, but in the region.
-- To what extent does "backsliding" pose a threat to local
democratic movement (or to what degree does the country perceive
this as a threat elsewhere)?
Bangladesh's citizens went to the polls in record numbers in
December 2008 and voted overwhelmingly to return the secular Awami
League to power in elections widely considered the most free and
fair in the country's history. Since democracy was restored in
1991, there have now been four largely successful national
elections. At the same time, the two-year caretaker government
period from 2007 - 2009 highlighted the continuing challenges to
institutionalizing democracy and improving governance.
Bangladesh's politics remains highly polarized and characterized by
winner-take-all, patron-client relationships. Institutions are weak
and power is unduly concentrated in the Prime Minister's hands.
Parliament has been plagued by opposition boycotts, local government
has been ineffective and starved of resources, and corruption
remains endemic. Constitutional bodies that are supposed to provide
checks and balances have been politicized. There is an uneasy
relationship between the military and civilian governments. The
judiciary is dysfunctional and the police are widely seen as corrupt
and ineffective. On the positive side, civil society is vibrant and
the media is relatively free. The United States and other
development partners are committed to helping Bangladesh improve
governance as a foundation for sustainable economic growth.
--Post-Cairo Follow-Up and Global Engagement
Even as it confronts the many challenges facing the country as it
heads into the new century, Bangladesh provides opportunities for
the United States. Our interlocutors in the Government and civil
society have remarked upon the coincidence of interests with the
Obama Administration's priorities, particularly on global issues
such as food security, women's empowerment, peacekeeping reform,
global health, and climate change. There are opportunities for us
to work with a moderate Muslim majority democracy founded upon the
principles of secularism. A more democratic and prosperous
Bangladesh that resists extremism and that plays a constructive role
in international forums would be a powerful potential ally for the
United States. While often relegated to the status of a "small
country" Bangladesh's population of 150 million puts it into the top
tier of most populous countries. At the same time that this
potential exists, there is also a risk that a failed state at the
crossroads of South Asia would provide challenges for the U.S. and
our allies in the region.
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