The Daily Sun, on its 18 May 2020 issue, has published a report titled ‘Economic diplomacy stressed to attract foreign investors’, which referring experts has said that Bangladesh should enhance economic diplomacy to attract foreign investment bounced back from China in the post-COVID-19 situation. According to that report, many companies of the USA, Japan, Germany and other countries have already planned to relocate their operations in suitable locations. The report has also said that the government of Bangladesh, like some other countries, has begun cross border negotiation to attract the investments. In addition, the Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industry has started communicating with multinational trade organisations and investment authorities regarding inclusion of Bangladesh as a relocation destination. We can certainly expect that their sincere endeavours would bring positive results for our economy.
Former Bangladesh Bank Governor Dr.Atiur Rahman, as referred in the report, has said that US-China trade war accelerates more US and Japanese firms to opt out of China and understanding well the ultimate consequences, Vietnam and India have already started enhancing their economic diplomacy to attract those firms. He has also suggested jacking up of our economic and strategic diplomacy in addition to empowering overall investment environment in Bangladesh. In fact, he has rightly pointed out two important concerns on which we should have to act, if we really like to attract similar inflows of FDIs, like Vietnam or India.In this context, I cannot keep myself quiet from writing an incident that had happened during my assignment as Bangladesh High Commissioner to Malaysia a couple of years back. The head of South Korean ‘Samsung’ company in Malaysia once paid a courtesy call on me. In our discussion, I briefed him, among others, the investment environment and opportunities in Bangladesh as well as the incentives provided by our government to the investors. He told me that their company was thinking of, at first assembling of some of their smaller products like refrigerators, televisions, etc. and in future, set up their manufacturing units for those products in Bangladesh to meet the local and neighbouring countries’ requirements. Understanding his strong interest, within a week, we made all necessary appointments for him in Bangladesh and accordingly informed him to proceed as per the schedule.
After a week of his return from Bangladesh, the gentleman telephoned me and expressed his desire to come to my office to brief his visit to Bangladesh. As he told, he met all the officials following the previously set programmes, but ultimately he was disappointed for some other reasons. When I wanted to know the reasons of his disappointment, he finally disclosed the story of some unethical demands that really shocked me. Even, he requested me whether I could accompany them to Bangladesh and do all necessary procedures concerning their investment. At the end, they dropped their plan for Bangladesh.
In August 2017, I wrote a post editorial on economic diplomacy of Bangladesh in this daily and in that I tried to emphasise the expected role of the diplomats working in our missions abroad. However, in today's world of globalisation, economic diplomacy might also be dealt by others who are, at any stage, connected with this process at home. As economy, in many cases, has become the determining component of the level of relationships among countries, it has gained the central role in diplomatic activities directly or indirectly operated by professional diplomats and to some extent by political or business leaders. And by this time, it has been proved that economic diplomacy has expanded beyond the conventional limits of its scope and field of activity. Here, we are talking about one area of the field of economic diplomacy, that is, to attract FDIs.
It is clear that attracting foreign investment, we need to give emphasis on two broad sectors those could play direct role- (a) our diplomatic missions abroad and (b) concerned authorities and establishments in Bangladesh. The second sector comprises of a number of actors, like government ministries and departments including investment facilitating authorities, business organisations, national and international trade bodies and forums, friendship associations, foreign missions located in Bangladesh, etc.
The entire operation, as I understand, could be done in two steps. The first step is to contact and convince the investors and the second part is to build trust among the investors on our investment infrastructure and management as well as assure them a competitive investment environment and required facilities. In Bangladesh, our experience says that the second part is very sensitive due to some undesired and behind-the-scene activities. Once any wrong impression is created in the mind of an investor, the investor will not wait a moment to quit their plan in Bangladesh. Recognising this reality, we should, at any cost, maintain the best practices so that the investors would come forward to invest in Bangladesh without any hesitation. Even, they could share their experiences with other intending investors and encourage them to invest in Bangladesh. If, it is felt that the present set-up handling FDI cases needs to be reorganised to make it more investors friendly and committed, please do that immediately. There might be an ‘investment proposal approval’ committee comprising of representatives from different ministries and business organisations that would discuss directly with the investor and at the same sitting would give decision on the proposal. In one meeting, this committee may like to discuss a number of investment proposals, if there are. However, the modus operandi of the committee needs to be worked out safeguarding the interest of the investors and Bangladesh.
It is felt that economic diplomacy can be done through three groups of people- (a) the diplomats working in our missions all over the world, (b) concerned government officials working in Bangladesh and (c) business leaders and industrialists including leaders of various trade and commerce associations/forums. Foreign diplomatic missions located in Bangladesh could be the channels through which concerned government authorities and business organisations in Bangladesh, using various means and platforms, can attract FDIs from those countries. Sometimes, this economic diplomacy at home, I believe, might be even stronger and easier than our missions abroad. The personal connection of our political and business leaders with the foreign diplomats working in Bangladesh might be a very useful way of performing economic diplomacy.These are all about attracting FDIs when a normal situation prevails. But, now, the whole world is passing a trying situation due to COVID-19. It has already taken away lives of about three hundred sixty thousand people and has infected about seven million people all over the world. The economic activities came to a standstill. Nobody knows when the world will be free from the corona pandemic. Considering the probable scenario, if the question of immediate relocation of investment arises due to corona pandemic, particularly from China (which is presently much safer than other countries), then obviously the investors would try to find out countries where they can start their operation safely in a suitable situation. The names of India, Vietnam, Bangladesh, etc. have come out as the probable destinations for those relocations. Will these countries be safe from the corona pandemic by that time of their decision on relocation of investment in new places? If the investors ask us to ensure that Bangladesh will be out of corona pandemic within their time frame, will we be able to do that? In attracting these relocations, we cannot avoid the existence of COVID-19. So, at this moment, corona issue counts a lot, besides enhancing our economic diplomacy at home and abroad.
Considering the probable economic situation in post-COVID-19 world, we should be serious in attracting the said FDIs, if relocated, taking into account all our efforts to overcome the hazards of corona pandemic. Under this reality, we have no time to lapse, but to make our working plan immediately and proceed. It is needless to say that the success of our economic diplomacy depends on how seriously the concerned organs of the government and the private sector work, both at home and abroad.
The writer is a former Ambassador and Secretary