Vol. 5 Num 295 Sat. March 26, 2005  

Post Breakfast
Assessing our image on our National Day

For every Bangladeshi, today, the 26th of March is important. It is central to his her existence as a free citizen of an independent country. It marks the victory of conscience and sacrifice over human rights abuse and discrimination. It also provides us with an opportunity to re-evaluate ourselves as a people and as a nation.

In the recent past, we have noted with interest, the efforts of a certain section of the present Administration, to discover a scapegoat for the terrible reports that have been appearing abroad with regard to Bangladesh. These wise men have looked at the mirror and not discovered their own faces. They have put down all these adverse stories to the failure of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

In this context, it has also been suggested, that this Ministry, its leadership and its officials have 'miserably failed to uphold Bangladesh's image abroad when an anti-Bangladesh campaign is being carried out globally.' It has also been alleged that 'the existing set-up' of this Ministry 'has proved to be ineffective in pursuing economic diplomacy and presenting Bangladesh and its causes properly to the international community.'

Such criticism has, however, failed to perceive the real reasons for this recurring problem. It has not addressed itself to the fact that the Foreign Ministry and our various Diplomatic Missions abroad are greatly circumscribed by the image of the government at home.

We may expect the Foreign Office pundits to be spin doctors, but there is a limit to such expertise. Given the poor record of current governance, at every turn, the Bangladesh Ambassadors are faced with serious obstacles.

These adverse reports are available abroad not because of the tactics of the Opposition, but more so, because of modern e-communication media facilities. The internet, as well as Bangladeshi international satellite TV channels (like the ATN and Channel-i) have introduced globalisation and transparency. They have brought the world closer and opened windows to the core of every country. They instantly make available information to whosoever might be interested in accessing to facts. Our government seems to have forgotten that there are search-engines which are maintained by Yahoo or Goggle and that their spread-outs are always updated.

The government also appears to have overlooked the fact that there are many foreign Diplomatic Missions and Resident Representatives of multilateral institutions in Dhaka. They read our local newspapers and listen to local television before sending their own assessments to their respective governments or headquarters. One has to be quite naive to think otherwise. Economic wings of various Diplomatic Missions in Dhaka also obtain objective information and statistics from their development partner representatives within the civil society (involved at the grassroots level as front-line participants). This is the reality.

Consequently, it would be palpably wrong to ascribe all critical reports abroad to 'endeavours and propaganda disseminated by interested quarters and conspirators.'

The government has claimed that Bangladesh is a success story and that the Foreign Office has been unable to project this successfully abroad. What they have failed to mention is that positive about Bangladesh are being inundated by the unsatisfactory role of the Administration. It is like the proverbial snail climbing a greased pole -- it goes up one foot and then slips two.

Yes, there are many facets that we can be proud of. We have almost attained self-sufficiency in food. We are admired for our expertise in handling natural disasters. The primary school enrolment throughout the country continues to be a source of envy for the rest of poverty-stricken South Asia. Thanks to the private sector, we have been able to register 10.5 percent growth in exports in the first seven months of this financial year despite the difficult post-MFA scenario. We have also done very well in tackling infant mortality, immunisation and family planning over the last eight years. Micro-credit has ushered in a silent revolution and greatly empowered women in the rural areas.

All these are true. However, they are not the only side of the coin. There are also negative factors, that are crowding the stage. Consistent with the proverbial ostrich syndrome, our government feels that if they refuse to recognise these ills, they might just disappear.

On this day, we must be bold enough to accept that Bangladesh today suffers from poor governance, and that this situation has been created not only by certain politicians, but also by other stake-holders like bureaucrats, and officials responsible for law and order as well as dispensing of justice. We need not misunderstand international concern for good governance in Bangladesh as an effort to run down our country. Instead, we should undertake self-analysis and try to identify where we have gone wrong.

It is not enough to go into a collective denial mode. It must not be interpreted in a short-sighted manner, as being part of a 'political conspiracy,' aided and abetted by foreign interests, eager to destabilise the country. That would indeed be very simplistic. We just cannot afford such a reaction.

Earlier this month, the US Department of State published a report on Human Rights practices. That included a country report on Bangladesh. It was frank and called a spade a spade. It pointed out some unpleasant issues -- the lack of separation of the judiciary from the executive, the reluctance of lower judicial officials to challenge government decisions, the committing of extrajudicial killings by the security forces, the use of unwarranted lethal force, torture during interrogations, corruption in the police force, a large backlog in processing judicial cases, limiting the freedom of assembly, continued trafficking in women and children, societal discrimination against religious minorities and inability to find and punish those guilty of violent acts. Some other human rights groups also called into question the lack of fulfilment by the government of certain constitutional obligations.

We have also seen how this anxiety on the part of the donor community encouraged them to convene a controversial special session in Washington to discuss various aspects of Bangladesh's policies and their impact on governance. This was done without the provision of a Bangladesh Representative, who might have at least tried to explain some of the deficiencies. This was one-sided and wrong. It was however indicative of prevailing international view that time had come for severe measures.

It is true that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is ultimately responsible for the image of the country abroad, but this cannot be in isolation. Any upholding of our image under any Administration involves the entire government and also the private sector.

In the final analysis, the question of upholding the image of our country abroad does not rest alone with the Foreign Office. The ball is really in the court of the other Agencies of the government in Dhaka. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and our Diplomatic Missions can defend the country's image more effectively abroad, only if the government performs more positively in our domestic arena. That includes upholding the rule of law, giving due respect to the Opposition and instituting good governance through the guaranteeing of fundamental freedoms and human rights. This will reduce criticism and ensure a fairer projection of the country. The solution lies in having a bi-partisan approach and proving that democratic institutions cannot only work, but that the judicial process is not subject to political interference.

The government could also consider taking the practical measure of establishing lending libraries in each of our Missions abroad. This has been done by India. They could be resource bases. It will not require a large budget and could be sponsored by the private sector in Bangladesh. Every year, a team, under the guidance of the Foreign Secretary and the Information Secretary, could purchase a set of one hundred books, published in Bangladesh, for the library section of each Mission. Similarly, CDs of Bangla songs, DVDs of our theatrical plays produced for the television, DVDs of important television programmes devoted to Bangla architecture and advances made in various sectors of development could also be sent to these libraries. Our large expatriate population could then take advantage of such a lending library. Indirectly, each one of them could be Ambassador of our country's positive side within the host community.

Everything else will follow. This approach will be far better than constituting a Bangladesh Strategic Country Promotion Council and preparing associated Reports by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Muhammad Zamir is a former Secretary and Ambassador -- any response to