|Volume 6 | Issue 06 | June 2012 ||
Conversation with Bangladesh
During her recent visit to Bangladesh, the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton engaged in a conversation with MUNNI SAHA and EJAJ AHMED at the International School Dhaka in Bashundhara Residential Area. Styled 'A Conversation with Bangladesh', it also had an interactive session during which the US secretary of State responded to questions from an audience composed mostly of Bangladeshi youths from several organisations. Excerpts:
Munni Saha (MS): Welcome and good morning.
Ejaj Ahmed (EA): Madam Secretary, welcome to Bangladesh. First time you visited us 17 years ago in 1995 as the First Lady of the United States and second time, now, as the Secretary of State. How do you feel to be in Bangladesh?
I was here 17 years ago and had just the most wonderful experience with my daughter meeting so many Bangladeshis at that time not only here in Dhaka, but going out into the country, going to villages, visiting Grameen Bank, people working at BRAC projects, really getting a sense of the potential of the country. And coming back 17 years later, it just confirms my confidence that there is a tremendously positive path for this country. And it's not easy but the changes, the economic growth and the continuation of democratic sustainment all of that is very encouraging. As I said last night in my press conference, I'm betting on Bangladesh. I'm betting that you'll be able to work through all the problems that developing countries have everywhere.
MS: Well, before I take question from the audience, I would like to ask you one question. We heard that you had a meeting with Sir Abed and Dr Yunus. And how was that?
And I will say that I am committed, in every way that I and my government can, to supporting their efforts. I have followed the dispute over Grameen Bank from Washington, and I can only hope that nothing is done that in any way undermines the success of what Grameen Bank has accomplished on behalf of many millions of poor women and their families.
MS: We know what happened with Dr. Yunus and we feel very sorry for that. But I'd like to know where the US Administration stands on the matter of Grameen Bank.
MS: Well, you have just visited China and you will visit India too. Now, you are here in Bangladesh. So how do you consider Bangladesh as an emerging soft power?
I think the success that you've seen in lifting people out of poverty over the last years, dropping the poverty rate, I was told, from 40 percent to about 31 percent is a very good sign. The fact that you've maintained democracy through a really difficult set of challenges is important and the fact that civil society is developing, as evidenced by all of you. The education system is being more responsive; you're getting, I think, close to 100 percent primary school enrollment. I think that those are all very strong signals to yourselves as well as the rest of the world.
You're the largest contributor to United Nations peacekeeping operations. You have seen an increase in agricultural productivity. You've dropped child and maternal mortality so that it appears that you will meet the Millennium Development Goal for maternal and child mortality. In a democracy, the people have to be given the credit because the government, remember, as Abraham Lincoln said, is of, by, and for the people. And so the people have demonstrated great resilience and determination.
But you've got some challenges. I mean, you still have too many unemployed and underemployed young people who are not seeing a good future for themselves. You are starting to see some worrisome labor problems in the garment industry, which have to be solved, because you don't want a situation where labour leaders and activists are murdered or where people are taken advantage of or abused in poor working conditions, because in today's world, that will cause big manufacturers of clothing to be afraid to stay or come to Bangladesh. So the government and the garment factory businesses and the labor organisations have to work together to bring and create more jobs and have more exports.
There needs to be a total rule of law, no impunity. The recent killing of the labor activist Aminul Islam has to be investigated, and the perpetrators, if they can be found, need to be brought to justice, because you have to constantly be demonstrating that no one is above the law no matter how powerful or positioned in society.
MS: Whenever we talk about our internal politics, we seek US advice. Why is that?
The United States is a very religious country, but it's also a very pluralistic country. You can go and see churches, mosques, synagogues, Hindu temples where people are free to worship as they choose. And all these took time and it took a lot of work by succeeding generations of Americans.
So I think people look to us. But we do not claim to be a perfect nation. We are very conscious of our own shortcomings and we know that we have works to do, and we take that seriously. But we also want to be helpful to people who strive for freedom and democracy, who want to respect human rights and human dignity, who want to be build a market economy, who want to have a responsive government. So I think people ask for our help. We don't want to be interfering in the internal affairs of countries, but we do have a lot of experience about what works, and what sustains democracy and what undermines it. So we will continue to offer whatever support we can to what you're doing --
MS: So it's totally a friendly advice, not any pressure or --
So why do we do that? Well, we do believe that spreading democracy is good for the world. We believe that. Now sometimes the decisions democracies make are not ones that you or I would make, but we think, over the long run, having people empowered, given their rights, is the best form of government that has been invented. It certainly beats all the others. And so we think a strong democracy here that is able to realize the aspirations of your people is not only good for you, but it's good for the kind of world we would like to see. And that's our hope.
MS: Thank you. Ejaj, now can you take questions from the audience?
SC: Well, thank you. And congratulations on your graduation.
We are looking to figure out ways to actually put into practice the fund that has been agreed to with the large economies, making contributions to try to help countries that are at risk. But among the challenges we face is to make sure we all know what works best, because as we try to reduce emissions, we still have to deal with the dangers that you are facing at the same time. So we that's why this grant to work with you is so important.
The other thing I have just started and Bangladesh was a charter original member is something called the Climate and Clean Air Coalition to prevent short-lived polluters pollution like methane or black carbon or soot. And we are working with a small but growing group of countries like Bangladesh, Sweden, Canada, Mexico, the United States, and others to take action on these pollutants while we still work on carbon dioxide, because they're about 30- to 40 percent of the problem with greenhouse gas emissions.
And there are ways of attacking those right now. For example, Bangladesh has joined something that we are sponsoring called the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, because the way that women in the developing world cook the food for their families kills 2 million women and children a year because of respiratory distress and diseases, and pollutes the atmosphere. So we are working to try to develop clean cookstoves that will then be made available through organizations like Grameen Bank or BRAC so that we can help cut the pollution and improve the health.
So there are numerous ways we are working directly with your country, and then more generally, in preparation for Rio+20, looking for how we're going to build on the commitments of Copenhagen, Cancun, and Durban, where for the first time, developed and developing countries together said we all have to work to limit climate change. So we're working at it. It's a very difficult, long-term challenge. In the United States, we're increasing gas mileage for cars; we're cleaning up coal-fired power plants; we're working on a number of areas, even though we don't have an overarching, comprehensive legal framework. That was not possible with our Congress, but President Obama is continuing to make progress despite that.
And is there discrimination or prejudice in the United States, like in every society and country in the world? Unfortunately, yes. I mean, human nature has not changed dramatically. There is discrimination against people of different religions, of different races, of different ethnic groups all over the world. We see the results of that. But I don't think that it is at all fair to hold up the United States, separate and apart from the challenges that we all are confronting to make sure that we respect the rights of every human being. And I believe that the United States, through our laws and through our constant political dialogue, has gone probably farther than anywhere else in the world in trying to guarantee legal protections for people. I would like to see more countries do more to protect the rights of minorities because I think that's an important part of democracy and of recognizing that no matter what our religion or whatever our background might be, we share this planet with people from many different vantage points, and we should be respectful.
So I think that part of it is the fact that we have been engaged in self defense and in protecting ourselves for more than 10 years. And we have gone after the terrorists who, personally, I do not believe is in any way reflective of Islam. I think that people who use religion, who pervert religion, for their own power or their own personal needs or their own desires are doing a great disservice to religion. And you find people who, over history, have used every religion for that purpose. And it's unfortunate that terrorists today, at this point in history, are too often using a religion that is one of the great reflections of man's faith and one of the three monotheistic religions that I came out of, as a Christian.
So we know that there are those who, for their own reasons, try to politicise what the United States has done in a way that I think is unfortunate and unfair. And I certainly think President Obama has sent a very clear message of respect and appreciation of all religions, and in particular of Islam. So it is something we're aware of and something we will continue to speak out against, but I think, looking at how the United States practices religions tolerance is something that speaks louder than any person's political statement would.
Munni Saha is Head of News, ATN News. Ejaj Ahmed is President, Bangladesh Youth Leadership Centre.
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