European Union and Bangladesh: A friendship underutilised

Muhammad Zamir

The Members of the European Union have had bilateral cooperation with Bangladesh since its independence. Formal EC assistance to Bangladesh however started from 1976. Assistance in the initial years was predominately in the form of food aid, but this was expanded during the 1980s to include several large irrigation, rural settlement and development projects. During the 1990s, the EC strategy in Bangladesh underwent considerable change in strategies, specific objectives, size and emphasis.

The 1993-96 strategy (subsequently extended until 1998) laid emphasis on poverty alleviation and food security. An important change implemented during this period was the increasing emphasis placed on co-operation with NGOs.

In the following Co-operation Strategy 1999-2001, poverty reduction remained the predominant development challenge. In this context, emphasis was broadened to include direct poverty reduction projects that could impact on health and education, food security as well as cooperation with civil society organizations.

Since 1976 to date EC total cooperation (including humanitarian aid and NGO co-financing) has amountd to over Euro 2.0 billion.

In the field of poverty reduction, the majority of projects involved integrated approaches to rural development, often with a strong component for micro-credit as well as resettlement of the landless in the rural areas. The majority of the NGO co-financing projects have also focused on direct interventions towards poverty reduction and employment creation for the poor.

The European Commission has gradually but significantly increased its involvement in the field of primary health care, culminating in its participation as the largest bilateral donor in the sector-wide Health and Population Sector Programme (HPSP) project. Preceding the HPSP, the Thana Functional Improvement Pilot Project (TFIP), has been considered as a successful and innovative project. The lessons learnt from this exercise has been particularly useful with regard to local level planning, decentralized management and user fees. These factors were subsequently integrated into the overall reform efforts of the HPSP. A number of other projects, including research and NGO co-financed projects in the field of reproductive health and HIV/AIDS have also been initiated within this sector. This area of bilateral engagement has particularly contributed towards significant progress in health sector reform. Discussion is now underway to further intensify this programme.

The involvement of the European Commission in the education sector was initiated during the first co-operation strategy between 1993-96. A large number of NGO co-financed projects were included and it also involved interventions in non-formal education. Overall, the focus of the EC intervention was directed towards making primary education more accessible for the poorest children and improving the quality of the education provided. In this regard emphasis was also given on the attendance of girls in schools and the completion rate. The evaluation of performance over the last few years indicate that the project was successful with regard to the full primary cycle up to grade five-in line with State sector. There also appears to have been improvement of quality through de-centralised management as evidenced within BRAC's 34,000 non-formal primary schools.

EU's interaction with Bangladesh with regard to food security and food aid has been present for nearly thirty years. This has been a central area of intervention particularly during times of natural disasters. In the early 1990s, food security interventions focused on food availability and agricultural production. The emphasis from the late 1990s was laid on access to food and nutrition. This entailed a shift from food aid supported activities to cash based intrventions for the most vulnerable groups. This shift in focus was justified by recent developments towards food self-sufficiency of Bangladesh.

It would be worthwhile to note here that the EC Food Security Programme has set its over-all long term objective towards the eradication of malnutrition in Bangladesh. This is being sought through 'indirect nutrition activities' targeted at the ultra-poor and through specific programmes for small and marginal farmers. Importance is also being attached to this type of intervention being complementary to other programmes directed towards the effacing of malnutrition.

One also needs to refer particularly to the ambit of de-centralised co-operation that has become the hall-mark of EC engagement with Bangladesh. EC co-operation with NGOs as implementing partners in providing poverty-alleviating services has increased significantly over the past years. Presently, nearly 40 per cent of the total financial commitments are being directly allocated to projects and programmes implemented by NGOs.

In fact, over the past few years, the EC has pursued a policy in support of NGO's activities. This policy has emphasized on the following issues:

- providing fianncial and technical assistance to selected and important NGO development programmes. This assistance has particularly benefited large and medium sized NGOs through a donor consortium mechanism. This in turn has ensured a close monitoring of these programmes and the provision of technical assistance throughout the project cycle. This support has also always involved a capacity building component not only of the organisation itself, but also of other smaller NGOs participating in the implementation of programmes;

- promoting partnership between European NGOs and Bangladeshi NGOs. This acctivity has been effected predomianntly through the 'NGO co-financing' facility. The strategy for NGO co-financing has been to target geographical areas and the poorer sections of society that is difficult to reach through other EC funding mechanism;

- initiating an EC-NGO dialogue in Bangladesh to look at opportunities to strengthen the partnership. The EC now believes that an improved and enhanced communication mechanism is needed in Bangladesh to reach the domestic NGO community at large; and

- finally, the strengthening of civil society and increasing support for human rights activities.

The next important aspect has been economic-cooperation in general. The 1994 EC Strategy towards Asia created a situation wehereby Bangladesh became a potential beneficiary of a number of regional ASIA programmes. The general objective of this was to promote an enhanced economic presence of the European Union in Asia. These programmes focused on private sector cooperation.

Unfortunately, not much emerged in this sector because the programme was not designed for Least Developed Countries.

The other aspect of economic cooperation dealt with improving the prospect of trade for Bangladesh. The EU has shown considerable preference in this regard for Bangladesh. Under EC's Generalised System of Preferences, products originating in Bangladesh now enjoy duty and quota-free access to the EC market. Bangladesh's garment industry has thriven as a result of this EBA initiative. It now has a competitive advantage. Similarly, the shrimp industry has also secured a fair percentage of the EU demand after complying with EU's phyto-sanitary standards. The EU has however gone one step further. They have also been assisting Bangladesh in capacity building of infra-structure related to trade and improvement of its phyto-sanitary mechanism. It is being hoped that this will enhance the possibility of diversification of exportable products particularly related to agro-processing.

The EU has also been playing an important role in making the Government of Bangladesh better equipped to take part in the Doha Development Round of international trade negotiations and in being able to adhere to its international commitments in terms of the new generation of trade issues. This includes sectors like Intellectual Property Rights, Bio-safety regulations, SPS and Trade in Services.

One also needs to refer to EU's support for the peace process in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. In this area they have been working in close cooperation with the UNDP. By doing so they have built up pressure for the implementation of the 1997 Peace Agreement. Such active interest will be most useful later, not only in the conceptualizing, but also in the implementation of future development programmes in this troubled region. It is anticipated that the EU will be participating particularly in community development activities, in natural resources inventory and water resources development studies. It is being hoped that there will be done in a synergic manner, whereby the rural poor in the Chittagong Hill Tracts will be able to interact in a sustainable and economic manner with their environment and within their tribal-based community.

The European Union is also performing another significant exercise in its relations with Bangladesh. This has assumed special importance at this juncture of our national life. This relates to their interest in an overall peaceful, democratic and transparent electoral process within Bangladesh. This factor persuaded them to send a strong election monitoring team to Bangladesh in 2001. They believe in promoting the democratic functioning of the parliamentary system of Bangladesh. In this context, they have been providing funds for strengthening the technical capacity of the Election Commission.

All the activities enumerated above are positive in nature. Not all of them have however been appreciated by our present Government-particularly the emphasis and strong linkages with the NGOs. There has also been a great deal of suspicion and mistrust with regard to EU interest in good governance, corruption and observance of human rights. These have been unfortunately interpreted as unnecessary political interference. I am not so sure that this is the correct way of looking at things. Instead, this should be viewed as a constructive engagement.

The author is a former Secretary, Ambassador and Permanent Rerpesentative to the European Union Offices.

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