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Volume 6 | Issue 06 | June 2012 |


Original Forum

Managing Expectations in Public Expenditure for Development
-- Ziauddin Choudhury
Anchoring inflation in budget
-- Asjadul Kibria
Proposals for Agriculture Sector
-- Fahmida Khatun
National Policy on Women's Development
2011 and National Budgets

-- Dr Pratima Paul-Majumder
Dinner not Going to be Cheap Anytime Soon
-- Olinda Hassan

Colourful Six Cities of Six Seasons
-- Mokaram Hossain


Photo Feature

Dhaka: A City in Peril

Making a ghost of a City

-- Tawfique Ali

Ship Breaking: Environmental and
Human Disaster along the Coast
-- Syeda Rizwana Hasan

Disaster Sufferings: Who's Accountable?
-- Dilruba Haider
Conversation with Bangladesh
-- Interview with Hillary Clinton
Death of Carlos Fuentes: a Buried Mirror?
-- Razu Alauddin

Our Friend Joe O'Connell (1940-2012)
-- William Radice


Forum Home

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:

Photo: Star

Munni Saha (MS): Welcome and good morning.
Secretary Clinton (SC):
Thank you.

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?
SC: Well, first I want to thank you -- Ejaj, Munni and all of you for being here at the International School for this conversation because I am very interested in Bangladesh and everything that you're doing. I'm particularly interested in the young people of this country.

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?
Well, first of all, I was honored to meet with both Sir Abed and Yunus. I've known them for many years. I've actually known Yunus longer, for more than 25 years. I think they are two national treasures of your country. They are two men who have created organisations like the Grameen Bank and BRAC that are viewed internationally as the two best development organizations in the world.

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.
We do not want to see any action taken that would in any way undermine or interfere with the operations of Grameen Bank or its unique organizational structure where the poor women themselves are the owners. That has never happened anywhere in the world. It is now being duplicated. Other countries are looking to see what worked here in Bangladesh.

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 you have extraordinary soft power. And let me just explain why. First of all, you are strategically located between east and west of Asia. You have the opportunity to be a crossroads, as you historically have been; the Grand Trunk Road, the old Silk Road, all came to Bangladesh. And now you have an opportunity to serve the same role in the 21st century.

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?
Well, I think that for people who believe in democracy, the United States is now the longest-lasting democracy in the world, and we're very proud of that. But we didn't get there overnight, we didn't just wake up in 1789 and say everything is solved. We had a lot of problems, I mean, we had slavery still. We didn't empower women until the 20th century. We had to fight a civil war to end slavery, and we had to keep working on our civil rights movement to recognize the human dignity of every person. We had to work on religious tolerance.

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 --
Well, we know that all we can do is offer advice. It's ultimately up to any country whether to take it or not. But I want to stress something I said in my press conference. The United States is investing significant sums of money in Bangladesh. And one of the reporters said, well, why are you doing that? We're investing in helping in helping you improve agricultural production through our Feed the Future program. We're investing in helping you build health systems through our Global Health Initiative. We're investing in technology and other approaches to mitigating climate change. We're working with various groups within Bangladesh on economic projects and other things.

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?
EA: Sure. I will.
Nausheen Khan:
I'm a recent graduate of Mount Holyoke College. We know that Bangladesh is one of the lowest contributors to carbon emissions, but it's the worst affected by climate change. So I would like to know, Madam Secretary, what initiatives or what commitment is the US planning to make at the upcoming Rio+20 conference in June that would help Bangladesh or other developing nations to tackle this challenge, either financially or in other means?

SC: Well, thank you. And congratulations on your graduation.
You're right. Climate change is one of the biggest threats to low-lying countries like yours, to island nations across the oceans. So we are particularly focused on seeing what we can do to help, and here are a couple of things. I also announced yesterday a grant to work between our research institutions and yours, $17 million over the next few years, to think of ways so that we can help mitigate the effects of climate change here in Bangladesh how we use technology, what kind of agricultural practices, what kinds of other responses to rising waters, or the effects of increasing and intense intensity of storms, and all of the issues that we are studying together.

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.

MS: Now, we have some questions through social media, through Facebook and our ATN News email. So I'd like to ask you one on behalf of ATN News. This question came from a public poll conducted by ATN News. The question is from Piel Alem. What do you say about the common perception held by many young people that the US is anti-Muslim?
Oh, that hurts me. That hurts me so much, honestly. I mean, it's a painful perception to hear about, and I deeply regret that anyone believes that or propagates it. So let me say first that certainly I think the way the United States demonstrates respect for religions of all kinds, and particularly gives people from every religious faith the opportunity to participate in our society, is an important statement of our beliefs and our values.

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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