Bangladesh’s development issues shared with BRICS participants

Published : 05 Sep 2023 08:28 PM

BRICS as currently constituted accounts for 40 percent of the global population and over 25 percent of the global GDP. It is seen by some as a counterweight to the G7 (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States). The BRIC countries started meeting formally in 2014 to improve economic cooperation, and added South Africa in 2010 to become BRICS. The bloc now seems to have loftier geopolitical ambitions.

Some Bangladeshi critics unfortunately have made derogatory remarks about how Bangladesh failed to be accepted as one of the six new members of the BRICS organization. They appear however to have overlooked the other side of the coin which points to the glass not being half empty but half full.

One needs to in this context view our participation in the BRICS meeting had some normative aspects which gave us an opportunity to reveal to the developing world how we are moving forward within the international paradigm despite the recent Covid Pandemic and socio-economic uncertainty created by conflict situations in various parts of the world.

The various dimensions within the Conference were pragmatically utilized by the Bangladesh delegation led by our Prime Minister. We have managed to highlight our country as one moving forward towards multidimensional development and a worthwhile place for investment and joint socio-economic initiatives. This has opened the door for us to be subsequently more functionally associated with BRICS.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina during her participation in the BRICS meeting as a member of the "New Development Bank of BRICS" underlined that BRICS needs to emerge as the lighthouse of the multi-polar world and be an inclusive platform responding to evolving aspects. In this context she also observed that "We should say 'no' to artificial choices and divisions being thrown at us. We must reject attempts to weaponize universal norms and values. 

We need to stop the cycle of sanctions and counter-sanctions." Quoting Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's speech at the UNGA in 1974, Sheikh Hasina also said, "For us in the emerging world, ... we must have faith in ourselves and in our capacity fulfill our destiny and to build for ourselves a better future”. The message he (Bangabandhu) conveyed fifty years ago still rings true, she opined.

During the conference the Prime Minister also conveyed to the participatory countries that Bangladesh is now the world's 35th largest economy, with a strong commitment to sustainable development.  "We have cut poverty from 41.5% in 2006 to 18.7% in 2022. We have reduced extreme poverty from 25.1% to 5.6% in the same period," she said. She also told them that her government has kept its word to not only provide electricity to all households but is also about to and are about to eliminate the curse of homelessness through the free social housing project, Ashrayan. In this context the Prime Minister also underlined that “our government has built digital public infrastructures across the country. Around 108% of our population has access to cellular mobile connections, higher than the global average and this was helping the rural population”.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina also had a one-on-one meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping while she was in Johannesburg. This meeting held on the sidelines of the BRICS summit gave Bangladesh the opportunity to reiterate our interest in strengthening cooperation with China in the bloc and other multilateral mechanisms. It was the first face-to-face meeting between President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina since the latter's formal visit to China four years ago.

The Chinese Ambassador in Dhaka after the meeting of the two leaders in South Africa has observed that consensus was reached by them to push the "Strategic Partnership of Cooperation" between the two countries to a new level "based on mutual respect and non-interference in each other's internal affairs". Satisfied by joint achievements made under the umbrella of Belt and Road cooperation, the two leaders also vowed to further strengthen the integration of development strategies, deepen practical cooperation in various fields, and enhance all-round exchanges, so as to bring more benefits to the two peoples. The Chinese leader also congratulated Bangladesh on joining the New Development Bank and vowed to enhance coordination and cooperation with Bangladesh in multilateral affairs to safeguard international fairness and justice and serve the common interests of developing countries.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina also used her opportunity in being present in the BRICS outreach luncheon to place not only five proposals pertaining to the importance of promoting gender equality but also emphasized the measures that Bangladesh has actively undertaken over the last decade to transform women and girls into agents of change, thereby stressing the need for creating congenial enabling atmosphere for their empowerment consistent with the requirements of SDG 5.

Her first proposal identified the need to "mitigate the adverse effects of the ongoing food, energy, and financial crises on the nutrition, health, and safety facing women and girls" in different parts of the world including Africa, Asia and Latin America. Secondly, she called for making added efforts to keep girls in schools, secure them from cybercrimes, and reduce the growing digital divide many of them face. 

Thirdly, she advocated the need for expanding scope for women's gainful employment, decent work, wage equality, and financial inclusion. Her fourth and fifth proposals suggested taking a deeper look at women's need for protection and resilience due to aggravating climate impacts alongside promoting a level playing field for women to have an active and sustained political career.

Subsequently, her intervention revolved round Article 28(2) of our Constitution which stipulates that "women shall have equal rights with men in all spheres of the state and of public life." To support this she drew the attention of the participants to some other interesting facts- (a) that in our National Parliament our Speaker, Leader of the House, Leader of the Opposition, and Deputy Leader of the House all happen to be women, (b) that the doors had been opened for women to become judges of the highest court, higher positions in civil administration, armed forces, law enforcing agencies, Vice Chancellors of public universities, (c) that the girls' education up to 12th grade has not only been made free but enrollment at the pre-primary and primary levels has risen to 99% but also about 25 million students have been brought under various stipend and scholarship programmes, and that the stipend money reaches the mothers or legitimate guardians directly through their mobile phones, (d) that free books have been distributed among students up to the secondary level since 2010 and the increasing rate of female education has significantly lowered the rate of child marriage and (e) that women also make up the backbone of our export-oriented readymade garments industry, with 2.5 million women directly working in the sector.

Analysts have since indicated that through such revelations Bangladesh has drawn the attention of the BRICS meeting participants, particularly from Africa, Latin America and parts of Asia to the need of BRICS to seriously move forward and enhance its existing dimensions by having countries like Bangladesh on board.

During the BRICS Plus Dialogue, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, Indian Prime Minister Modi and President of the Republic of Indonesia Joko Widodo exchanged pleasantries with the Bangladesh Prime Minister. United Nations Secretary General António Guterres, Vice-President of Uganda, Deputy Prime Minister of South Africa, Russian Foreign Minister, Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia also had conversations with the Premier.

The four MENA countries who have been offered membership of BRICS are carefully examining their future prospects and the connotations and denotations of their inclusion within BRICS. Analysts have already pointed out that the UAE has accepted the BRICS offer to join the group and Iran and Egypt are also expected to accept their invitations due to potential financial interests.

Iran, meanwhile, with its already difficult relations with some Western countries, appears to have taken the opportunity of its BRICS invitation to argue that the US-led international order is collapsing. Iran’s Arabic-language television network Al Alam has quoted Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi as saying. “The proposed expansion of BRICS shows that the unilateral approach is on the way to decay.” They have already hinted that time has come to move away from any dependence only on the US Dollar. This is because American domination of the global financial system has been particularly troubling for Iran, as its economy has struggled under the weight of US sanctions.

Saudi Arabia, however, is still mulling the proposal, but is likely to be on board, as it seeks to balance its relationship with the United States alongside emerging powers like China. According to analysts, the Kingdom’s ironclad alliance with the US has already loosened on a number of fronts and its entry into BRICS would be another unravelling.  Strategic analysts Sami Hamdi and Michelle Grise have observed that Saudi Arabia, already a regional leader, believes that it can be a heavyweight globally and this has been reflected in their ambition for deeper ties with China.

The six new proposed members of BRICS, including Argentina and Ethiopia, represent diversity. They seem to have been chosen for geographical reasons. However, the BRICS as an institution needs to understand that having Bangladesh or Indonesia will add to their socio-economic potential and carry them forward. No wonder China has supported the idea of a creative membership expansion. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa who hosted this latest BRICS conference in Johannesburg appears to have also supported the prospect of additional Members.

This normative understanding will also help in the evolution of BRICS from an acronym to a socio-economic powerhouse. It will also be consistent with Chinese President Xi Jinping” s call for an expansion of the BRICS grouping of emerging economies to build a more just and equitable international order, insisting “hegemonism is not in China’s DNA”. It will also reflect a more diverse global South.

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance