The country will have to focus on quality and not quantity if it wants to become an emerging economic power, said German Ambassador Albrecht Conze yesterday.
“Bangladesh has enormous capacity to react for the better. If you continue in the vein you will jump on quality. That will be your cutting edge because you still have affordable wages.”
The outgoing German ambassador spoke to The Daily Star at a farewell lunch organised in his honour by Bangladesh German Chamber of Commerce and Industry at the Westin in Dhaka.
Conze spoke at lengths about the twin disasters of Rana Plaza and Tazreen fire and the lessons learnt from it.
“You reacted because you had to react. But more and more leading businesses have understood this was the chance for Bangladesh to move to a higher degree of quality.”
After Rana Plaza, the society has adapted to the new situation, and more and more people have understood, particularly in the private sector, that they have to take up the challenge of improving the quality of factories as a first step, he said.
“And you did improve. Bangladesh needs to sell clean clothes, not dirty clothes.”
To have a garment factory that is certified by the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh or the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety is kind of a trademark.
“It is something that you can put into your good books, something that can make you proud, because it shows you have done something for your workers' safety.”
What first looked like an imposition from the Western markets on Bangladesh now looks like a chance for Bangladesh to simply improve the quality of the industry, the German diplomat said.
“You will have to move to a higher degree of quality everywhere if you want to become an emerging country. I think that is on the way, and I am very satisfied about that.”
The country, the private sector and the media reacted very positively to the crisis following the Rana Plaza building disaster and the Tazreen Fashion fire, he said.
To restore the image of a leading supplier of clothes, the diplomat said, a reformed Board of Investment is needed.
“You need to be more proactive in inviting investments and offer solutions to land and energy because these are the two biggest bottlenecks in bringing foreign investments, and German investment in particular.”
He said the country needs to make intelligent choices in case of energy supply and the way the country finances itself. “You need to have a better revenue generation for a better budget.”
The ambassador also spoke of the country's intent to issue international bonds. “I think the bond will be over-subscribed and will sell very well. Once you are part of that club of countries that are on the international bond market, you will move up the scale.”
With these elements, Bangladesh would be able to leave behind its reputation of being a poor country.
Conze tipped Bangladesh to become a middle-income nation sooner than the government targeted date of 2021.
“I believe Bangladesh will be a middle-income country well before the 50th anniversary of the nation,” he said, adding that if the politics is sorted, the growth rate of 6 percent can go up to 8 percent. “I have no doubt about that because I have seen the energy everywhere.”
But it would require “very strong, transparent and strategically thinking” leadership. “I hope you will succeed in getting out of poverty even faster than you have predicted yourself.”
A strong Anti-Corruption Commission will help, as the country needs strong institutions that will make it more attractive for people to behave correctly than to misbehave, Conze said. “With stronger institutions you will have more growth.”
He said when he came to Bangladesh two years ago he thought the country was very poor.
“But it is a hybrid country. Yes, there are millions in the countryside who live under the poverty line. At the same time, there is huge movement towards ever larger middle class. That is the real success story of this country.”
“You can be independent and autonomous and that is a matter of pride. If all forms of governments are on your side and governance is better, the country can move faster.”
The diplomat said Bangladesh needs to act now and implement things. “If you can manage it not just at the factory level but as a society, I am not worried about the future of a country that I have come to love.”
His assignment in Bangladesh saw two industrial accidents in the garment sector and almost yearlong political unrest. But he said normalcy has returned to the country with new challenges.
“I have witnessed a tremendous amount of movement. Even though it was politically a very critical time, the country has continued to move forward. It has impressed me.”
Conze also said the development partners should not be smarting over how the recent elections were conducted in the country, defying international calls for an all-inclusive poll.
“We, together with a number of other diplomats, especially within the EU, spent a lot of energy trying to bring the parties together last year and trying to help them find conditions under which BNP would participate.”
But in the end, things happened as they did, and everyone should now talk less about the past and more about what is next, he said.
“As Europeans, we have said what we have said. We are not changing our mind about that. But this is not at the centre of our attention now. Turning a page does not mean you approve of everything that has happened in the past.”
Conze also praised the country's business community who showed sheer resilience in the face of political unrest.
“In spite of a very difficult period in 2013, Bangladesh's business community has continued to work as well as maintained growth rate. On the whole, they have succeeded. It is quite impressive.”
Conze, who will leave the country next Monday, a year before his tenure ends, said he is very sad to be leaving early.
“And please take my candour and frankness as an expression of my admiration, appreciation and love.”
His next charge would be to head a new peace building mission of the European Union in Mali, where police forces are demoralised and need motivation to stabilise the country. “This is a challenge of a size that I could not reject.”
Conze, now 59, joined Germany's foreign services in 1981 and served in Hong Kong, Beijing, Vienna, Warsaw, Tunis, Khartoum, Moscow and Harare, before moving to Dhaka in late 2012.