Taking the cue from NRB conference in Dhaka
ME Chowdhury Shamim
A large number of Bangladeshi scholars and professionals are living abroad and contributing extraordinary expertise in their respective fields. After finishing higher studies in reputed universities, many Bangladeshi students are accepting lucrative jobs in their respective host countries and settling there permanently. Their achievements are being recognised in the countries of their residence. Actually we do not have the statistics about Bangladeshi scholars or professionals living abroad. Now the time has come to explore how the nation could benefit from the sons of soil.
Many Bangladeshi scholars and professionals want to give back to the country of origin what they owed to their native land. In the recently held "First Non Resident Bangladeshi Conference (NRB/PBO) Conference 2007" in Dhaka Sheraton Hotel, organised by Scholars Bangladesh, an esteemed participant from Singapore, a banker-cum-teacher expressed his urge for "giving back." And we can assume that there are many like him in many other countries of the world with such urge for "giving back" to their country of origin. However, a proper framework is yet to be developed so that the contribution of NRBs can be obtained for the development of the nation. To create the expected framework, it is necessary to identify the challenges and opportunities before the nation.
Natural disaster-prone and poverty ridden Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated countries in the world hinting at its problematic nature. But the fact is that this population with the proper strategic investment could be turned into a huge force in the economy. The population of Bangladesh is comparatively younger, with 60% under the age of 25 and only 3% older than 65. By contrast, in Japan 21% of the population is already elderly. By 2050, their population will have shrunk by one-third. Italy, Germany and Spain will lose one-fifth of their population. The working age group in Europe will fall by 50%. So, whether it is expected or not, future openings remain before the nations of huge populations like Bangladesh. It is the right time to build economic strength with the population asset. Now we need nation-wide thrust with the contributions of the NRBs playing a vital role in both public and private sectors.
Professor Jeffrey D. Sache of Columbia University commented about Bangladesh in his famous book 'The End of Poverty' thus: The country has placed its foot on the 1st rung of the ladder of development, economic growth, improvement of health and education. It is no longer viewed as a hopeless basket case, rather as a country worthy of attention, care and development assistance. The World Bank predicted that if Bangladesh could raise the GDP to 8%, poverty would be halved. The world famous Merrill Lynch said (Published on July 5, 2007) in its Investment Strategy Report that 'Many people do not realise that Bangladesh, a country of 140 million people, is probably the best reform story in Asia. Union Bank of Switzerland, the 2nd largest financial institution in the world, envisions Bangladesh as the 12th economic power of the world in 2050. So if we want to emerge as a country with economic muscle for real, we need to be globally competitive. What we need to do in order to be globally competitive and securing a leading position in the global capital market landscape we have to have massive investment in the economy.
I view investment in various ways. Capital is one thing; and professional expertise investment is another thing. If the amalgamation of two things is done successfully -- development becomes easier. In that respect, I would like to lay emphasis on retur our scholars and professionals back home. Many of them think it is time to take part in in the development of home country. It is our duty to make arrangements so that the skilled people can contribute to national development efforts within a systemic framework.
Apart from the direct investment (to be discussed later), there are many ways whereby the country's economy can be made globally competitive. The focal points of NRB endeavours, apart from the direct capital investment ,are:
1. Reverse the brain drain.
The above features are (in a nutshell) required for receiving any investment in the field of development These are essential to bolster competitiveness.
Now to the issue of direct capital investment. Since long, the NRBs have shown strong willingness to invest either in direct capital-form or in merit form for the development and progress of the country. Now the widely discussed topics range from voting rights to setting up of business. Some of the NRBs want to invest directly provided there's a congenial atmosphere for secured investment. However the avenues mentioned below seem to have potential for promoting financial investment in Bangladesh by the NRBs in carefully chosen areas:
A) Formation of financial body, which could be a bank also.
The above features deserve to be discussed in a wider spectrum-
B) Information and communication technology (ICT): It an industry waiting to fall into our basket. As you know, since long, India has been playing the most vital role in this field. The raise in national wage and stronger position of India have caused to raise the eyebrow of western investors. It is only a matter of time before we get part of the business. I believe, like our garments industry, ICT will place us on a higher rung of the development ladder. However, some measures, of course attainable, are to be taken to participate in the race -- in which I think the NRBs can contribute their expertise and investment.
C) Health and education: Once again the story of success of India is to be cited for better understanding. It is widely recognised that India has achieved world status in the field of providing health care and education. India's less costly health service is attracting attention of rich nations of the west. Moreover, India has successfully exported health professionals abroad. In the field of nursing India occupies a big space in the United States. Apart from India, another success story is Philippines. Just because of skilled professional training schemes, the country has made its mark overseas. Many Bangladeshi professionals abroad have expressed their interest in contributing their expertise in the field. The statistics show that the US will face acute shortage of professional nurses until 2031. Many of the US health institutions have expressed their desire to come and train up our nurses. Moreover, NRB physicians can go about lecturing and providing medical assistance in an organised manner. Only the thing we need is bridging between the entrepreneurs and skilled professionals which is possible if the government seeks the help of NRBs on a structural format.
D) Agriculture and agro-processing: The land of Bangladesh is conducive to growth of agriculture and processing industries. Despite repeated natural disasters, the achievement in the field of agriculture has been commendable. However, a huge potential remains untapped insofar as developing agro-processing industry goes. The interest of NRBs in this field could make the industry competitive, at least regionally.
E) Real estate business: A booming industry like this could benefit the NRBs in two ways: one is investment and another selling. Many NRBs tend to purchase a flat or home/house in Bangladesh so that they can either live or pass some days in it back home. But of lack trust is weighing somewhat negativly there. On the other hand, equipped with contemporary skill in the building technology, many NRBs have expressed their interest to invest in this field. This could be capitalised on by nurturing confidence in sector.
F) Stock market: Another promising sector waiting to court NRB investment. If the abovementioned steps were even partially taken overseas wage earners could investment in futures. The present stock market is crying for foreign investment. For the NRBs come forward we need modernising operations of the stock market. The idea is connectivity with the rest of the world. Spot the possibilities, engage the NRBs earn their trust -- and pay them back.
G) Power sector: Bangladesh has been facing acute power crisis since long. It is such a big sector that government could barely move without the help of donors. The main problem of this sector is investment. Moreover, a strategic plan is essential to cater for anticipated power generation requirments in the short and long terms. Our power sector needs skilled professionals and investment. Many NRBs' role in meeting power crisis elsewhere can be replicated here. The government can seek the NRBs contribution in bringing investors and planners over for the development of energy sector. Alternative energy sources like solar and wind power and bio-gas have acquired great importance for the sakeof containing Co2 emissioins resulting from use of conventional energy sources. Given the brunt Bangladesh is taking from climate changes this a field where NRB investment would be highly welcome.
The NRB role can go beyond what has been identified in the foregoing paragraphs. However, it appears to me that should they be able to utilise the opportunies spotted above that would a big stride in national development.
Many developing countries like India and Malaysia have taken adequate measures to secure the support of their nationals living abroad. The Irish economic boom is also a case in point. These countries have taken realistic steps to employ the diasporic scholars and professionals with assurances of providing them with recognition and satisfactory facilities package. Let us choose our time for prosperity.
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