TDS: How do you evaluate the 50 years of relationship between Bangladesh and the UK?
Dickson: It is a very strong relationship. There was very strong UK public support for Bangladesh's independence in 1971. Bangabandhu's first visit after release from Pakistani jail was to London. Bangabandhu then returned to Bangladesh via Delhi on a Royal Air Force aircraft.
Our relationship was built on a multitude of things. We have a very successful development relationship. For many years, Bangladesh has seen significant economic success and the UK has been a part of that.
We have a very well-integrated and successful Bangladeshi community of some 600,000 in the UK. Four British citizens of Bangladesh origin are now members of the British House of Commons.
So, there is a very strong people-to-people relationship. Also, we have a strong and growing relationship on trade, counterterrorism, and defence.
TDS: How will you celebrate Bangladesh's 50 years of independence and diplomatic relations with the UK?
Dickson: We had plans for high-profile programmes, but it won't be that high-profile in the first half of the year due to Covid-19. However, we will have a series of high-profile commemorations in the second half of the year. I am very keen and optimistic to have some high-profile visits later this year. There is ambition in the UK to mark this significant relationship with increasingly prosperous Bangladesh.
TDS: How would you describe the evolution of the relationship between the two countries?
Dickson: Our development partnership is still significant, but it has become much more than that. Bangladesh is a successful economy having more than six percent of growth in the last decade.
Two things have played a major contribution. First, a lot of development fundamentals [were] got right. Bangladesh has been an incredible success story in family planning, maternal health, and infant health.
Then, Bangladesh's garments industry has been globally competitive. Now, Bangladesh exports about $3 billion a year -- mainly garments and textiles to the UK -- while from the UK we export goods worth about $500 million to Bangladesh. I am very keen to develop Bangladeshi trade relations with the UK, which is globally competitive in areas like finance, education, healthcare, and green tech.
For example, a number of UK universities are keen to set up campuses and offer courses in technical and managerial areas -- skills that are required in the growing industries here. Instead of going abroad, young Bangladeshis can have global standard education at a cheaper cost.
TDS: What are the areas that Bangladesh needs to focus on as it graduates from its LDC [least developed country] status by 2024 and aspires to become a developed country by 2041?
Dickson: A couple of things. There is a need to have an economic transition -- Bangladesh needs to become a more mature economic model in a wider range of sectors and have wider sources of capital. The key for Bangladesh is to branch out from the success in garments and build other successes. Some companies are now exporting electronics, bicycles, and pharmaceuticals. The country needs to be globally competitive in these sectors. Bangladesh has an advantage in human capital but investment is needed for its development.
Second, issues around the ease of doing business and corruption need to be addressed. There are a lot of examples of that. If you talk to international investors, the issues that put them off coming here are around ease of doing business. In the recent report on corruption, Bangladesh is unfortunately labelled as the 12th most corrupt country in the world. I think that's bad for everyone. It would be very good thing if that can be dealt with.
Third, I think political competition is important. A democratic society needs political competition. It needs to have a strong opposition party to do its job, that you see in other countries. It would be a good thing if you had a strong opposition party, a loyal opposition, to occupy the democratic space. Democracy would also benefit from freer and fairer elections. Those will be good to see here in Bangladesh.
Besides, Bangladesh is 150th in the Reporters Without Borders world index. Our strong view is that the media has a crucial role to play in a democratic society. It is very important to make active citizens, to ensure they have access to information. Anything that makes that difficult is a bad thing. That applies everywhere in the world, not only in Bangladesh. One needs to have a free press that is able to report without fear or favour and play a role in holding the government accountable. Certainly, that's what the press does in the UK. Problems can brew without that. Ensuring press freedom, therefore, is of paramount importance in Bangladesh.
TDS: There are some 600,000 Bangladeshi-origin British citizens in the UK. How can the two countries boost collaboration through them?
Dickson: This is a huge people-to-people contact happening. Many Bangladeshis have been educated in the UK and became prosperous. They came back to Bangladesh and invested here. We see many examples of that. There is a very vibrant Bangladeshi community in London and there are also charitable investments coming back to Bangladesh. This connectivity can surely be stronger.
TDS: The UK is an important partner in Bangladesh's fight against climate change. How do you foresee future relations in terms of climate change?
Dickson: Climate is a crucial part of our relationship. It is particularly important this year because we are president of COP26 to be held in Glasgow in November. The political starting point looks much more promising now because the new American administration is committed to climate change. It can make a huge difference.
I think both Bangladesh and the UK need to work very closely together in climate negotiation. We hope we can reach an agreement in November so we can keep the global temperatures down to 1.5 degrees Celsius. This should be our immediate task.
There's a lot of work going on with Bangladesh on energy transition, trying to increase the amount of renewable energy and reduce Bangladesh's dependence on coal and bring forth the phasing out of fossil fuels. We are making sure that Bangladesh has the right access to green finance. The City of London is very important now as a green financial centre. I think we can do more on finance generally between Bangladesh and the UK as Bangladesh's financial system becomes more mature. Green finance is particularly an important area.
Besides finance, nature-based solutions are very important. For example, the Sundarbans -- which is South Asia's last remaining mangrove forest -- keep Bangladesh's southwest region intact during cyclones. That's just one example of how nature can play a vital role. Preserving nature is one of the best things that you can do in terms of tackling climate change impacts rather than building back after nature is destroyed. We are working on a programme with Bangladeshi partners to take all these things forward in the lead up to the COP26 and beyond.
TDS: The UK has been a major player in the Rohingya crisis. Where is the crisis going after the military coup in Myanmar?
Dickson: We are trying to secure safe and dignified return of the Rohingya to their homes in Rakhine. This is our first priority. It has of course been complicated by what has happened in Myanmar. There has been strong criticism of the coup from the international community. We are strong supporters of accountability for the crimes committed against the Rohingyas. We are supporting the legal process at the ICJ [International Court of Justice] and ICC [International Criminal Court] and want to make sure the evidence is gathered from the Rohingyas currently in Cox's Bazar.
In the meantime, it is very important that we work with the Bangladesh government for the Rohingyas now living in Cox's Bazar. We have provided nearly £300 million since 2017. The refugee camps are better now. While the Rohingyas are here, it is important that the children get education so their youth is not wasted and the adults have the opportunity to earn their living. We are very keen that education and livelihood are provided to the Rohingya -- not to keep them here, but to prepare them for life when they eventually return to Rakhine.
DS: What is your stance on the relocation of Rohingyas to Bhasan Char?
Dickson: It looks very impressive. I have seen it from the plane and I've been given lots of information about Bhasan Char, but two things are needed.
We need the UN, on behalf of the international community, to go to Bhasan Char and conduct a technical assessment, to see if the infrastructure built there is big and solid enough to secure the island from typhoons and whether the international community could help the government support up to 100,000 people.
The other thing that the UN needs to do there is to talk to the group of Rohingyas who were rescued from the Bay of Bengal in May last year, to know how they found living there and arrange a protection visit there. Then, we would be very happy to have a conversation with the government and say how to support the refugee population there. It could be more costly having people on the island than it is in the camp, but it should be possible to find a solution.