"BANGLADESH HAS THE
POTENTIAL TO STUN
THE WORLD 1"
Dr Albrecht Conze, born in the Western German town of Muenster in 1954, has dedicated his life to diplomacy. As a German diplomat and UN peacekeeper he was envoyed to Kosovo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Benin and Zimbabwe. Besides being an expert on international law and Africa's political emancipation, Conze has a passion for gardening, hunting and classical music. Since August 2012 he has taken up his post as Germany's ambassador to Bangladesh. FELIX WILKER met Ambassador Conze for an extensive interview on German investment, Bangladesh's political climate and the future of its tragedy-stricken RMG sector.
Dr Albrecht Conze
Ambassador Conze, you have recently taken over the post as Germany's ambassador to Bangladesh from your predecessor Holger Michael. What are your goals as ambassador? Are there certain areas you want to focus on during your tenure?
Germany and Bangladesh have developed a solid friendship over the past 40 years, based on mutual trust and a whole range of common interests. Standing on the firm ground that my predecessors have established, I want to focus on three areas during my tenure. The first is assisting Bangladesh to maintain its stability in a crucial phase of its democratic development. The upcoming elections should be peaceful and credible. The second is to further increase the level of German investment while at the same time encouraging Bangladesh to improve the conditions for attracting it. I am eager to explore areas where this country could show an advantage as a location for German investment compared to its bigger neighbours. Of course everybody speaks about the big tigers China and India, but there is a smaller and younger tiger roaring right here. My third focus is on helping to improve Bangladesh's image in the West by highlighting its real qualities as a country that has enormous potential but is too often known for the wrong reasons.
Recently renowned German architect Anna Heringer was attacked in Dhaka by hooligans associated with the opposition party BNP during a hartal. Then 24-year-old tailor Bishwajit Das was brutally killed by activists of the student wing of the ruling party, Awami League, during another hartal. With the political climate in Bangladesh becoming more violent and embittered from day to day, how optimistic are you that the country will be able to hold free, fair and participatory elections in 2014?
I find it shocking when the street is chosen as the main forum for political debate. A country of so many human qualities and so much potential should be able to let discussion take place in parliament where it belongs. Every day of hartal is a loss for the economy, and one more day of delay until Bangladesh achieves middle income status. If this habit continues during the year 2013, it will lead to more damage, more economic loss and, sadly, more loss of life. The constitutional tradition of obliging the incumbent government to temporarily give way to caretakers during election time has recently been discontinued by legislation, confirmed by the judiciary. In view of the comparatively short history of democracy in this country it may now be wise to arrive at an understanding between the major political parties on certain elements of to pacify the electoral process. It may not suffice to put the whole responsibility for guaranteeing the integrity of the process on the shoulders of the Election Commission. A basic political understanding on the parameters of a free and fair process would enhance everybody's confidence in the democratic process, both in the country and among Bangladesh's friends.
Labour and safety standards in Bangladesh's RMG sector made the news all over the world after the tragic fire at the Tazreen Fashion Factory, which also produced clothes for German retailer C&A. However, this is an issue that has been around long before the latest tragic incident. Do you believe the responsible parties will finally wake up and enforce adequate changes?
The Tazreen fire has sent a shock wave through Bangladesh. Beyond the tragedy, the reaction to this shock should now be one of implementing change. With all the publicity this fire has generated, it is time for action by all concerned. What needs to be done has already been discussed and defined many times before. Some internationally active companies such as Robert van Heusen and Tchibo have devised codes of conduct and constructive proposals on how to improve the conditions of Bangladeshi women working in textile factories. These proposals concern improvements across the whole chain. The chain begins in Europe, the United States, and now even China. The customer needs to be made aware that there is no such thing as a pair of jeans for five Euro that can be produced without a girl in Bangladesh suffering in a factory. The pair of jeans only needs to be slightly more expensive – not really a problem for the German buyer. This slight difference in price will not reduce Bangladesh's competitiveness, but it will seriously improve workplace safety. A concerted action across the whole chain is now required to prevent more tragedies – this is a lesson we will all have to learn from the Tazreen fire.
Trade union rights continue to be violated in Bangladesh. What needs to happen to have the country perceive trade unionism as something useful in the production chain?
Many factory owners and quite a few politicians in Bangladesh still seem to believe that unionists are nothing but troublemakers. I beg to disagree. Unions – if they have responsible and far-sighted leaders - are there to help the employees. And the employees need a voice. The girl that's working at the sewing machine has no voice unless it is recognised. A responsible partnership between employers and employees could quickly improve the work place. I am saying this as a friend of Bangladesh and someone who wants to see its RMG sector become more sustainable. If the house is put in order by all those concerned - employers, trade unions and the government - there will be no protests on your streets, and no boycotts of garments made in Bangladesh in our shops. I am working on convincing more German companies that they have to make a start by not squeezing their producers beyond limits. De-escalation and common sense is needed all along the chain from the Western consumer to the Bangladeshi worker. We need an unemotional debate, and quick improvements everywhere.
What else can the country do to improve its reputation also with regard to attracting more interest and investment from German companies?
A number of fast developing Asian countries have introduced far-reaching economic reforms and succeeded in greatly improving their investment climate. Best practices can be studied in Bangladesh's neighborhood. I would like to see an investors' rush to this country as it has recently happened in Vietnam. There is no secret: by listening to the needs of potential investors, and by being as accommodating as possible, Vietnam has greatly reduced poverty. Bangladesh has all the potential to attract more investment. It is quickly improving its infrastructure and power supplies. In fact, this month I very much hope to lay the first stone of a 450 MW power station mainly financed by Germany's development bank KfW. So there are many elements that can be presented to German investors as good news from Bangladesh.
Photo: Amirul Rajiv
China has recently offered to build a deep sea port in the Bay of Bengal. Is it true that German companies have a strong interest in taking part in this project?
Yes, I have heard interest from the German industry to take part in the development of such a deep sea port, especially with regard to the high technology and port management parts. Germany has a lot to offer in these two sectors. Our investors may be persuaded that the port will be a place around which new investments should be centered, where German cars could be assembled and then sold not only in Bangladesh but in the entire region as 'Made in Bangladesh'. All these industries could employ hundreds of thousands or even millions of Bangladeshis. The port could transform one of the poorest areas of the country into one of the most prosperous. The region between Chittagong and Cox's Bazar could become a new centre of international investment. So, this stretch of sea should evolve economically while safeguarding its unique natural environment – certainly a difficult equation to resolve, but a challenge to which German companies are ready to respond.
So, what Bangladesh needs to do now is ensnare German investors.
Yes, exactly. The Prime Minister has asked me to facilitate more German investment. It could well be the right moment. To give you an example: There are two Volkswagen factories in India and seven in China. Between the two is the Bay of Bengal – there should be a Volkswagen factory! I am in touch with Volkswagen about this. I think they need to be persuaded by Bangladesh that the Bay of Bengal is indeed one of the new frontiers for international investment. There is no time to lose.
Bangladesh's young generation is very eager to study in Germany. Can you give students any advice on how to get this opportunity?
Recently we've had an enormous upsurge in demands not just for information but also in requests to study in Germany. We're trying to cope with these requests because Bangladeshi students are known by our universities to be hard-working. However, numbers will remain limited and I can only encourage all those students to check our Facebook page for more information. All those who work hard and are qualified will get a chance.
You have been living in Bangladesh for about half a year now. How do you perceive Bangladesh personally? Do you have any personal stories to share, anything that has moved you deeply during your stay in Dhaka?
I'm overwhelmed by the friendliness and hospitality of Bangladeshis. What makes the difference to other countries where I have served is the enormous ambition of the young generation to go for a better life. It's not just a young country; it's a young country on the move. That is why I have no doubt that this nation is going to succeed – against the odds of limited space, climate change and exposure to natural disasters. With a strong national consensus about principles of governance, Bangladesh has the potential to stun the world.