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Diplomacy in Action

Remarks at Federation of Bangladeshi Associations in North America (FOBANA)

Alyssa Ayres
Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Orlando, FL
August 31, 2012


Thank you for such a warm introduction, and thank you to the organizers of this event. It gives me great pleasure to address the 26th Federation of Bangladeshi Associations in North America (FOBANA) Convention. What a wonderful opportunity to meet such a dynamic group, all who have travelled from near and far to celebrate Bangladesh’s heritage over the next three days. Bangladesh is a special place, doing important things to chart an impressive future for its citizens. And that’s what I’d like to speak with you all about today. First, I would like to spend a bit of time discussing the U.S.-Bangladesh relationship. Then I would like to briefly discuss the New Silk Road vision, which seeks to enhance connectivity throughout the entire region. Finally, I would like to turn to the importance of the Bangladeshi-American diaspora in helping Bangladesh continue to unlock its potential.

As a moderate secular democracy, home to 160 million energetic, entrepreneurial citizens, and a growing economy that has brought millions out of poverty in recent years, Bangladesh is a nation with a bright future. Bangladesh is also an important partner to the United States. As our ambassador to Bangladesh, Dan Mozena, noted recently, “Recognizing Bangladesh as a democratic, secular state, a state committed to defeating violent extremism, America sought to broaden and deepen its partnership with Bangladesh.”

This partnership is deeply rooted in our shared democratic values, our shared focus on counter-terrorism, our strong economic ties, and our deep people-to-people connections. We are embarking upon an elevated and institutionalized framework for the relationship, accelerating our engagement across the board, including the launch of high level talks to discuss the many shared issues we face on the security side. USAID’s yearly development budget for Bangladesh is about $200 million, our largest development commitment in Asia outside of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Today Bangladesh is the only country to benefit from all four of President Obama’s global initiatives: global health, food security, climate change, and engaging with the Muslim world.

Given the importance of the relationship, Secretary Clinton traveled to Dhaka in May to affirm these strong bonds of friendship and shared values that exist between our two countries. She underscored our desire to deepen our partnership in addressing bilateral, regional and global issues to the mutual benefit of both Bangladesh and the United States. And during this visit, the United States and Bangladesh agreed this close collaboration should be formalized through an annual Partnership Dialogue, which will give strategic direction to a vast array of ongoing and future cooperative activities. The inaugural Partnership Dialogue will be convened by Foreign Secretary Quayes and Undersecretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman this September in Washington. So what will we be discussing and what are the specifics of these priorities?

Counter Terrorism and Global Security

As many will remember well, back in 2005 many feared that Bangladesh was heading down a more worrisome and less secure path. In August 2005, when 500 synchronized bombs exploded in a day, a darker future for the country suddenly seemed a prospect. But much has changed. The Bangladesh government has worked hard to disrupt terrorist networks, and has been very successful in combating the threat of violent extremism. That success is keeping the region safer and more secure, as Bangladesh combats violent extremism on its own territory as well as prevents its country from being used to launch attacks elsewhere. Bangladesh’s success offers the world a good model, in fact, and the United States remains a strong partner on this critical front. It’s also worth remembering that around the world, Bangladesh is the largest contributor to UN peace support operations in the world with over ten thousand military and police personnel on the ground in eleven different operations. Bangladesh provides trained and dedicated manpower – and womanpower – to help maintain global peace, an invaluable contribution to the international community.

Growth and Prosperity

In recent years, Bangladesh has achieved great economic success, sustaining an annual growth rate of roughly six percent a year for the past decade. Bangladesh is largely self-sufficient in rice production and working to be self-sufficient in food production by the end of the decade. It is a super power in manufacture of ready made garments -- the world’s second largest exporter. It has made remarkable progress at meeting the United Nations Millennium Development goals, for which the country received UN recognition. Specifically, Bangladesh is on track to reduce under-five child mortality by two-thirds from 1990 to 2015.

Bangladesh has made important policy choices to prioritize women’s empowerment, resulting in drops in maternal and infant mortality, and substantial increases in girls attending and graduating from schools. The United States applauds this focus, because it is impossible for a country to realize its full potential, to advance or develop, if half of the population is excluded from meaningful participation in political or economic life. Bangladesh’s record in women’s empowerment is a testament to its commitment to this important issue, and we are pleased to partner with Bangladesh in promoting connections between women from all over the South Asian region. In July, Dhaka was the site of a wonderful Asia Foundation conference that brought together women politicians from all over South Asia. Later this September, local women political leaders will gather in Chittagong, for the Grassroots Women’s Political Leadership Forum at the Asian University for Women, the only pan-Asian university for women. Similarly, the United States is supporting a regional conference in December, the South Asian Women Entrepreneurship Summit, which will be held in Dhaka.

Bangladesh’s accomplishments on women’s empowerment are recognized around the world. Bangladeshis can be particularly proud of their country’s vibrant and innovative civil society, with much-lauded organizations like BRAC and Grameen Bank which have helped the country achieve many successes. Civil society organizations play an important and positive role in improving the lives of women and families in Bangladesh and have served as a model for successful, inclusive development throughout the world. And this is a great credit to Bangladesh!

As you may be aware, we are deeply concerned about developments in Bangladesh that threaten Grameen Bank, which is helping its more than 8.3 million borrowers, mostly women, emerge from poverty. We call upon the Government of Bangladesh to ensure the continued integrity and effectiveness of Grameen Bank and to preserve its unique governance structure by which its borrower-members control the Bank's Board and the Bank's destiny. We hope, too, the Board will be able to choose a new managing director, a person of high repute, competence and passion for the Grameen Bank. Such a path will ensure its continued good works that benefit millions of women, reflecting so well on the strengths of Bangladeshi society. We also urge the government to ensure that any review of those companies begun by Grameen founder Prof. Md. Yunus will be fair, transparent and to domestic and international standards.

Advancing Regional Stability.

I now would like to talk about Bangladesh’s role as an integral partner in the greater South and Central Asian region. Some of you might be familiar with the concept of the "New Silk Road" Secretary Clinton articulated with respect to the South and Central Asian region during a visit in 2011. It is no accident she introduced this idea in South Asia. The New Silk Road vision seeks to strengthen regional economic integration and promote economic opportunity across the South and Central Asian region, embedding a stable and secure Afghanistan at the center of a stable and secure region.

When we talk about the New Silk Road, we are talking about development of energy and infrastructure – like roads, bridges, electrical transmission grids, railways and pipelines – to connect goods, services, and people. And we are also talking about trade liberalization – like the reduction of non-tariff trade barriers, improved regulatory regimes, transparent border clearance procedures, and coordinated policies – to accelerate the flow of goods, services, and people throughout the region. Advancing these twin agendas will unlock the economic potential of a more open and integrated region – home to over one-fifth of the world’s population – with virtually unlimited potential.

At the eastern side of the New Silk Road, Bangladesh is taking great initiative in regional stabilization and trade liberalization, and already reaping the benefits.

The agreement last year between Dhaka and Delhi to resolve long-standing and quite complex boundary issues has at last put the past where it belongs--in the history books--allowing both countries to look ahead to new areas of mutual cooperation. Efforts to facilitate trade and cross-border connectivity--like by easing the mechanics of how the Maitri Express, which I took last December, can cross borders faster with passengers from both countries, has unleashed an impressive expansion of trade. Bangladeshi exports to India have doubled in the past year. The United States continues to strongly support construction of the Padma Bridge, which is key to driving economic development in southwestern Bangladesh, home to over 30 million people. The Bridge would add 1 - 1.5% to Bangladesh's annual GDP growth rate and would be critical to building intra-regional trade, especially between India and Bangladesh, as envisioned by the New Silk Road.

Along the southern border with Burma, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit last December showed Bangladesh is willing to take the first step (and the risk that comes with that) to reach out, opening up the prospect of, over time, a true Indo-Pacific corridor linking the South and Southeast Asian region. When that level of regional engagement becomes fully realized, Bangladesh will truly be an eastern node of a New Silk Road running from Dushanbe to Dhaka, and onwards through to Denpasar and beyond. Of course, it will be so important for the longer-term relationships in the region to find durable solutions to tough cross-border issues, such as the situation of the Rohingya, and the United States strongly affirms our desire to be supportive in the process.

The Diaspora

Finally, I would like to offer a few words about the important role all of you play in all of this. Bangladesh’s significant diaspora communities -- including organizations like FOBANA -- have made substantial contributions in the United States. Throughout the United States, Bangladeshi Americans have distinguished themselves in politics, business, journalism and academia, including in the U.S. Congress, in international trade and diplomacy, in pioneering technology such as YouTube, and in education innovation, such as the path-breaking Khan Academy. Bangladeshi Americans also play an important role in supporting Bangladesh’s development. Members of the Bangladeshi diaspora in the United States send home over $1.5 billion a year.

While government cooperation is essential, it is the multitude of people-to-people connections that further deepen the U.S.-Bangladesh relationship. Secretary Clinton herself has said: “The problems we face today will not be solved by governments alone. It will be in partnerships – partnerships with philanthropy, with global business, partnerships with civil society.” It is our hope that you can come together with other Bangladeshis and Bangladeshi-Americans around issues of common interest--issues that cross lines of politics, of nation, and of gender--to help advance the U.S.-Bangladesh bilateral relationship and to help Bangladesh achieve its full potential. By focusing on issues where everyone can agree – like bringing more investment, entrepreneurship, educational exchanges to Bangladesh – you can create a powerful coalition for positive change.

So with those few words, I thank you for inviting me to join you this evening and thank you for your commitment to both the United States and Bangladesh.

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