Hailing Bangladesh's upcoming graduation from the group of Least Developed Countries (LDCs) solely as the success of the people of the country, Sweden's Minister for International Development Cooperation Per Olsson Fridh nevertheless confirmed that his country has no plans to abandon the fight against extreme poverty here.
That will come as no surprise to those who are aware of the surprising depth (let's face it - you could hardly come up with two more starkly contrasting stereotypes than the ice-cool Swede and the emotional, unkempt Bengali) to the bilateral relationship between the two countries. With the possible exception of the Japanese, the Swedish government has probably been the most steadfast of Bangladesh's friends on the international stage.
"Even after graduation, you know there would still be millions of people left fighting extreme poverty in pockets around the country," Olsson told a select group of journalists, at the conclusion of a week-long visit during which he took the opportunity to visit different parts of the country and witness first-hand the field-level implementation of various projects supported by the Swedish government.
A substantial number of people are facing extreme poverty and the scenario will be the same even after the graduation, he said, adding, "We will be there to partner with Bangladesh to close that gap."
Olsson did say the nature of cooperation may change, since graduation is a significant event. In the future it may focus more on fighting inequality, or for social changes. He is also keen on transforming the "energy mix" towards a move away from fossil fuels.
The Green Party politician, who was inducted into the full cabinet under Prime Minister Stefan Lofven earlier this year, made Bangladesh the first country he visited as minister.
During the stay, he also held meetings with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Foreign Minister Dr AK Abdul Momen, Finance Minister Mustafa Kamal and Environment Minister Md. Shahab Uddin, during the visit. He also met with civil society, youth, and national and international development partners to get their views on development, and the opportunities and challenges of the future.
While in Bangladesh, the Swedish minister also visited the Rohingya settlements in Cox's Bazar and the Sundarbans area, to see first-hand the effects of climate change.
In his meetings with Bangladeshi ministers, Olsson held discussions on areas where Sweden and Bangladesh might cooperate more closely, including climate change adaptation and mitigation, social dialogue, and rights in the workplace.
He also raised topics of democracy, human rights and the rule of law as well as gender equality as areas where Sweden is ready to deepen engagement with Bangladesh. The Swedish government of course has taken the lead on gender rights in recent years, styling itself as the world's first 'feminist' government, and much of their cooperation with Bangladesh at present, and in the years ahead, is envisioned to advocate for a more equal society in the country.
"That will take not only working with women, but also working with men who are ready to defy certain social norms that may have become entrenched. They are the ones I now consider to be our partners, who will allow us to work outside the existing structures and legislation, through social action," said Olsson.
Alex Berg von Linde, Sweden's ambassador in Bangladesh who sat in on the conversation, interjected to add that the minister had met a number of young women during his visit involved in various projects as beneficiaries or working with them, and that had given him a real sense of the determination they have to resist the conditions that may be acting to hold them back from realising their dreams, and the potential of economic empowerment to help them in doing that.
"The Swedish-Bangladeshi partnership for the first 50 years is full of success stories. Today, we are ready to work with Bangladesh to tackle the many common challenges that we face for the future," Olsson said. Indeed, Sweden was one of the very first countries to recognise Bangladesh in the aftermath of its bloody war of independence from Pakistan in 1971. It is one of the handful of countries, alongside India and Bhutan, that is marking 50 years of diplomatic relations with Bangladesh at the same time as the country celebrates its Golden Jubilee of independence.
"The Swedish government has recently decided to continue development cooperation with Bangladesh for the next five years, the current strategy running up to the end of 2025. At the same time, we will work to support our expanding trade relations and people-to-people contacts, which have become pillars of our partnership in their own rights," he said.
Olsson said that a stable market economy needs transparency and accountability, which is where a functioning democracy comes in. He is well aware of various studies in recent years, including by institutes based in Sweden like International IDEA and the Varieties of Democracy Institute, or outside like Transparency International, that have reflected a democratic decline in Bangladesh.
He said it could be useful to tie the concept of rights and democracy to the possibility of greater investment by Swedish private sector actors in Bangladesh. "They prefer the predictability that comes with a stable democracy," he said.
One of the places Olsson visited during his stay was the Rohingya refugee camps in Cox's Bazar. He denounced the coup in Myanmar on February 1 and demanded that the civilian government be restored.
Though their repatriation has never looked close to reality, the coup most likely pushes it off the agenda altogether now, at least for the foreseeable future, said Olsson, bluntly agreeing with an assessment by SIDA, the Swedish government's development cooperation agency, on its website: "There is currently no possibility for the Rohingya to safely return home."
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