All three countries seek stronger, sustainable partnership with Dhaka

The 5 Nordic countries - Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden - all recognised Bangladesh on the same day, February 4, 1972. This early and decisive move to come out and endorse the nascent state spoke to the support for Bangladesh's independence across the region in Northern Europe that these countries occupy.

Three of those countries soon established bilateral ties and set up their own missions here - Denmark, Norway and Sweden and Norway. All 3 have since maintained a consistency and depth to their engagement with Bangladesh that have made them among our most important development partners.

Over the years, a number of cross-country comparisons have concluded that the Nordics indeed succeed better than other countries in combining economic efficiency and growth with a peaceful labour market, a fair distribution of income and social cohesion, including women's empowerment. The model is often pointed to as a source of inspiration for other people in their search for a better social and economic system.

A commitment to international development is also an integral part of the Nordic model itself.

It is their approach to development, as something more holistic than merely aid in the form of grants or ODAs, that has set them apart. The Commitment to Development Index is an annual ranking of the wealthiest nations in the world by how well their policies help people in developing countries.

The latest edition of the index, done by the Centre for Global Development, sees 2 of the 3 Nordic countries occupy the top 3 spots. In the past, there have been years when they have occupied all three of the top spots. In a statement accompanying the index, the CGD states that: "Good development policy is about much more than foreign aid."

That's why the Index assesses the quality of a country's aid in ranking them. That means the aid program's efficiency, transparency and how well it fosters institutions and reduces the burden on the aid-recipient or developing nation is also taken into account. This is where the projects supported by SIDA, DANIDA and NORAD are said to have the edge.

The three Nordic ambassadors stationed in Dhaka have reiterated that their countries want to have a "stronger and sustainable" partnership with Bangladesh going forward, exploring scopes for greater collaboration on key fronts - climate, green transition, technology transfer, healthy oceans, gender equality; trade and investment - continuing the friendship for the coming 50 years and beyond.

Delivering a joint keynote at the latest iteration of the Cosmos Dialogue's Ambassador Lecture Series, Swedish Ambassador Alexandra Berg von Linde, Ambassador of Norway Espen Rikter Svendsen and Denmark's Winnie Estrup Petersen highlighted the importance of free and fair elections in Bangladesh, multilateralism, global solidarity, respect for international law and a safe, dignified return of the Rohingyas to where they came from - Myanmar's Rakhine state.

Cosmos Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the Cosmos Group, hosted the webinar titled "Bangladesh-Nordic Relations: Prognosis for the Partnership" as part of its ongoing Ambassador's Lecture Series which was aired on UNB's social media on September 29, 2022.

Cosmos Foundation Chairman Enayetullah Khan delivered the opening remarks while the session was chaired by Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury, a renowned scholar-diplomat and former Advisor on Foreign Affairs of Bangladesh Caretaker Government.

Dr Imtiaz Ahmed and Dr Lailufar Yasmin, both professors at Dhaka University's Department of International Relations, spoke as discussants.

When three is not a crowd

"We have made a remarkable journey together during these 50 years. Our partnership has been through challenges and successes. And we have stood firmly by Bangladesh's side," said Danish Ambassador Petersen.

She said it is fair to say that the Nordics want to continue to be trusted partners - and friends - to Bangladesh.

Swedish ambassador Linde said her country wishes to position itself as a partner to Bangladesh within "sustainability and the green transition" and at the same time continue to strengthen Bangladesh's competitiveness.

She said Sweden's efforts on promoting the green transition within the trade policy goes in tandem with their different work streams within the development cooperation.

Norwegian ambassador Svendsen said ensuring that the oceans are healthy and productive for future generations is high on the agenda both in Norway and Bangladesh.

"In the coming years, the oceans will be even more crucial for global food security, poverty reduction, international transport, and efforts to address climate change and the environment,: he said, adding that Norway hopes to work with Bangladesh on the Nordic initiative to establish a global agreement to combat marine plastic litter and microplastics.

Over the five decades, Enayetullah Khan said, the relationship between Bangladesh and the Nordic countries has grown from strength to strength.

"There is much to celebrate as we observe fifty years of our collaboration," he said, gratefully acknowledging the support of foreign friends like the governments and peoples of Denmark, Norway and Sweden.

Khan said Bangladesh can learn much from the Nordic experiences in tackling the climate challenges, noting that the impacts of climate change will be much bigger than the combined impacts of Ukraine and the Covid-19 pandemic.

"I am very confident that our relations will grow as I see there are lots of scopes for collaboration including on the climate front," he said.

Khan referred to the Nordic Ambassadors' meeting with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasinaon on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Bangladesh-Nordic relations and said the assurances of the continuity of close cooperation that emerged from that event were "most welcome tidings for our people."

Dr Iftekhar Chowdhury said the enormous enthusiasm with which the Nordic week was celebrated recently reflects the warmth of the relationship between those Scandinavian countries of Sweden, Norway and Denmark, and Bangladesh.

He said the direction has always been towards the upliftment of the quality of life and the betterment of living conditions.

Today, he added, the aspiration for cooperation that was a twinkle in their eyes has found the fullest fruition in the manifold cooperation.

"Bangladeshis deeply value the Nordic countries. This is not only for the nature of bilateral relations with them, though also that, but also because of the perceived role of these countries on the international matrix," Dr Iftekhar Chowdhury said, noting that the Nordic countries are always seen as a major factor for stability in a sea of global uncertainties.

Dr Imtiaz encouraged the Nordic envoys to see whether it is possible to replicate something like carbon neutral villages in Bangladesh, as the Nordic countries have a strong focus on the environment.

He said that one or two carbon neutral villages can be explored in Bangladesh just to give a model of how one can go for a carbon neutral place. "If the Nordic countries can think of investing in Bangladesh that could be a model," he said.

Referring to Oxygen Minimum Zones (OMZ) in the ocean, Lailufar Yasmin said countries like Bangladesh need technical assistance from other countries to understand this so that it does not turn into a threat for Bangladesh in the Bay of Bengal region in the coming years.

She highlighted the possible collaboration in the area of deep sea fishing and said Bangladesh and other South Asian countries do not have capacities in going for deep sea fishing. "This is another area where Nordic countries have tremendous expertise. They can assist Bangladesh."

Lailufar Yasmin said the Nordic countries can work with Bangladesh closely in the shipbuilding sector.

She said there is little understanding about Bangladesh in Nordic countries and the both sides need to work to promote proper visibility of Bangladesh and its positive image.

The foreign affairs expert said technology transfer related agreements with the Nordic countries could be an area that both sides need to develop.

Highlighting Bangladesh's foreign policy neutrality, she said Bangladesh has followed a certain path and seen growth without enmity as Bangladesh maintains good relations with all the countries.

Democracy and Human Rights

Danish ambassador Petersen said the Nordic countries are following the upcoming elections in Bangladesh and have reiterated the importance of "free and fair" elections and the ability for the Bangladeshi people to express their views, in accordance with the constitution.

She said supporting civil society organizations that engage in civic voter education, election observation and the promotion of women candidates would also be "actions favouring competitive elections".

The envoy said the "respect for democracy and human rights" are also key elements of the Nordic countries' common DNA.

"Our welfare states are built on an inclusive, transparent and equal society with respect for the rule of law that can provide the opportunity for all to participate in the development of society," she said, adding that they are by no means perfect in this regard, far from it.

The Danish envoy, however, said this is the ambition they have because they firmly believe that respect for human rights, including freedom of expression; freedom of the press, labour rights as well as a vibrant civil society creates "stability, security, growth and economic prosperity." "And these are the backbone of our welfare states."

The Rohingya crisis

Dr Imtiaz wanted to know whether Nordic countries can take any tripartite initiative - Myanmar, Bangladesh and the Nordic countries - creating stability as the Nordic countries agenda on peace is very solid.

"I know Myanmar could be a tough call but there is no reason that the Nordic countries would not get into a tripartite kind of engagement and try to resolve this issue," he said, highlighting multilateralism, bilateral initiative and tripartite initiative involving China.

Norwegian ambassador Svendsen said the issue is of course a big concern for all of them. Regarding the possibility of Nordic initiative, he said at this moment there is no prospect of having such a foundation considering the situation on the ground though they still have good networks there in Myanmar.

The envoy said Norway has been working in peace processes all over the world for many decades and they were there at the request of all parties. "Unless you have that foundation there is nothing we can do."

The Danish envoy said the Nordic countries also strongly support Bangladesh in its efforts to ensure the basic needs and rights of the Rohingya refugees.

"In addition to providing humanitarian aid to the refugees since the beginning, we have extended our diplomatic support for Bangladesh in its efforts to ensure a dignified, safe, and voluntary repatriation of the Rohingyas to Myanmar when conditions allow for it," she said.

Trade Relations

The Nordic-Bangladesh trade relations have grown steadily over the years. Today, more than 100 Nordic companies are doing business in Bangladesh.

"I think that all of these companies would agree with us when we say that there is scope for an enhanced trade and business relationships between the Nordics and Bangladesh going forward," said the Swish ambassador.

Not least when it comes to areas such as sustainability, smart cities, urbanization, and digitalization, Linde said, adding that in light of Bangladesh's graduation from LDC-status, the Nordic countries and Bangladesh are becoming well-positioned to expand their close cooperation.

"With that said, we also look forward to further dialogue and collaboration with relevant authorities to improve the overall business climate in Bangladesh and the matter of 'Ease of Doing Business' - which still remains a barrier for increasing investment opportunities," she said.

The Swedish envoy said the increase in business related exchange opens up more opportunities for capacity building and sharing best practices between the countries. "It will also result in an even greater focus on the green agenda and combining economic growth with sustainability."

Norwegian ambassador Svendsen said both Sweden and Denmark have been pushing the green transition within the RMG sector - both within their trade policy and development cooperation for a long time.

The RMG-sector in Bangladesh is of high strategic and economic importance for both the countries and Bangladesh in terms of trade, growth, exports and employment opportunities, he said.

Many Nordic brands have ambitious climate goals, and at the same time there are many Nordic companies that can offer innovative and climate smart solutions and technology to meet these needs, the envoy added.

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