Amid the backdrop of the COP26 conference in Glasgow in November, Bangladeshi officials took the opportunity to host a series of events aimed at attracting investors to the country. At the heart of this activity was an attempt to update the international image of Bangladesh, and brush away the outdated misconceptions associated with the country. 

In Glasgow, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina told the leaders of rich countries to keep their promises to help in the decarbonising process of developing nations while also fulfilling their own net-zero pledges.  

Days later, during an investment summit in London, Hasina appealed to UK investors to invest in Bangladesh in a wide range of sectors, including renewable energy, shipbuilding, automotives, light engineering, agro-processing, the blue economy, tourism, knowledge-based high-tech industries and ICT

The country, well-known for its garments sector and links to fast fashion, is looking to pivot from these areas into higher-value fashion, as well as diversifying its economy and heading towards a more sustainable future, given that the country is widely considered to be one of the most vulnerable to climate change.

Changing misconceptions about Bangladesh 

At a dinner event the night before the London investment summit, hosted in the city’s financial district at Canary Wharf, chairman of the Bangladesh Securities and Exchange Commission Shibli Rubayat Ul Islam highlighted four key areas in which the country needs to improve its image: literacy, food, infrastructure and water.  

“Just after our independence [in 1971], the literacy rate was 17–22%. Today it is 75%,” said Rubayat Ul Islam at the dinner event. He added that there have been advancements in the gender split when it comes to education in Bangladesh, reflected in the fact that there are 51% female students and 49% male students at the Business School of the University of Dhaka, of which he is the dean.  

Rubayat Ul Islam also highlighted that the employment rate among women in Bangladesh is 42%, “whereas in India and Pakistan it ranges between 17% and 32%”. 

Bangladesh eyes food and energy production

Producing food and exporting it to countries such as the UK is an area that Bangladesh is looking to move into, according to Rubayat Ul Islam. Previously, the country has relied upon food subsidies and imports, whereas in the past few years it has been exporting vegetables and meat, including halal meat to the Middle East.  

With a population of almost 170 million, and ranking sixth globally for population density, being “more or less self-reliant” for food is one of the country’s biggest achievements, according to Rubayat-Ul-Islam.  

Similarly, electricity shortages were common in Bangladesh only a few years ago, he added, with blackouts occurring for many hours a day. Now the situation in the country has improved dramatically and “99% of Bangladesh is covered with electricity”, said Rubayat Ul Islam.  

Access to safe drinking water and sanitation facilities is another of the challenges the country has made progress on in the past few decades. At the start of 2021, Bangladesh received $200m (Tk17.1bn) from the World Bank to help 3.6 million people access hygienic sanitation facilities and about 600,000 people access clean water in rural areas, to work towards achieving safe water and sanitation facilities for all, which is the sixth of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Infrastructure improvements and more SEZs 

Some of the more notable advancements in Bangladesh in recent decades have come through big infrastructure projects, with the upcoming Padma bridge linking capital Dhaka with the south of the country – due to be inaugurated in 2022 – the latest example.  

During the event, Rubayat Ul Islam also lauded the investment in the country’s railways and current plans to bring high-speed rail travel to the country, currently under survey by a Spanish company. 

The Bangladeshi government is looking to establish 100 special economic zones (SEZs) across the country by 2030. Incentives to attract foreign direct investment to these SEZs – including those already established in the country – include a tax holiday of up to ten years for certain areas and sectors, duty-free market access to the EU and a large number of other developed countries, and a full repatriation of dividends and capital

This SEZ push will bring with it updating of the country’s garment sector, which is currently based around the production of basic, simple and cheap garments. When asked about the future of the sector by Investment Monitor editor-in-chief Courtney Fingar, Rubayat Ul Islam explained that the vision is to move to high-end fashion products within the next five to ten years, while shifting “from light to heavy engineering”.  

Production has already started on nine SEZs, work is in progress in another 28, while a further 97 have been approved.  

Bangladesh seeks developed nation status by 2041 

Since gaining independence 50 years ago, Bangladesh has been taking steps to alleviate poverty among its population and increase economic growth. The prime minister now has another goal: to become a developed nation by 2041.  

The efforts taken towards this so far have been praised by the international community, but as with most countries, recovering from the pandemic will be crucial to the success of any economic development plans. However, news of a Bangladeshi drug maker imminently selling the world’s first generic version of Merck’s Covid-19 pill, molnupiravir, shows the rate of development in the country, and its potential in the pharmaceuticals sector.  

Bangladesh’s plans are ambitious: pivoting away from cheap garment manufacturing and establishing 100 new SEZs will dramatically change the country’s economic landscape. However, it has come a long way in a short space of time, and its plans to become a developed country by 2041 seem grounded in reality.