Column by Ifty Islam
In today’s column, I want to discuss what I believe is an important step taken towards improving ‘Brand Bangladesh’. It incorporates a number of themes I have written about previously, including public private partnership (PPP) in nation branding as well as leveraging the Bangladeshi diaspora, and recognising the quality of our entrepreneurs.
On November 26-27, the ‘Meet Bangladesh’ conference, organised by Bangladesh Brand Forum, was held in the Queen Elizabeth Conference Centre, London.
Seeing the Bangladesh flag fluttering opposite the cradle of western democracy, the UK Parliament, was a matter of considerable national pride to all participants.
More than 250 attendees came each day to hear the leaders of 20 leading Bangladeshi corporates participating in the panel discussions. The topics covered a wide range of sector investment opportunities, including energy/infrastructure, capital markets/real estate, ICT/Digital Bangladesh, manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, education, tourism as well as thematic panels such as diaspora.
There were keynote speeches from Salman F Rahman of Beximco, Tapan Chowdhury of Square, Oddvar Hesjedal of Grameenphone, Lutfur Rahman, executive mayor of Tower Hamlets, Goldman Sachs on the N11, Saatchi and Saatchi, and the Canary Wharf Group amongst others.
Distinguished panellists included US Deputy Assistant Secretary Alyssa Ayres, Deputy Governor of Bangladesh Bank Ziaul Hassan Siddiqui, Nazmul Hassan Papon MP and by video link from Dhaka, Prime Minister’s Energy Advisor Tawfiq-e-Elahi Chowdhury, and Aziz Khan of Summit.
Corporate leaders from ACI, Rahimafrooz, Bextex, Pacific Jeans, Sheltech, Bay Developments, Gemcon and GP IT were also present.
Journalist Zafar Sobhan was the master of ceremonies for the event.
Some topics discussed in the context of investment opportunities for international companies and non-resident Bangladeshis (NRB) were: the BRICs, the Next 11 and the Asian Century, strategy to solve the energy and infrastructure crisis, exports diversification, the RMG value chain, capital markets, opportunities in real estate, Bangladesh as the next outsourcing destination, eco tourism, agro businesses and climate change.
In a discussion on the Asian Century and the rise of the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China), there was recognition that none of us should accept that Bangladesh has any less potential than India. No-one could have imagined in 1992 when India was almost bankrupt as a nation and going to the International Monetary Fund for emergency funding that it would have more than $300 billion of reserves and be one of Asia’s powerhouses 19 years later. Bangladesh should be similarly ambitious.
There was consensus at the conference that Bangladesh suffers from what might be termed a ‘perception deficit’.
The five leading candidates were 1) natural disasters, 2) poverty, 3) political instability, and 4) corruption. What emerged from the conference was a different concept of Brand Bangladesh with five new themes: 1) adjacency to India and China; 2) a young, dynamic and entrepreneurial population of 164 million people; 3) a land of innovation in micro finance with the Grameen revolution and Professor Muhammad Yunus; 4) untapped opportunities for global investors looking for a new economic platform in the heart of Asia; 5) substantial and largely untapped intellectual/commercial capital from the NRB platform.
Re-branding by showcasing our leading entrepreneurs and corporates is, in my view, one of the most effective ways we can change country misperceptions and encourage greater foreign direct investment (FDI).
As I highlighted in my speech at the conference, in terms of adaptability and innovation, there is little doubt in my mind that Bangladeshis are inherently entrepreneurial people.
The ‘Bangladesh Paradox’, as we call it, is that despite natural disasters, corruption, poor governance, unfair stereotypes in Nation Brand and limited FDI, Bangladesh has managed to grow at around 6 percent over the last 5 years and was perhaps the most resilient economy in the world during the global crisis with growth only slowing from 6.3 percent in 2008 to 5.9 percent in 2009. The dynamic and entrepreneurial private sector has more than compensated for the inefficiencies in the public sector.
One might say it is the difficult and challenging operating environment for entrepreneurs in Bangladesh — from power crisis to a lack of risk capital to a difficult regulatory environment, which forced them to be innovative, adaptable and creative. They are driven by the ethos, encapsulated in a quote by Austrian Philosopher Friederich Nietzche — “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. More broadly, what sells to international investors is the ambition, vision and drive of our leading corporates.
Another important objective for the conference was to give a much more positive image to our NRBs in the UK. This recognises the potentially critical role our diaspora has in nation re-branding. We have, in reality, hundreds of thousands and perhaps millions of ‘Brand Ambassadors’ at our disposal — the large NRB community. We just need to find an effective strategy to leverage it. This might involve greater support and encouragement for events like the Meet Bangladesh conference, and ongoing follow up. It will be money well spent.
This was, I believe, a seminal event in our path to nation re-branding for one major reason. The leading companies in the private sector recognised that country re-branding was not only a matter of patriotism and national responsibility, but also in their self-interest.
Time after time, we heard CEOs underline how the negative image and stereotypes of Bangladesh was a constraint on their plans for globalisation and entering new markets.
Bangladesh Brand Forum Founder Shariful Islam and Chief Advisor Prof Ferhat Anwar deserve gratitude for the many months of organisation to make the event happen. But re-branding a country is much like changing the direction of a super tanker – it does not happen quickly.
I hope the success of Meet Bangladesh 2010 motivates not only the private sector but also the government to partner and drive the re-generation and rejuvenation of Brand Bangladesh.
The writer, Ifty Islam, is the managing partner of Asian Tiger Capital Partners.
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