By Shahidul Islam Chowdhury
July 28, 2014
‘First, we have to work to promote image to show what we call the other Bangladesh’ beyond disaster in readymade garment factories and cyclone, Swiss Ambassador in Dhaka Christian Fotsch said in an exclusive interview with Dhaka Tribune
Fotsch said he was aware of the birth of Bangladesh in 1971.
“I was born in 1955. I was 16 years old [in 1971]. I remember the War of Independence of Bangladesh. Actually it was the beginning of my political interests. I looked at the map and saw two parts of the [then] Pakistan – East Pakistan and West Pakistan. I was thinking how two parts of a country can work keeping another huge country India between them. It was a very bloody war. There was a lot of victims.”
“Sitting in Europe everything in South Asia may seem all the same. But the closer you look and the closer you work, you will see the diversity. [The 1971] War is a part of diversity in South Asia.”
Bangladesh and Switzerland has been maintaining relations for about 42 years. How will you assess the present state of relations between the two countries?
Actually we have a full-fledged embassy here since 2005. I’m very satisfied about the relationship that has been developed mainly on three pillars over the years.
The main pillar of our relations is development cooperation with roughly $35m per year.
The second pillar is political relations. Politically we have excellent relations. We have been working closely on global issues including climate change and migration. Of course, we do not fully agree on certain issues like migration. Bangladesh is typically a country sending its citizens abroad and Switzerland is receiving foreign workers. There is now 23% people living in our country who are non-Swiss.
This is the job of diplomats. On many issues we do not fully agree or take same point of view.
The third pillar is economic relations which is one of my priorities. We have accumulated trade of roughly $500m per year. Bangladesh is one of the few countries which have positive trade balance with Switzerland. Of the trade of $500m per year Bangladesh exports to Switzerland worth about $350m and our export to your country is $150m.
We have an increase in trade by 7% in 2013. I think we are looking at the potential of Bangladeshi market.
Switzerland considers Bangladesh as one of the priority countries. How is it beneficial for both sides?
In the development sector, Bangladesh is clearly a country with focus with the volume of $35m last year. We are going to increase development cooperation to $40m by 2017. We are active in three main areas: skill development, local government, economy and trade.
Is there any unique feature in our relation that does not match with Switzerland’s relations with other countries?
Before going to the point I need to mention that Switzerland recognised Bangladesh in 1972. We have started working here primarily on humanitarian grounds. In later years development cooperation was our only activity in Bangladesh. In 2005, Swiss presence here was upgraded to a residence embassy.
Yes, it is rapidly growing importance in political, economic and cultural relations. I’m the first career diplomat here to represent my country. The previous two diplomats were from development background. Sending a career diplomat is also a sign of how important Bangladesh is to Switzerland.
What are the scopes for expanding bilateral trade and investment in Bangladesh?
We have accumulated investment of $150m. Yes, it is quite modest. Several major Swiss companies have already been operating here, for example, Nestle, Holcim cement, Novartis, ABB, SGS, etc. These companies are already known for their worldwide reputation. They are happy with business here too.
Bangladesh is a growing economy with prospect of becoming a middle-income country. The embassy can organise trips for Swiss companies to help them to know about Bangladesh. I’ll like for big promotion for Swiss small and medium enterprises so that they become active in Bangladesh. The best approach is to bring them here. We are working to bring a delegation of SMEs early next year.
One of the fields with huge potential is clean production and green production. I follow the Bangladeshi newspapers including the Dhaka Tribune that highlight the environment is gaining importance here and people talk about producing things in clean and green manner. Swiss companies have huge know-how in this field.
How can Bangladesh increase export to Switzerland?
It is the job of Bangladeshi companies and the embassy in Geneva. I can work for both directions. For the moment, readymade garment is the most important product exported to the Switzerland.
To promote export, I think the most important thing is to promote the image of Bangladesh. To be honest, in Europe we hear about the Rana Plaza disaster, cyclones, rule of law, etc. So the image of Bangladesh is not at its best.
I have visited Incepta, a pharmaceutical company. They are manufacturing agricultural products. These sectors of Bangladeshi production lines are not much known in Europe, especially in Switzerland.
So I think, first, we have to work to promote the image to show what we call the other Bangladesh beyond cyclones and disasters in garment industries.
Working on the latest technology and adding more value to Bangladeshi products will also help the Swiss public to know the other Bangladesh. We are working on a project about this to promote the image and the product of Bangladesh and to bring Bangladeshi and Swiss business partners together.
Are Swiss companies utilising the Export Processing Zone facilities here? Are they satisfied with the services provided there?
Yes, they are using these products and services. I suppose they are satisfied as I haven’t heard any complaints.
In which sectors will the Swiss SMEs be able to contribute?
They will be interested in weaving machinery, pharmaceutical, chemical and biotechnology, etc.
They will also be interested to help in upgrading the production facilities of RMG factories.
They can work for clean, green and quality production. Since pollution is a growing concern here, and worldwide too, they will be able to help in making production pollution free.
For high quality standard, the Swiss technologies are quite expensive compared to their competitors. So wherever quality and long term investment are important arguments, Swiss technologies are major competitive options.
What do you want to achieve during your tenure in Bangladesh?
My goal is clear. I want to explore and use all the potential to increase trade between Bangladesh and Switzerland. I want to convert the potentials into reality so that at the end of my tenure we fulfill the goals. We will also work to increase development assistance by ensuring high standard of development cooperation.
Let me give you two points. We want to support the startup NGOs that have much potential but have no donors to fund. There are many projects where all the donors jump in. This is not the Switzerland. We will work on new but less known projects.
UCEP was quite unknown when Switzerland had started to support it. Now it is so well-known that many donors fund them. This is a sign of quality for us.
The other element is that we touch the most vulnerable and marginalised populations.
Bangladesh wants to become a middle-income country by 2021. You need to create wealth. Yes, you have been achieving annual growth of 5.5% for the last 15 years. But a certain part of the population – based on caste, geographical location, level of education and the underprivileged – cannot get benefit of this growth. Our goal is to empower the underprivileged population to take their share in the growth of the economy, not just to give them subsidy.
I’ll also do some promotion for Switzerland, which is known to many Bangladeshis for high mountains, snow flooding and romantic scenes. This is a cliché. In fact, mountains and snow flooding is a small part of the reality in Switzerland. We need to promote the real Switzerland, the high-tech Switzerland, with diversity and cultural activities of the country beyond snows and mountains.
Switzerland is also famous for banking services. Do you see the possibility of collaboration of service among banks between the two countries?
Swiss banks do not work here due to absence of legal framework in Bangladesh. I need to mention, it is a growing economy with 160 million people with many potential customers for Swiss banks. The insurance companies as well could serve as soon as the legal framework is made ready.
Is there any irritant in the relations between the two countries?
We have excellent political, economic and cultural relations. So there is no obstacle as such that have to be resolved.
Yes, on some points, I have mentioned about migration, we do not agree. Switzerland has a very restrictive immigration policy. We have 23% non-Swiss among our living population. This is highest percentage of foreigners’ concentration after Luxemburg. Luxemburg has 40% foreigners.
On hiring people, we prefer our own nationals, secondly a person from the European Union and then the rest of the world.
I don’t want to make any optimistic note on hiring people from Bangladesh.
Is it difficult for a really qualified person to work in Switzerland?
We do not allow on the border to check certificates of a jobseeker. However, there are possibilities. For example, a Thai restaurant may need Thai chef to run the business. A person of European origin may not be able to prepare Thai food properly.
If a Bangladeshi has any specific qualification, for example in IT, that has demand in Switzerland, the company concerned can hire. But the company needs to prove that it has failed to hire people with that qualification from Swiss nationals first, and from the EU member countries as well.
For example, one-third of the staff of the IT departments in Swiss banks are non-European.
What do you think of the potential of tourism in Bangladesh?
For attracting tourists, especially the backpackers, some facilities need to be created here. There is in fact no taxi here in the city. Buses are overcrowded. Hiring a car is expensive. Train service is negligent and troublesome. So you need to create essential facilities for tourists and many of them are potential investors.