Switzerland sees "massive potential" in expanding trade and investment ties with Bangladesh, along with close collaboration on knowledge partnerships.
"Trade and investment is a domain that has gradually picked up. We want to focus more (in this area) with Bangladesh," said Ambassador of Switzerland to Bangladesh Nathalie Chuard, sharing three elements crucial in the future relationship with Bangladesh.
Apart from trade and investment, the Swiss envoy mentioned two other elements - development and sustainability; and global challenges and multilateralism.
While delivering her keynote speech at Cosmos Dialogue held virtually, she described how both the two countries can continue partnering together towards a better future, and innovation, where her country is a leader.
Cosmos Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the Cosmos Group, hosted the dialogue titled "Bangladesh-Switzerland Relations: Prognosis for the Future" as part of its ongoing Ambassador's Lecture Series.
The opening remarks were delivered by Cosmos Foundation Executive Director Nahar Khan.
The session was chaired by Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury, a renowned scholar-diplomat and former Advisor on Foreign Affairs of Bangladesh Caretaker Government.
Former Managing Director & CEO of Mutual Trust Bank Limited Anis A. Khan, Executive Director of the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) Dr Fahmida Khatun and Honorary Advisor Emeritus, Cosmos Foundation Ambassador (Retd) Tariq A Karim comprised the panel of discussants.
Describing the ever growing relationship between Bangladesh and Switzerland, Nahar Khan said Switzerland remains one of most steadfast friends of Bangladesh on the international stage, too.
Over the last five decades, she said, bilateral relations between the two countries have grown broader and deeper, including on economic and international cooperation, humanitarian aid, as well as cultural and political exchanges.
Through the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), Khan said, Switzerland has been contributing to the country's poverty alleviation and development efforts.
The new cooperation programme is also aligned with the UN's agenda 2030 and Bangladesh's development priorities with an overall goal to support Bangladesh's sustainable LDC graduation, promote a prosperous, just and resilient society and contribute to peaceful coexistence.
Dr Iftekhar Chowdhury who as Ambassador to the European Offices of the United Nations and World Trade Organization had lived in Switzerland for over half a decade said that "Switzerland ranks at the top of the world's all-rounder countries for its political sagacity, economic stability, technological capacity and sharp business acumen". He added: "That is what makes Switzerland such an enviable country not just to live in, but also to work with".
He further stated, "While Europe today is caught up in a violent war in Ukraine, Switzerland remains an oasis of peace: It is owed to, among other things, a foreign policy that emphasizes neutrality, and from which the world has much to learn".
Dr Chowdhury observed that the partnership between the two countries has evolved and spanned across a broad spectrum, including development cooperation, trade, healthcare, medicine, human humanitarian support, as with the Rohingya refugees as well.
Swiss multinational companies, at the same time, are providing technologies and services in key economic areas, he said.
Mentioning Switzerland's political sagacity, economic stability, technological capacity, sharp business sense and acumen, the foreign affairs expert said that is what makes Switzerland such an enviable country not just to live in, but also to work with. "And that is also Bangladesh's experience of working with Switzerland over the last 50 years."
Ambassador Chuard mentioned Switzerland's aspiration for a non-permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council and the election for the term from 2023-2024 will be held in June this year. "Things are looking quite good."
She said what they do not have in population; they make up for it in innovation and quality, and that has paid off since they are now among the 20 biggest economies on the planet.
"Here, I see many positive developments if and when we can effectively and collectively combine Swiss excellence in technology with the resilient entrepreneurial spirit of Bangladesh," she said while talking about "evolving and broadening" relations.
Describing the LDC graduation as an important milestone and a remarkable success for Bangladesh, the envoy who spent almost two years in Bangladesh said it comes with a number of challenges.
The country will have to diversify its economy, further improve ease of doing business and investment climate, and agree on new trade regimes with many of its key trading partners, Chuard said, noting that the level of foreign direct investments remains low though investments are crucial to bring Bangladesh to its next level of development.
On their new country programme for the years 2022-2025, the Ambassador said it also complements the support for more trade and direct foreign investments.
In the years to come, Chuard said they will partner with Bangladesh – the government, the civil society and international organisations present here - to build the country back better, greener and fairer, and progress with a sustainable transition towards graduation from the LDC category.
"Together, we aim at promoting a more prosperous society that is just and resilient," she said.
The Ambassador, who split her keynote speech into three parts - beginning of the relationship, 50-year long journey and the future of bilateral relations, said economic growth and LDC graduation cannot be inclusive and sustainable in the long run without further improvements to the rule of law and good governance.
Therefore, she said, Switzerland will continue its traditional engagement in the domain of human rights and quality basic services, including targeted social protection of particularly vulnerable people.
Mentioning that this delta country is highly exposed to climate change, Chuard said, Switzerland will join forces and work hard with Bangladesh in this domain.
"We are committed to considerably ramp up our program in the area of climate change adaptation and mitigation, disaster risk reduction, and environmental sustainability, '' she noted.
Highlighting the importance of multilateralism, the envoy said it matters, now more than ever, especially for "small" States; and she is looking forward to working with Bangladesh to pursue their actions in favour of peace, international law, sustainable development and human rights in the multilateral fora.
"As the times have changed and Bangladesh with them, our relationship has also changed and evolved, getting stronger over the last 50 years," said the Ambassador, adding that "I am proud of our journey together over the last 50 years. I also know that, with the trust and goodwill between our countries - and our peoples - , we can go much further."
In terms of international cooperation, she said Switzerland has been a committed, innovative, and effective development partner of Bangladesh, addressing critical socio-economic areas over the years and supporting programmes in many domains, including democratic governance, agriculture, income, and economic development and labor migration.
Switzerland has invested over $1 billion in development cooperation since Bangladesh's independence, with additional significant amounts channeled to the country through different international organizations.
Bilateral trade volume has crossed the $1 billion mark last year. "And for a country that has approximately the same population as Chattogram, it is a substantial result and it certainly makes us one of the most active trading partners of Bangladesh," Chuard said.
IT, Research & Education
Highlighting Bangladesh's success story in the RMG sector, Anis A Khan said Bangladesh is trying very hard to move to the IT sector to boost exports through diversification.
He said over the last five decades, Switzerland emerged as a reliable development and economic partner; and the cooperation in education, research and innovation between the two countries is extremely important.
"Let's work closely on education and research; team up with our universities in Bangladesh to see how we can improve," said the former banker who visited Switzerland and extensively traveled across the country.
Fahmida Khatun said Switzerland can enhance cooperation with Bangladesh in the case of humanitarian support, support in the SDG implementation and climate change mitigation efforts.
"Bangladesh is undergoing double graduations--from a least developed country to developing country in 2021 and then from a lower middle-income country to upper-middle-income country… so we need to prepare for all those future milestones," she observed.
The economist said Switzerland also can help Bangladesh build the capacity of its human resources by creating more scope for Bangladeshi students to pursue higher education in the renowned educational institutions of the country with scholarships.
Mentioning that Bangladesh has a huge young population, she said the country can really take advantage of the demographic dividend what it has through higher education, knowledge and innovation.
In this context, Dr Fahmida said the government of Switzerland can come forward with more scholarships so that Bangladeshi students get the scope to obtain a high-quality education.
She said Switzerland also can help Bangladesh develop its tourism sector as a driver of economic growth and employment.
Stating that Bangladesh has not been able to realise the full potential of its tourism sector, Fahmida said this is an area where Bangladesh can greatly benefit from Switzerland's knowledge and expertise in the coming days.
The economist said innovation and technology, which is related to human resource development, is another area for Switzerland to assist Bangladesh.
Former Ambassador Tariq Karim said Switzerland's experience in its own development, growth and going forward, is what Bangladesh can reap large dividends from.
"We need to invest more in skill development, and this is where Switzerland can help us," he said.
Noting Switzerland's strict policy of neutrality, Karim said Bangladesh will be positively neutral because its survival depends a bit on this positive neutrality.
"We cannot afford to take sides with anybody against anyone else and everybody should respect where we come from," said the foreign affairs analyst.
"I think we can play the role of being a stabilizer in this vast oceanic sphere that we live on - and that is through our shared commitment to uphold peace and the principles of justice everywhere," he added.