A number of UK-based companies are looking to invest in different sectors in Bangladesh, including financial services, health and education, British High Commissioner to Bangladesh Robert Chatterton Dickson said on Thursday.
During a visit to The Business Standard office on Thursday Dickson emphasised Bangladesh's potential as a prospective investment hub, but said the country needed to make improvements in a number of areas first.
He said issues with the National Board of Revenue, which are sometimes faced by UK firms such as British American Tobacco, Unilever and HSBC – some of the biggest taxpayers in Bangladesh – needed to be looked into.
The high commissioner also recommended working on issues such as contract enforcement and intellectual property rights.
"New companies from the UK want to come invest in Bangladesh and we are trying to get them here," he said.
"The UK is an 80% service economy…We have some companies that want to come in and want to set up manufacturing, but on the whole the sort of companies that will provide the kind of things Bangladesh really needs and wants as it graduates, are services: financial services, health services and education services," Dickson said, listing the priority areas of potential British investors.
Highlighting the education sector, he said UK universities were also looking to make investments in universities in Bangladesh.
"I have been working on this for two years…but we are still waiting for approval from the University Grants Commission," he said. Saying the Cross Border Higher Education Act, which would help facilitate university partnerships and programmes, had been introduced, Dickson pointed out that it was yet to be implemented.
"We offer a number of scholarships, but if universities invest here, then it will be more cost effective," he said, adding, this was an opportunity for UK-based universities to "develop a whole new customer base."
Revisiting some infrastructural issues, the high commissioner mentioned that work was also being done on tax reforms.
In this regard, Mahesh Mishra, counsellor, Prosperity and Economic Growth of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development office at the high commission, pointed out that Bangladesh's tax-GDP ratio was 8%, which was poor. If Bangladesh wants to self-finance, redistribute wealth and reduce inequality, then it would have to improve the ratio, he added.
On the capital market, High Commissioner Dickson said financial companies had a significant interest in investing in Bangladesh.
"Bangladesh's graduation from the LDC status will be a massive achievement. But to sustain this growth for the next decade or two, it will need more finance," he said.
Terming the country intriguing for UK investors, he said Bangladesh needed to foster better access to its capital market.
Underlining the need for the big institutions in the country's capital market, Dickson said it was currently thin and heavily-reliant on retailers. "It's a casino-like market," he said.
Dickson called for more instruments that savers could invest in, terming them transformative.
"The best place to find finance is from the private sector and to do that you need a highly developed capital market. London would be a great place to turn to raising private capital," he said.
Mishra echoed the views and highlighted that the country had a number of pension schemes with the money invested in low-yielding instruments. He said this could be opened up to something more high-yielding.
High Commissioner Dickson, in this regard, said it was important to take a policy approach to attracting foreign investment in the capital market, and that certain laws had to be adjusted. "We can help officials develop a system. The UK has expertise in this area," he said, adding that the investment environment had to be more conducive to making and repatriating profits.
Dickson also lauded the method behind achieving Bangladesh's prosperity. "I think if you look at where the economic prosperity has come from, it's been the ability to put a large number of semi- and low-skilled workers to work in large factories."
On the planned 100 new economic zones in Bangladesh, Mishra said it was a good strategy, adding that focus should be on developing small areas first and then taking it from there.
The high commissioner, however, underscored the need for diversification, saying most of Bangladesh's success came from one sector, but last year showed how vulnerable it was. Saying dealing with a small group of buyers in a small number of countries was risky, Dickson pointed out the other areas Bangladesh was doing well in.
He highlighted the country's success in ceramics and pharmaceuticals, even adding that Bangladesh was now exporting bicycles.
"Manufacturing base will have to expand into new and different sectors. And what is also needed is basic infrastructure…better railways, better roads," he said.
In terms of climate change, he said the plan was to wean the world off coal, adding that Bangladesh had at least reduced the number of planned coal-fired power plants. He also identified offshore wind and hydropower as ways forward, saying Bangladesh could get 40 gigawatts from Bhutan alone. "But there has to be a regional agreement in this regard," he said.
"Globally we are putting a huge amount of effort into trying to meet the commitments that will enable the world to meet Paris Agreement requirements, which are demanding," Dickson said.
On the Rohingya issue, Dickson said it was tragic. "We are strong supporters of safe, dignified repatriation," he said.
The high commissioner said that the UK was doing everything it could to ensure repatriation, but the current situation in Myanmar – the recent coup – fomented greater insecurity in the country, which has stalled the return of the Rohingyas.
"I think the world is divided [regarding Rohingya repatriation]. It makes it difficult to put pressure on Myanmar, but we try," he said, assuring the UK was doing everything so that the Rohingya issue would not be forgotten.
The high commissioner's team also included Deputy Director for the Department for International Trade, Khalid Mustafiz Gaffar, Head of the Press Section at the high commission Francis Jacks and Senior Press Officer and Bengali Spokesperson Meher Jerin.
TBS Editor Inam Ahmed, Executive Editor Sharier Khan, Managing Editor Chowdhury Khaled Masood, along with others, were present during the high commissioner's visit and subsequent meet-and-greet.