As Switzerland and Bangladesh have potential to widen and diversify the trade basket, the two nations want to strengthen ties between them. The European country will continue partnering with Bangladesh towards easier conditions for doing business, said Nathalie Chuard, Ambassador of Switzerland to Bangladesh, in a written Interview.
Appreciating the creativity and drive of young people for entrepreneurship, Chuard said, "Social impact financing and market-led skills development are areas, in which Switzerland will keep investing in the years to come."
Welcoming Bangladesh's initiatives to attract new foreign investments, the envoy said, "Bangladesh and Switzerland share this objective. We want to make this country attractive to FDIs. Now, I encourage the government to transform this ambition into reality, by further improving ease of doing business and providing legal coherence and predictability to foreign investors."
The Business Standard (TBS): According to data, bilateral trade between Bangladesh and Switzerland has tripled in the last decade and the trend continues to grow. Is it sufficient against the trade potential?
Nathalie Chuard (NC): Indeed, if you ask me if we can do better, the answer is yes. The outlook on the bilateral trade between Switzerland and Bangladesh is really good. Of course, the whole world is dealing with the pandemic and growth of our trade slowed down last year due to the crisis, but the prospects for 2021 are promising. And if we can contain the impact from Covid decisively, we will soon be able to cross the $1 billion mark for the first time! Like I said, we can do better and have the potential to do so, for instance by increasing business to business contacts and diversifying our trade basket.
This is a very special time for Bangladesh. You are about to graduate from the Least Developed Countries status in 2026. This is great news and I want to congratulate your country on approaching this significant milestone. It comes with challenges and it is important that graduation does not disrupt trade and development. At the heart of our future cooperation programme 2022-2025 with Bangladesh is the vision of a sustainable graduation. Our countries share a common commitment to the 2030 Agenda of the United Nations and the leave-no-one-behind vision. Switzerland will continue partnering with Bangladesh towards easier conditions for doing business, for instance by effective custom procedures, or the creation of decent and sustainable jobs, including through better access to finance for SMEs. Something that strikes me over and over again is the creativity and drive of young people for entrepreneurship. This is inspiring. Social impact financing and market-led skills development are areas in which Switzerland will keep investing in the years to come.
TBS: How many Swiss companies are operating in Bangladesh and what is the investment volume?
NC: Most of the major Swiss multinational companies have been operating here for a long time. They are active in pharmaceuticals, chemicals, the agro-food industry, construction, transportation, and many other sectors. According to the Bangladesh Bank, net Swiss Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) inflow in the fiscal year 2020 amounted to over $44 million. The stock of Swiss investments is of course many times higher. We invest in Bangladesh not just through FDI but also through our development cooperation. The engagement with the private sector is a key component of the $ 21 million that we invest annually here through our international cooperation portfolio. Let me give you a couple of examples. One of the challenges of sustainable income in agri-business is the exposure to external shocks, such as extreme weather conditions. With a micro-insurance system, we are able to address some of the impacts. Here, the key actors and driving forces we work with are in the private sector. Another example is the water and sanitation domain. There, we team up with private partners that design products that are not only safe and environmentally friendly but also adapted to the reality on the ground and the needs of people of different means and ways of life.
TBS: Are you exploring new ways of trade and investments? Is there any development?
NC: Surely, this is a priority for my country in Bangladesh. Since I arrived last year, I have been thoroughly impressed by the vibrant economic scene and the high level of optimism and confidence exuded by the people and businesses here. For instance, a few weeks ago, I was in the southern port city of Chattogram. There, I saw a very busy Export Processing Zone and got a tour of the Chittagong seaport where I was briefed on the plans to upgrade and upscale the infrastructure.
My embassy regularly explores new avenues and we engage closely with public and private entities to this end. Last November, our governments held a new round of bilateral talks on how to further stimulate trade and investment, and address specific concerns of the Swiss private sector. It is a team effort. The embassy works with a host of other actors, including the Switzerland-Bangladesh Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Swiss-Asian Chamber of Commerce. Together, we promote trade and investment and we will bring our economic relations to the next level.
TBS: Are there any challenges to doing business? What is your observation regarding the investment environment in this country? Is government initiative to improve ease of doing business sufficient to bring new investment?
NC: Where there are opportunities, there are also challenges – and vice versa. I speak constantly with the Swiss business community here in Bangladesh. While their representatives remain optimistic about the country's markets, they are also facing many hurdles. Prospective investors are, of course, concerned about ease of doing business. Words travel and before investing here, they talk to their peers who are already present in the country. This is why it is important that they receive good guidance and encouragement. Government officials often highlight the positive economic and investment outlook that Bangladesh has to offer, and I very much welcome the initiatives taken to attract new foreign investments. Bangladesh and Switzerland share this objective. We want to make this country attractive to FDIs. Now, I encourage the government to transform this ambition into reality, by further improving ease of doing business and providing legal coherence and predictability to foreign investors.
TBS: How do you assess existing bilateral relations between Bangladesh and Switzerland? What is your plan to further strengthen the bilateral relations and economic ties?
NC: Switzerland has been a solid partner of Bangladesh for the last five decades. I am committed to further intensifying our frank, forward looking and fruitful dialogue and cooperation. The main pillars of our strong ties are economic and international cooperation, humanitarian aid, as well as cultural and political exchanges.
I also want Switzerland to be known in Bangladesh for what we are and what we stand for. Our values and impacts of our foreign policy are based on the promotion of international law and human rights through dialogue, solidarity and innovation. My country is a candidate for a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council for the period of 2023-24. I am keen on using this opportunity and working together with Bangladesh to advance our common interests in the area of peace and security.
TBS: You took your charge as the ambassador of Switzerland to Bangladesh during the outbreak of the pandemic. I think you could not visit the country widely during this period. Nevertheless, what is your observation regarding the country and people?
NC: You are right, I arrived exactly a year ago. For sure, the pandemic has kept me from exploring the country as much as I wanted to. That said, I have already got lots of impressions through my travels. I have always felt warmly welcomed here, everywhere. I am so amazed by how vibrant this place and its people are. There is energy and resilience. There are stories and creativity. It makes me hungry for more and I am more than ready to explore all that Bangladesh has to offer, as soon as the situation permits.
TBS: What is your observation regarding our fight against the pandemic? What is Switzerland doing to support Bangladesh in fighting the pandemic?
NC: The whole world is going through an unprecedented crisis. The health-related challenges are enormous and there are economic headwinds everywhere. Our two countries have always stood by each other in trying times, and this is not different today.
This is a collective effort. Swiss and Switzerland-related companies are also making contributions and have in no small part been supportive with donations, social responsibility measures as well as innovative technologies and services during this critical period.
As for the Embassy of Switzerland, last year we earmarked over Tk 70 crore for response and recovery projects in the country. This year, I am happy to share the news with you that we are in the process of securing an additional Tk 90 crore to continue and scale up this support, with a strong focus on resilience. Our program is aimed at community awareness about Covid prevention and protection; it includes locally-produced masks and activities to generate income for the most vulnerable people. Our whole idea is to bridge the time until recovery is a reality. Together, we will overcome this crisis.