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Canada and Bangladesh: Beyond Rana Plaza

By Alicia Dobson and Stephen Baranyi

This essay, along with the ones by Yiagadeesen (Teddy) Samy and by Syed Sajjadur Rahman, arose out of the Bangladesh: Out of Fragility symposium held at the University of Ottawa on November 26, 2013.

The tragic death of over 1100 workers at Rana Plaza in April 2013 generated a burst of international interest in Bangladesh. In Canada, it prompted debates about the dilemmas of buying cheap garments from factories that failed to respect basic labour and workplace safety standards—while recognizing that light manufacturing has been key to Bangladesh’s impressive development in recent decades.

Those debates should continue. They should also be informed by a deeper understanding of the situation in Bangladesh and the complexity of a bilateral relationship that no longer fits the traditional picture of North-South aid.

Finding a better balance between Canada’s aid to NGOs and the need to strengthen key aspects of Bangladesh’s governance is an essential part of building the more coherent development relationship to which both sides aspire.

As explained by the other blogs in this series, since gaining independence in 1971 Bangladesh has moved from being a ‘basket case’ to becoming one of Asia’s development ‘success stories’.  Its relations with Canada evolved accordingly, from links based mainly on humanitarian assistance in the 1970s to broader development cooperation and immigration in the 1980s, and finally to a dramatic expansion of trade relations since Ottawa adopted the Least Developed Countries (LDC) Trade Initiative in 2003.

Bangladesh currently receives about $100 million in Canadian official development assistance per year, placing it in the top 10 recipients of Canadian aid. Yet it also does over $1.6 billion of trade with Canada each year, making it one of Canada’s largest LDC trading partners. Much of this is good news, but our growing relationship urgently requires more attention, coherence and innovation.

On the trade side, Canadians cannot naively promote commerce in the hope that its benefits will trickle down to the poorest. We can do more by working together to foster better conditions for workers in the factories that produce the $5 t-shirts and other garments that fill our store shelves. Our importers could contribute more to improving the wages and workplace safety of workers in the plants from which they buy their goods. The international arms of our major labour federations could support unionisation efforts in Bangladesh. The Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (DFATD) could use its policy dialogue with Bangladeshi authorities, and part of its considerable aid budget, to foster higher standards and the enforcement of those laws on the ground.  Consumers should also demonstrate their willingness to pay fairer prices for certified t-shirts and other goods imported from LDCs such as Bangladesh.

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Development cooperation could be used more strategically to foster broader governance reform. Canada and other donors have channelled large parts of their aid budgets through non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such BRAC and PROSHIKA. Those NGOs have been central to Bangladesh’s development progress—and particularly to the inclusion of women in the benefits of growth.

This has contributed to a vibrant civil society and a more inclusive economy in Bangladesh, but it has not done much to strengthen public sector governance. Only governments can legislate and enforce labour and workplace safety standards. Bypassing the state (due to its alleged corruption and inefficiency) perpetuates its inability to promote its citizens’ rights. Finding a better balance between Canada’s aid to NGOs and the need to strengthen key aspects of Bangladesh’s governance is an essential part of building the more coherent development relationship to which both sides aspire.

The creation of a merged DFATD provides an opportunity to foster a more coherent Canadian approach that recognizes the importance of human development, stronger governance, fairer trade and economic growth. This evolving approach to Bangladesh also requires more informed parliamentary and public discussion, considering the growing complexity of the Canada-Bangladesh relationship.

Alicia Dobson completed her BSocSc in International Development and Globalization at the University of Ottawa in December 2013.

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