The Padma Multipurpose Bridge. Photo: Rifaat Newaz/UNDP

 

by Anir Chowdhury

This opinion piece was first published in the Dhaka Tribune

Ask any development economist how the NRBs have contributed to the development of Bangladesh and you will hear mention of only the blue-collar expatriate Bangladeshi workers sending billions of dollars in remittance every year. 

The economists do not mention the white-collar NRB technology professionals at all except for an anecdote here and a story there: 

“A bank was set up by NRBs.” “An NRB IT entrepreneur just recruited a dozen of the best and brightest from the local IT industry.” “An NRB bio-technologist made the audacious move to do jute genome sequencing in Bangladesh.” “An NRB engineer is drafting the Padma Bridge plans.” “An NRB mathematician is the head coach for Math Olympiad helping Bangladesh win gold.”

The economists cannot cite statistics because all the stories put together do not generate enough data for statistics.

In contrast, ask any non-resident Bangladeshi professional -- especially in technology or engineering -- living in any of the hundred countries around the world, how they want to contribute to their home country Bangladesh, and you’ll get the unequivocal answer: “I want to utilize my skills, experience, and money in Bangladesh."”

The seed for this desire is sown the minute they set sail for a foreign country primarily for higher studies, and in some cases, for emigration. The seed germinates when an NRB feels established in his or her respective field of expertise in corporations, start-up, academia, or research. 

Let’s call it the “We are for Bangladesh” or W4B seed (because us engineers love acronyms, especially if there is a digit in the middle).

I believe the journey triggered by CONE 2019 will bridge the gap between dreams of NRB engineers to contribute to their motherland and the reality of that contribution. I believe CONE will help the W4B seed blossom into full-grown plants for tens of thousands of NRB technologists and engineers in the years to come and generate significant statistics for our economists.

Why do I believe this? Because the government, as well as non-government, actors are ready for the NRBs who are coming with specific proposals, 38 to be exact.

On the eve of CONE 2019, I am reminded of a similar proud and surreal moment 19 years ago, when I welcomed about 300 non-resident Bangladeshi technologists, engineers, and scientists in the TechTransfer 2000 conference in New Jersey. 

The dream of that gathering was to start a journey they had been pining for since the germination of the W4B seed within them. A few of them started that journey but most did not complete it. 

We held a follow-up conference with a few hundred NRB technologists and engineers, along with a thousand of their resident Bangladeshi counterparts, in December 2000. Professor Jamilur Reza Choudhury was as much a part of it as he is now a part of CONE 2019.  

A few days after the TechTransfer 2000 Dhaka conference, a small NRB delegation, that included me, met with the then prime minister (who serendipitously is the current prime minister) Sheikh Hasina. She was so encouraged to hear our plans that she allocated a government office space for our work. 

Despite our sincerest efforts for the next few years, we failed to generate statistics, although a few notable collaborations resulted between the NRBs and RBs. I attribute that failure to our inability as a non-governmental organization, to remove barriers to NRB engagement in Bangladesh. 

This failure is in sharp contrast to India which has developed a $100 billion IT export industry with their non-residents, China which has seen over 70% of its FDI flow come from its non-residents, and Africa which has enjoyed over $10bn in investment and $30bn in philanthropy from its non-residents.

 

Why will CONE 2019 be different? It will be different for three major reasons:

* The current government is pro-actively involved with the NRB cell at ERD -- enjoying co-ordination support from a cross-ministerial NRB Task Force and match-making support from the NRB Marketplace (nrb.gov.bd) the Bangladeshi Investment Development Authority (BIDA) is ready to provide investment coordination within relevant government agencies and with the private sector. a2i has been providing the technical support, starting from conceptualizing the framework for NRB engagement in the development of Bangladesh to planning proper match-making between NRB and RB counterparts. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Expatriate Welfare and Overseas Employment are already reaching out to the NRBs in various countries.

* The NRB engagement ecosystem is much stronger now. Bangladesh has never been more ready to engage NRBs in various opportunities. This is true across the government, the private sector, NGOs, research organizations, and academia. I say this with conviction after having been significantly involved first-hand in the country's development for the last 12 years.

* NRB engineers are coming up with specific proposals, featuring keen interest to implement these projects in Bangladesh. This is in stark contrast with the previous attitude of coming with a litany of complaints of why something cannot be done in Bangladesh.

These reasons are precisely why the government responded so readily and comprehensively when Bridge 2 Bangladesh (B2B) (a new NRB organization) approached it to organize CONE 2019. 

It is quite incredible, and certainly heartening, to see that, in a matter of one month, the combined efforts of the three organizers of CONE 2019 (B2B, ERD, and a2i) have resulted in blessings from the honourable prime minister and involvement from a dozen ministers and over 20 secretaries. 

The ardent hope from the government is that the 200 NRBs attending CONE 2019 and the 40 NRB presenters from 30 countries will explore Bangladesh very seriously to find opportunities to make their W4B seeds blossom.

The opportunities present themselves in three basic forms coined as PIE (another acronym that we will come to love):

  1. Philanthropy with recognition
  2. Investment with return
  3. Expert affiliation with remuneration

CONE 2019 provides a unique opportunity to expand PIE. However, every engagement will need a commitment from both sides to make it work (because without it, we can't even start), patience to see through the details (because that's where the devil lies), and mutual trust throughout the whole engagement (because without it, we’ll give up half-way and then we all lose).

I have no doubt CONE 2019 will be a brilliant and memorable event as evidenced by the honourable prime minister inaugurating the conference, and a dozen ministers, over 20 secretaries, and many heads of agencies giving their valuable time in ten sessions ranging from infrastructure to the fourth-industrial revolution, and the nearly 200 NRB technologists and engineers flying thousands of miles to attend them. 

As a collective, however, we have to internalize that the real work of expanding PIE starts on February 28 on nrb.gov.bd to ensure NRBs will leverage their W4B seeds to add their names to the history of Bangladesh’s transition from a middle-income country to a high-income one by 2041.

Anir Chowdhury is the Policy Advisor of the a2i Program of the Government of Bangladesh being implemented by the ICT Division and Cabinet Division supported by UNDP, USAID, and Gates Foundation. He’s lived as an RB for the last 12 years after living as an NRB for 18 years.

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