Sunday, 17 January 2010

An Interview with Communities Secretary of State Mr John Denham

An Interview with Communities Secretary

John Denham Pledges New Action
On Tackling Poverty In Bangladesh

Dr. Mozammel Haque

British Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Mr. John Denham, M.P. visited Bangladesh from 3-7 January, 2010. The aim of the visit was to highlight the importance the Government attaches to its engagement with the Bangladeshi Diaspora in the UK and links with Bangladesh. I had the opportunity to interview him on Monday, the 11th of January, 2010, after his return from Bangladesh.

Purpose of the visit
It is generally estimated that over 90% of the Bangladeshi diaspora community in England is from the Sylhet region of Bangladesh. In 2005, there is suggestion that the number of Bangladeshi community was as high as 500,000. Over half of the community is settled in London, and is particularly strong in Tower Hamlets.

The Communities Secretary John Denham visited Sylhet, original home of many British Bangladeshi families, and said that the strong links between communities were mirrored by equally strong links in cooperation on development and on international action of climate change. He also highlighted the growing success and ambition of the British Bangladeshi community. Mr. Denham said: “Strengthening the key links between the UK and Bangladesh will increase understanding and shared values as well as boost the important business and trade partnerships.

Mr. Denham also mentioned, “The central reason for his visit was to gain an understanding of the real Bangladesh, talking to people about the connections between our communities, to build on the understandings and shared values we have, as well as the important business and trade links. The Bangladesh economy is growing each year, estimated about 5-6%, with trade worth an estimated £76m for Bangladesh and £843m for Britain.”

“The reason for my visit was to see how we can increase that cooperation and identify what the UK can do support Bangladesh meet some its current challenges and build on its growing prosperity,” said the Communities Secretary.

Launch £60million project to tackle poverty
During the three day visit Mr. Denham officially launched a new L60million project in Sylhet to tackle poverty. He signed the Memorandum of Understanding which will deliver real support for the poorest people in the country and will further cement links between the two countries. As part of an Urban Partnership for Poverty Reduction Programme, the Government of Britain and Bangladesh and the UNDP are working together. This represents a significant part of the British Government’s commitment to poverty reduction in Bangladesh. Total UK aid to Bangladesh was 126 million in 2008-9 and will rise to 2010-11. The move signals an increasingly close working relationship between Britain and Bangladesh as part of a drive to improve economic growth and better equip the country to deal with the effects of climate change.

Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government in an exclusive interview with me said, “The 60-million pounds development partnership will ultimately reach 30 towns and cities in Bangladesh. It will work in shanty town areas where the poorest people live and it will work with those poor communities in order to improve their income, to enable them to start more business, to give them better access to education and training and to deal with very real physical problem of clean water, clean sanitation drainage and so on. This is an ambitious programme; this is the largest programme the British government has with the United Nations Development Programme anywhere in the world and I was able to sign the Memorandum of Understanding for the city of Sylhet which is now coming into the programme.”

Climate Change
Another area which the Secretary of State for Communities discussed with the Bangladesh Government was climate change. Climate change is a key issue; it is not a distant threat in Bangladesh as the country faces the stark reality of global warming every day. About 45 million Bangladeshis (in a population of over 140 million) are at risk from increased coastal and inland flooding, storms, sea level rises and drought. Rising temperature would significantly reduce rice and wheat production. Increased salination of drinking water in coastal areas, unpredictable weather patterns and riverbank erosion are already happening. Given a quarter of the country could be submerged because of global warming, concern and the need for action is understandable.

In a meeting with the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Communities Secretary welcomed the strong cooperation between Britain and Bangladesh at the recent Copenhagen summit. He welcomed the commitment to increased development assistance to tackle climate change and the role Bangladesh had played as one of the poorest and most vulnerable countries. Climate change was a key issue raised during the visit.

Communities Secretary said, “Climate change is an issue that affects us all but I was able to see first hand how for Bangladeshis this is not a distant threat; it affects the nation and the millions of people who live in it, including those I have met on my visit.”

Secretary of State for Communities told me in the interview, “The British government has also made substantial funds available 25 million pounds at this stage for climate change adaptation. Our aid programme in Bangladesh is growing; we have commitment to billions of pounds over coming years. It was 120 million pounds this year and it would be 150 million pounds next year. So the overall development partnership climate change is just two of the things we cover in that programme.”

Tackling terrorism
In other meetings with Bangladesh Ministers, Mr. Denham received support for plans to improved links between community organisations in Sylhet and the UK. The importance of working together to tackle terrorism was affirmed. Speaking about terrorism, Communities Secretary told me, “We agreed that tackling terrorism is important and it is a priority for both governments. Cooperation between the governments is very good. So, yes, we did acknowledge the importance of that work and that work will continue.”

“Bangladesh itself is clearly suffered from terrorism in the past. We have here and there have been terrorism problem in the wider regions and this is the issue where all governments need to cooperate together and we are cooperating with the Bangladesh government,” the Communities Secretary made the point more clear and understandable.
Forced Marriage
Communities Secretary, Mr. Denham welcomed the support, the active support of the Bangladeshi government officials and the police in tackling forced marriage. “I was very pleased when I was visited Sylhet to learn of the personal support of the members given to the British government action on forced marriage and similarly to the police chief. On the road from Sylhet airport to the city itself there was substantial amount of advertising by the British government with contact numbers and details. I did meet with some of the staff who has been responsible for dealing with roughly one forced marriage case a week. So there is a significant issue but I was pleased to find that the authorities in Sylhet, and this was confirmed separately to me, have made a personal commitment to help to tackle this problem,” Communities Secretary elaborated to me in the interview.

Human Rights
Since independence, army and civilian government rotated alternately in Bangladesh until the democratic elections in 1991. After 25 years of continuous civilian government rule, a caretaker government came in in October 2006 which was ruling the country till January 2009. The present government under the leadership of Sheikh Hasina came to power after the democratic general elections on 29 December 2008. There were reports of killings and allegation of human rights abuses. Speaking on the human rights, Communities Secretary said, “Obviously the transition to democracy, return to democracy itself has been very important indeed. I think the people quite prepared to acknowledge that the progress has to be made. But I was able to welcome the progress that has been made in passing the legislation to establish a Human Rights Commission and I think we are all looking to seeing in future that commission work effectively and to act as a protector and guarantor of human rights.”

Women and Development in Bangladesh
During Communities Secretary’s visit to Bangladesh, the role of women and the importance of schooling were highlighted as integral to the sustainable development of Bangladesh. Mr. Denham said, “The role of women is integral to and a significant part of the development of Bangladesh and provides confidence in facing future challenges. This is true from the very top. The Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition are both women. (I should perhaps note that the sub-continent has a history of female leaders notably in Sri Lanka, Pakistan and India, and Bangladesh is no exception).”

“But as the Foreign Minister, Dipu Moni (a woman), outlined over the working lunch, women are in positions right across the body politic including the Deputy Leader of the House, the Home Office Minister, judges and a plethora of other roles and posts,” mentioned Communities Secretary and added, “Traditional barriers are breaking down in employment, with sectors like construction, agriculture, and garment making now employing significant numbers of women. This is changing Bangladeshi society. It will also shape the perception of Bangladesh and British Bangladeshis.”

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