Exclusive Interview with Dr. Sharif As-Saber
Dr. Sharif As-Saber is a senior academic and Foundation Director of Master of International Business Program at RMIT University and the honorary International Advisor of Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), who played an important role to draw the BGMEA roadmap ‘Bangladesh RMG Roadmap: Targeting US$50 Billion by 2021’. His current research interests include global supply chain, e-governance, anti-corruption, social protection, international business, geopolitics and supportive health care. He has published five books, including recently published ‘‘Governance and Human Capital: The 21st Century Agenda’. The winner of 2016 “Serendib Multicultural Personality of the Year” award has discussed several issues with Textile Today recently. Here is the brief of the interview. The interview was taken by Akhi Akter, Sub-Editor, Bangladesh Textile Today.
Textile Today: As an expert in ‘International Business’ how do you position Bangladesh and what would be the key challenges for the country to be middle income country by 2021.
Dr. Sharif: As a young country that will celebrate its fiftieth anniversary in 2021, Bangladesh is aspiring to become a middle-income country which we hope to achieve by 2021. We will continue having the privilege available to us as a least development country for another five years or so. However, we are not totally sure what will actually happen beyond that time frame. Meanwhile, Bangladesh is doing well in the economic front with an average of almost 7% GDP growth in recent years. We have a lot of opportunities and many industries including garments, leather, footwear etc. are growing fast. We have gone beyond self-sufficiency in rice production while started exporting the same. Above all, Bangladesh is economically doing well until now, but there are challenges as well.
Textile Today: Good governance has been discussed a lot. But from your experience in Public Sector do you really think that this can be a catalyst for economic growth.
Dr. Sharif: Nothing is possible without good governance and governance is the bedrock of any development activities. If good governance does not exist, we cannot administer or manage anything properly. There are many issues within governance like accountability, transparency, efficiency and also adequate responsiveness from the government to reflect on that what people want. And all these issues are important for a country like Bangladesh – nothing could be done well if the state of governance is not good enough. Currently, lack of good governance is one of the key problems for Bangladesh. However, governance needs to be seen from a holistic perspective where we require to look at the overall system represented by the various institutions and agencies across three major organs of the state, legislature, judiciary and executive. Until now we are somehow doing well economically. However, we need to identify the problem areas and address them through an inclusive governance process in place where dialogues both within the government and between the government and other entities outside the government should happen frequently. Apart from political parties and NGOs, such dialogues require the inclusion of the beneficiaries or stakeholders of development projects or key policy matters. Failing this may jeopardize the targeted economic objectives in the future. Overall, I think we need to make the state of governance better as it is a primary precondition for development.
Textile Today: What are the key modern concepts you have shared in your recently published book ‘Governance and Human Capital: The 21st Century Agenda’.
Dr. Sharif: That book was published for giving some ideas about how governance matters across various countries within the Asia Pacific region. Bangladesh was one of the countries discussed in the book along with a number of other countries like India, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Australia. From a comparative perspective, we have found that in countries, especially within the South Asian region, corruption is a big problem; businesses are doing well but at the same time they are not getting enough support from the government. And we have also found that the local responsiveness is missing that means people’s wills are not always reflected in government decisions. But at the same time civil society groups are not active and their actions are controversial as well.
A huge chunk of the book deals with the issue of how can we make everyone, all stakeholders responsible for governance, because governance is not just the function of the government, it needs support from everybody else and at the same time there must be an inclusive process where everyone has a voice or can participate. The book actually highlights that issues and I think in a globalized and increasingly intricate world it is very important that we maintain inclusiveness in governance.
Textile Today: As a country of more than 160 million people how Bangladesh could form its strategies for its ‘Human Capital’?
Dr. Sharif: It is really shocking to know that our garment sector alone spends 5 billion dollars to hire skilled people from overseas to work for the sector. It is a pity that we don’t have enough skills within a huge pool of 160 million people to effectively manage our industrial operations and run our businesses. But, the problem concerning the lack of managerial skills is not limited to Bangladesh alone – similar problems exist in many other emerging countries, including China and Vietnam. They have lack of managerial expertise though they have plenty of labors including floor level workers. Nonetheless, we need to reduce our reliance on foreign expertise and emphasize on skills development. We need to turn people into capital- we need to get out of the “cheap labor” syndrome and invest in creating a better quality and more productive workforce locally.
Textile Today: Textile and RMG sector being the largest employer of Bangladeshi people- how this sector could be better built or transformed to better utilize its human resources?
Dr. Sharif: This is, undoubtedly, the most important sector for Bangladesh because it earns the highest amount of foreign currency for the country and in terms of GDP it contributes more than any other sector. We have huge population but still there are a huge number of people from overseas working in this sector and we are spending a lot of money for them. Apart from RMG sector, if we look at other sector like telecommunication, leather etc. all these sectors are employing people from outside. At the same time, we are not actually spending enough time, money in developing our own workforce. Specialized academic institutions such as BUFT may provide required training to the Bangladeshi workforce. RMG sector as well as other sectors should utilize such institutions where opportunities exist to provide specialized training and skills necessary for the industry. The training modules could be prepared in consultation with the industry which, in turn, could be recognized by the industry and reduce the dependency on foreign expertise. As the industry is growing, we need more skilled people working for the industry. If we want to achieve the target of 50 billion dollars by 2021, we need to reduce our dependency on foreign workforce. It will then create greater opportunity for Bangladeshi workers, managers and factory owners which, in turn, will benefit the economy as a whole. It will not only create employment for the people who are involved in the RMG sector, it will actually create benefit for everyone in the country.
Textile Today: As we know you led the preparation of the first-ever ‘Bangladesh RMG Roadmap: Targeting US$50 Billion by 2021’ publication. Could you please share what was the method of drawing the roadmap?
Dr. Sharif: This was a long process, we started the first discussion about the RMG industry on ‘what should we do’ following Rana Plaza incident in 2013. I personally led a group in Melbourne where we started researching in the area. We also started campaigning in favor of Bangladeshi products where there was a tendency among foreign buyers as well as foreign retailers to sideline Bangladeshi products because of the anti-Bangladeshi RMG campaign following the Rana Plaza incident. At that time, some stores even started showing signs saying ‘we are not selling any product made in Bangladesh’! On one occasion, I personally talked to the manager of a store and convinced her to remove such sign. My arguments were simple – Rana Plaza was an accident, Bangladesh is not Rana Plaza, and this kind of industrial accident also happens in Vietnam, Cambodia, China and other places but they do not always come to the media. As our press freely broadcasted the news, the world reacted to it disproportionately. Following that we organized a forum in November 2014, where we invited people from BGMEA, trade unions, NGOs, including Oxfam and media as well as some major retailers. We also invited the representatives of the Australian fashion industry and consumer groups. We discussed the issue ‘what should be the way forward after Rana Plaza’. I created a slogan ‘boycott is not a solution, improvement is’ which was the primary focus of the forum. The idea was simple, “if you have a headache you do not chop it off – you treat it”. Later on, in December 2014, in the first-ever Dhaka Apparel Summit, we discussed key issues and challenges concerning the RMG sector across nine sessions – it was a comprehensive one. Following the summit, a seminar was organized in Harvard and Bangladesh Apparel & Safety Expo was held in Chittagong in 2015. The deliberations, recommendations and ideas were from all of these forums were taken into consideration in preparing the Roadmap. We also discussed these issues with experts, academics. Finally, our researchers synthesized those findings and come up with the Roadmap. The Roadmap provides us with important information such as where the industry currently stands, where it is going and if we want to achieve the goal US$50 billion by 2021, what are the measures we need to take. It sounds simple but to get to that was not so easy. Our researchers looked at various issues such as fire safety, labor right, infrastructure, sustainability etc. It was a lengthy process. We are really proud of it. It was the very first roadmap for the industry.
Textile Today: BGMEA roadmap in attaining the goal of USD 50 billion has been produced on the 29th of July 2016 almost two years after the declaration of the goal. How the delay impacts on goal achievement?
Dr. Sharif: It is not exactly two years, exactly one and half year later the roadmap was published but work did not stop, we continued advising BGMEA and other stakeholders about the update of the Roadmap by attending various forums. The draft Roadmap was prepared in 2015 and the preliminary findings were presented in Chittagong Forum where major inputs were included. Later on the Daily Star organized a Roundtable in January 2016 where I presented the keynote speech on the roadmap to achieve the $50 billion RMG export target by the year 2021. So, the discussion had been live and useful until we published the final roadmap.
I would like to mention one specific issue which may be important to this discussion. We should give a lot of emphasis on apparel diplomacy. Our diplomatic missions as well as BGMEA itself should be much more vigilant and proactive in promoting our products. Since the Rana Plaza incident and after the apparel summit it became clear that image building is the most important task for BGMEA. No doubt that we have quality product, skilled worker, good entrepreneurs, good business people those who can make things happen with a positive twist. It is also a fact that we are one of the most reliable producers and suppliers of RMG to the world, but does the world recognize it? Does the world consider us as one of the best? Possibly not, or not as much as they should! That is why we need to do a lot of work. If we see the statistics among the top ten green factories in the world, we have seven of them and top three green factories are in Bangladesh. Ethically, environmentally what we are doing is great. We have also some problems but we are trying to improve. 80 billion taka has been spent by the industry itself for remediation since the Rana Plaza incident. In addition, since the incident no one is remaining idle. But we still continue to research on what are the upcoming challenges, what are the gaps. We still have a lot of work to do and no one is relaxing, this is an ongoing process.
Textile Today: Now at this point of time, how do you see the progress of RMG sector towards the goal?
Dr. Sharif: This is a very difficult one, but we are still hopeful. If we really want to achieve the goal we need to have a growth of around 11 % each year until 2021. This year the global apparel market growth slowed down. If global economy contracts then the global demand contracts, and that will have a negative impact on our forecast growth. But we are hopeful that if apparel diplomacy, image building in place, if we work harder, if we get all the support from government and other stake holders and if we can stop the industrial unrest, which is a big challenge now, we should be able to reach the target. In the past, some years the growth was not good but some years the growth was very good, so we are waiting for a jolly good year and hopefully we will have a number of them within 2021 – good enough to achieve the or overtake the $50 billion target.
Textile Today: Growing in export revenue does not mean real development of an economy or a country, so how do you evaluate this goal and which way Bangladesh in fact should move forward?
Dr. Sharif: It is right that export revenue is not everything, but it is a good thing. However, there is a saying, it is easier to earn money than spend it well. I think currently what Bangladesh government is doing is commendable, the project Padma bridge, deep sea port, Dhaka-Chittagong highway, nuclear power plant etc. are positive developments. A successful implementation of the nuclear power plant could resolve a lot of problems, including gas and electricity crisis. It will also help the garment sector as well as the other sectors including agriculture. In addition, it is important to spend money on skill development which is seriously needed in the current development context. Nonetheless, overall development depends on not just the income, but how the money is actually spent. So, export growth is important. And at the same time we need to utilize the money properly. If we use the money wisely and have better governance with better law and order, business -friendly taxation and banking systems and better infrastructures, I think we can go for a better, happier, Bangladesh.