The Blog

As Bangladesh's Largest Aid Donor, Britain Must and Can Act to Demand Change

An old saying goes that if you owe a bank ten thousand pounds then the bank owns you; if you owe ten million, then you own the bank. The opposite is the case with foreign aid.

An old saying goes that if you owe a bank ten thousand pounds then the bank owns you; if you owe ten million, then you own the bank. The opposite is the case with foreign aid. If you provide millions of pounds to a country, then it is fair and equitable to expect that country and its government to use that aid wisely and efficiently in the interests of its people.

Britain is the largest aid donor to Bangladesh, a country that for decades since its independence from Pakistan in 1971 has experienced humanitarian disasters and levels of corruption that has seen the country achieve an ignominious last place five times in the previous ten years of Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index.

Because of our long history as first the colonial power and now with a significant number of British citizens who are of Bangladeshi descent, the UK has a moral obligation to assist with the development of the country. Our long association with it also presents us with a great opportunity: if with British assistance Bangladesh can succeed in tackling entrenched corruption, questions over its human rights record and stability, then we can mutually benefit from increased trade, investment and cultural relations.

Yet it is time for Britain to question whether investment in Bangladesh under its current Government run by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina should come with more strings attached. As international aid works in the opposite way to the banking adage, it is more than possible for the British Government to make perfectly reasonable demands that human rights and issues surrounding the rule of law in particular must improve. Given that Britain provides more than £250 million to Bangladesh each year, including millions given directly to the government through a World Bank programme, Britain must be listened to even more acutely.

And the issues the Government of Bangladesh must address are significant. Firstly, their move to nationalise Grameen Bank and remove its founder Muhammad Yunus - both of which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 - has met with international condemnation. Grameen, the world's first microfinance institution, has lifted millions of Bangladeshi women out of poverty and servitude. Collectively they are also the shareholders of the bank with 97% of its total capital.

Yet Sheikh Hasina demanded that Yunus was removed as head of the bank for daring to consider entering politics some years ago. Grameen now has a new, Government appointed Chairman and senior board members, and they are attempting to deny the majority shareholders their right to appoint the head of the bank. Given the concerns evident in Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index reports, there are fears Grameen will not survive under government control.

Secondly, Hasina's Rapid Action Battalion - a paramilitary arm of the police force - is responsible for over 1000 extra-judicial killings. They originally received training from the British police - thankfully now withdrawn - but questions over their actions as who is ultimately responsible for their orders and the unaccounted disappearances must be raised.

Thirdly, the arrest of opposition members of parliament and holding without granting bail has taken place following peaceful demonstrations against Hasina's rule early this year is totally unacceptable. So to is the fact that a local war-crimes tribunal focusing on the events of the Bangladeshi independence war of 1971 is being used to arrest and try leading members of the opposition. The Government have denied entry to Bangladesh to Toby Cadman, the British-based international human rights lawyer representing defendants, and the Minister for Justice has said on record that "this is the year for trials. Next year is the year for executions". The opposition must be allowed to oppose the government without fear of retribution, and fair trials must take place even if those before the court are ultimately found guilty of the charges brought against them.

So what can Britain really do? The Coalition Government can, first of all, make its concerns over the treatment of Yunus and Grameen, the actions of the paramilitary police, the arrest of opposition leaders, and the lack of fair trials very public. The time for cozy chats with Sheikh Hasina and the Government of Bangladesh behind closed doors and accepting reassurances is over. The Coalition can, if these issues are not actively addressed, withhold aid to the Government through the World Bank programme. The World Bank itself has already withdrawn from a bridge construction project stating publicly that this is because of corruption amongst government ministers involved with the initiative. It has only been reinstated with strict conditions. Government can refuse to host Hasina in London and deny members of her government visas to travel if they are associated with corruption and human rights abuses. And, ultimately, it can withhold its aid to Bangladesh.

Britain's support for Bangladesh is undoubtedly changing lives for the better. But, as can be seen through Yunus and Grameen Bank, Bangladesh is capable of producing people and organisations that help millions. What is clear is that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is not a person and her Government is not an organisation that are helping the people of Bangladesh, but rather helping themselves at their people's expense. Britain has the ability to ensure this does not continue.