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Augmenting remittance flows
Masih Malik Chowdhury

          THE people of this country started going abroad for employment at large, after the emergence of Bangladesh as an independent country in 1971. Since then, they have been in the search for earning their bread, far beyond their homeland. Prior to that, our people had gone out but to a few Middle Eastern (ME) and European countries and America for employment. Very limited in number, they found those opportunities by dint of their own efforts.
However, each of the non-resident Bangladeshis (NRBs) is considered around the world as our representative, the ambassador of the nation. Naturally, such NRBs are expected to reflect our true cultural heritage to the rest of the world to help bolster the country's image effectively.
This is a more vital task for all of us when Transparency International has tarnished our image, 'branding' Bangladesh as the most corrupt country under its corruption perception index (CPI). What a shame, indeed! Pakistan and India have had the scope of having their nationals employed abroad since 1947. But there were hardly any scope for the people of this country for availing themselves of such opportunities up to 1971. Pakistan has developed third generation of its overseas nationals who are living abroad while we are only having first generation -- or second generation only in few cases -- of NRBs.
Despite this, our people have been finding their own way to go abroad for doing jobs, mostly without any promotional supports from the state. Remittance from such people has been playing an increasingly significant role in augmenting our external financial resource base for development. For a meagre contribution from the donors with attendant uphill task of undertaking reforms of a hybrid nature to get such funds, the burden has become unbearable for successive governments. The people at large have borne the major burnt of many such ill-conceived reforms.
Meanwhile, recent remittance figures reflect that contributions by the NRBs through official channel in the first quarter of 2005/2006 stood at USD 1.02 billion. If this figure grows at 10 per cent per quarter through any impetus given by the government for encouraging increased flow of remittances through official means, the earnings would be substantially bigger in the next few years. The government, however, did take some steps to this effect. But then many more actions are needed to be done.
The current year's figure of remittance with all such limitations is likely to reach US$5.0 billion. Remittance earnings have clearly shown an upward trend. All these are natural achievements except the fact that ministry for manpower exports and welfare of the NRBs has been formed by the government.
The number of NBRs who got jobs abroad, as per the official statistics, stood at 0.23 million in the year 2004/2005 up to April. These people have gone all on their own means, courting sufferings at the hands of the personnel of the immigration at the airport and other government departments. They also went through the hurdles created by the national flag carrier and its personnel. The NRBs also have to face the hassles of customs at the Dhaka airport while coming back home on holidays after three to four years. They receive such extra care by the customs personnel on their return home after years. But most such people send the bulk of their earnings to home without saving the same outside Bangladesh. They remit the lion's part of their earnings, without taking the same to any third country. Nor do they have ancestral property or huge wealth and means to buy comforts abroad. A good number of them went abroad on jobs by selling out even their ancestral properties.
Our successive governments have been talking high about foreign direct investment (FDI). The take-off of an economy needs a big push. This requires a large chunk of investment that is needed for adding momentum to a developing economy like ours. It is true that the flow of FDI has good in east Asian countries but this performance is not flawless. The memories of east Asian crises in late nineties are not yet lost. The FDI has some demerits, too. As the dividends on such investments are repatriated, the economy witnesses the reverse flow of funds, in the form of precious foreign exchange, going outside the country. Also there are outflows of foreign exchange by ways of over-invoicing and under-invoicing. This causes strains on the country's balance of payments situation.
If local investments are encouraged through appropriate policy and other supports, there are no such adverse impact on the balance of payments. Rather, the return on local investments helps to augment domestic resources. Such resources can be ploughed back to new investment areas, where remittances can play a promotional role as well.
Remittances have been playing a major role in our foreign currency earnings. Manpower export fetches the largest amount of our exports earnings. But then manpower has to be considered human resources. When manpower or overseas employable persons can meet the demands of various countries that have a demand for their services, the same number of NRBs are going to fetch a substantially higher volume of earnings for the economy.
But a strategic planning for the purpose is needed on the basis of a programme for ten to twenty years. In the absence of such planning efforts to send skilled or semi-skilled hands, instead of unskilled ones, abroad for earning higher amounts of remittances, may turn out to be futile. A minimum mission has to be set for the nation. This writer does not personally believe that a state like ours has failed despite all the reckless bomb-blasts amid which we are now living. We used to see this situation in Lebanon, Vietnam, Palestine Afghanistan, where years passed under such explosions. We could not have ever imagined anything near to that situation in our motherland.
So far so good. Remittance promotional drives do need to be taken forward seriously. Signing of new protocols, finding out of new destinations for job-seekers and adopting measures for encouraging remittance through official channels are important for the purpose. The step-brotherly attitude by the customs officials towards the NRBs at airports should also change. Those who have the opportunity of moving through the Dhaka airport for getting out of Bangladesh do observe that the attitude of airport officials to the NRBs is far from friendly and promotional.
The NRBs are our real potential for growth and they send their hard-earned savings to the country for sustenance of its economic life-line. The old days when the NRBs in the United Kingdom used to send most of the remittances are gone now. Because the first generation NRBs there have settled in other countries with the members of their family. Their next generation do not have close affinity with the country of origin of their parents or forefathers. They are citizens of other countries by birth but share a common heritage of culture and affinity with us, in Bangladesh, because of their parents.
Meanwhile, the stigma of all pervasive corruption and the fractious polity of Bangladesh act as the barriers to their way of thinking themselves as Bangladeshis by heart. Rather, they compare the situation in their places of residence to that of Bangladesh. All these factors are responsible for their alienation from the country of origin of their parents or forefathers. Such NRBs are increasingly losing their contracts with the roots.
Consequently, the huge inflow of remittances is not likely to be sustained for long. This expected fall in inflow of remittances is a matter of serious concern. Besides, the remittances that are sent by the NRBs from abroad are invested, in substantial amounts, in profitable avenues. As such, the NRBs deserve allout supports and consideration. Banks, insurance, apartment, leasing, telecom, mobile telephone etc., sector can provide the conduits for use of remittance funds.
Formation of a trust with representatives from professionals like economists, teachers, chartered accountants, physicians, engineers, educational and businesses merits here consideration for promoting and protecting the interests of NRBs. Bureaucrats should not, in general, be included in any such proposed trust. A professional person of repute may be a chief executive officer (CEO) for the execution of such a Trust.
The writer is Vice President, Institute of Chartered Accountants of Bangladesh (ICAB) and a Senior Partner of Masih Muhith Haque & Co.


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