Situated on the Ganges delta between India and Southeast Asia, and with China around 100 kilometres to its north, Bangladesh is part of the Indian subcontinent. In area it is roughly two-thirds the size of Victoria. Bangladesh is remarkably fertile, but its geography makes the country prone to flooding and other natural disasters and particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change.
A population of over 150 million places Bangladesh as the world’s eighth most populous country. Around 90 per cent of the population is Muslim, and 98 per cent is ethnically Bengali—a highly homogeneous society. Bangladesh is a secular democracy with a vibrant and active civil society. While many challenges remain, Bangladesh has progressed considerably since independence towards being a stable and democratic nation.
Government, business and people-to-people links
Bangladesh is a relatively young country, gaining independence in 1971 when it broke away from Pakistan after an eight-month conflict known as the Liberation War. The struggle for liberation is a major source of pride and continues to inform the national psyche. Australia was one of the first nations, and the first OECD country, to recognise Bangladesh’s independence. The then Australian Deputy High Commission in East Pakistan became Australia’s mission to independent Bangladesh on 31 January 1972. In the early post-independence years, Australia strongly supported Bangladesh’s bids for membership of the United Nations and the Commonwealth.
An estimated 10 million Bangladeshis live and work overseas, mainly in the Middle East, and there are sizeable diasporas in the United Kingdom and the United States. Bangladeshi workers in the Middle East, employed in construction and other labour-intensive industries, support the domestic economy through remittances. Those residing in Western countries have formed established communities but retain strong links to Bangladesh.
The number of Bangladeshis studying and settling permanently in Australia is on the rise. The 2011 Census recorded 27,808 people from Bangladesh living in Australia. Australia has become the third-largest destination for Bangladeshi tertiary students, after the United Kingdom and Canada. In the past decade, Australia has provided over 700 scholarships to young Bangladeshis to study in Australian tertiary institutions. Australia continues to provide about 60 government-funded scholarships for Bangladeshis each year.
A shared passion for cricket
Australia and Bangladesh share a love for cricket. Cricket is the most popular sport in Bangladesh—which stops for major international and regional tournaments. From matches in major stadiums to village games with improvised equipment, everyone in Bangladesh seems to watch, play or cheer for cricket. Cricketing links are strong—Australia supported Bangladesh receiving test status in 2000. Bangladesh co-hosted the ICC Cricket World Cup in 2011.
The Australian cricket team toured Bangladesh in April 2011, playing three one‑day international matches. Coaching staff for the Bangladesh cricket team include a number of Australian specialists. In 2012, Bangladesh held its first cricket premier league competition, which attracted international players and coaches, including Australians who mentored and supported up-and-coming Bangladeshi cricketers.
Since independence, Bangladesh has made impressive progress in the areas of health, education and poverty reduction. International partners, including Australia, have made an important contribution in this regard. Australia’s development assistance to Bangladesh has increased to $100.5 million for the 2012–13 financial year. Australian aid supports Bangladesh’s health and primary education sectors and helps to reduce disaster risk and extreme poverty. The Australian Government delivers assistance through local partners to deliver services to the poorest and most vulnerable, and also works with other donors in Bangladesh to help strengthen public service delivery systems. Australia is helping Bangladesh to prepare for the impacts of climate change, including through support to the Bangladesh Climate Change Resilience Fund.
An important part of the aid program is building stronger people-to-people links. More than 200 volunteers funded by the Australian Government have travelled to Bangladesh over the past six years. Around 40 are in Bangladesh at any one time, working with international organisations, development agencies and local non-government organisations.
Australia's aid lifts families out of poverty
Australia’s aid program in Bangladesh focuses on improving the lives of the poorest and most vulnerable, especially women and children and works through local partners such as BRAC. Established in 1972 after the Liberation War as a limited relief operation, BRAC has become the world’s largest non-government organisation, helping the poor to take control of their lives. Since 2007, over 569,700 extremely poor Bangladeshi families have been assisted to lift themselves out of poverty through BRAC’s Challenging the Frontiers Poverty Reduction program. The program provides women from extremely poor families with an assistance package that includes cash grants, productive assets, enterprise training and access to free health care. To date, Australia has provided $44 million to this program. Over the next four years, Australian funding aims to assist a further 339,570 women and their families in this way.
After India, Bangladesh is the second-largest market for Australian merchandise exports to South Asia. Agricultural commodities make up almost 73 per cent of our exports to Bangladesh. Bangladesh’s exports to Australia consist mainly of textiles and clothing. In 2011, Australian exports to Bangladesh totalled $579 million and imports totalled $244 million. In 2003, Australia granted Bangladesh and other least-developed countries duty-free and quota-free access to the Australian market, to support their integration into the global economy. While Bangladesh’s exports to Australia are small, duty-free access has the potential to drive growth in the textile sector. Australian energy companies are also investing in gas exploration in Bangladesh to help satisfy increasing domestic energy demand.
Australia and Bangladesh have a work and holiday visa arrangement to help young Australians and Bangladeshis enhance cultural understanding by working and holidaying in each other’s countries. For example, the arrangement can assist young Australians who want to participate in Bangladesh’s vibrant development sector.
Bangladesh is playing an increasing role on the international stage. It is an active member of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, in which Australia is an observer, has served on the UN Human Rights Council, and is a member of the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation and the ASEAN Regional Forum. Bangladesh is the world’s largest contributor of military and police personnel to UN peacekeeping operations. Nearly 10,000 Bangladeshi peacekeepers are serving around the world. Over the years, many Bangladeshi peacekeepers have served with Australian counterparts.
Australia and Bangladesh work closely together on climate change, people smuggling and counterterrorism. Australia and Bangladesh concluded a memorandum of understanding on counterterrorism in 2008. In the future, security issues and climate change will continue to be significant aspects of our bilateral cooperation.
Bangladesh aims to become a middle-income country by 2021. It has succeeded in reducing poverty and increasing access to education and clean water. By 2025, poverty will have further declined and the Bangladeshi middle class will have grown, with greater buying power and political influence.
The middle class will drive demand for better infrastructure in the cities, including better road and rail links. There are likely to be opportunities for Australian companies specialising in consultancy, construction and the supply of equipment and technology for large projects, including road and bridge construction.
Economic growth and development will drive further demand in Bangladesh for Australian education. Australia’s location in the region, the quality of our institutions, our similar education systems and the growing Bangladeshi community in Australia mean Australia will likely attract increasing numbers of Bangladeshi students.
Bangladesh’s increasing international and regional role will provide opportunities for enhanced future cooperation on economic integration and development issues facing South and South East Asia. Bangladesh is a key strategic cross road between South and South-East Asia and will play an important role in facilitating greater regional cooperation and trade and investment, including through its membership of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC).