Sheikh Hasina is the prime minister of Bangladesh, and one of the country’s leading politicians as the head of the Awami League since 1981. She spoke with The Washington Post’s Anup Kaphle in New York last month during her trip to attend the United Nations General Assembly meeting. The following is an edited transcript from the interview.
The Washington Post: Last year Bangladesh’s poverty rate dropped to 31.5 percent, from about 40 percent in 2005. Can you tell us what’s working for Bangladesh?
Sheikh Hasina: Since my last tenure we have been trying to find the root causes of poverty and how we could reduce it. We wanted to ensure food security so we put all our force into producing more food and also the distribution system so that food should first reach to the poorest of the poor. Then we tried to create job opportunities for them in the rural areas. Now our farmers can open bank accounts with 10 taka (about 13 cents), a very small amount, and the subsidy we give goes directly to the farmer. So they use this money for cultivation and also it creates job opportunity. We also established one bank to create job opportunities for the younger generation. Without any collateral, they can take out a loan from the bank to start a business. I believe that educating our people will also help to reduce the poverty level. So our education is free up to primary level (fifth grade) for everyone, and for girls it is free up to high school level.
The Washington Post: Since you brought up the microcredit initiative, let’s talk about Grameen Bank. During the first term in the late ‘90s you had praise for Mohammad Yunus and you talked about how his vision would help Bangladesh. Lately there have been controversies that you’ve fired him and you called him a loan shark?
Sheikh Hasina: I am sorry, I didn’t fire him.
The Washington Post: Local media in Bangladesh have reported that he was fired.
Sheikh Hasina: No.
The Washington Post: But you are not a fan of microcredit?
Sheikh Hasina: It’s not true. Microcredit is to help people, not to create problem for people, right? We found that it was not helping people and it was not reducing the poverty level. Rather, they were nursing poverty.
The Washington Post: Can you talk a little bit more about that? How is it nursing poverty?
Sheikh Hasina: Look, Grameen Bank is a government bank; it is not private bank. It is government statutory body, it has its own law. According to Grameen Bank law, one can remain its [managing director] up to 60 years of age but not above that. We just reminded him that it is the law, rule of the law of the country and you have to follow that. He was absolutely a government employee but he never followed any rules, regulations, nothing. Now you tell me how I can reduce his age?
The Washington Post: But when you say it is not helping to alleviate poverty but it nursing poverty, what do you mean?
Sheikh Hasina: Tell me one thing. If I give you $20,000 can you pay 40 percent interest every week?
Washington Post: Probably not.
Sheikh Hasina: Probably not, right? Sitting in New York, if you cannot do it then tell me if a poor person from a village can earn money and pay such a high rate of interest. After that how can you claim that you are reducing poverty? The government now gives microcredit to the poor people; sometimes it is interest free, sometimes it is 5 percent or 3 percent interest. Like for housing, we give money to the NGO with a 1 percent service charge, but there is a binding that they cannot charge more than 5 percent interest.
Washington Post: So no banks can charge more than 5 percent?
Sheikh Hasina: No, this is a specialized fund we have created. In Bangla, that means “building houses for the poor.” It’s a special bank from which people can take loans for housing. We created all this just to give incentive to the people.
Washington Post: Let’s talk climate change. It is a huge issue for Bangladesh and there are reports that say that by the end of this century, a quarter of your country will be under water. As a prime minister of a country, what do you think when you hear things like that?
Sheikh Hasina: Bangladesh is one of the worst victims of climate change while it contributes practically nothing to the emission of the greenhouse gases. Bangladesh’s share is only 0.02 percent at most of the global total. Bangladesh would face the adverse consequences of climate change in a way that her development will be arrested if the global community does not come forward to help her. Food security will be under grave threat while millions upon millions of people will be pushed below the poverty line. Health will be a major casualty. Coastal storms and surges will kill and displace people who will migrate both internally and also outside the country while the economy of the coastal areas will be shattered.
It is impossible for Bangladesh alone to take action against the rising sea level, as it has been a cumulative effect of global emission in which Bangladesh does not have any role. It is the responsibility of global community to address this issue as urgently as possible. But Bangladesh has developed some of its own strategy to fight the threat.
Washington Post: Can you talk about the major steps that the government is taking to ensure that the country is climate proof?
Sheikh Hasina: My government has developed a Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan as a quick response to an immediate need to address the impacts of climate change. The Strategy and Action Plan is built on six pillars of which five are related to impact management and one is related to mitigation through low carbon development. The government has also promulgated the Climate Change Trust Fund Act 2010 by which a Climate Change Trust Fund has been constituted from its own resources. We have already allocated $300 million to it since 2009. Next, my government has established the Bangladesh Climate Change Resilience Fund to receive contributions from development partners for implementing projects. But we need the developed countries to keep their promise and help us.
Washington Post: How much money would Bangladesh need in order to fight climate change?
Sheikh Hasina: As much as you can get. I cannot say a specific number because day-by-day the situation is becoming worst and demand is increasing. If I give you some specific number, it may increase the following year.
Washington Post: What does Bangladesh hope will come out of the next climate summit in Durban?
Sheikh Hasina: Well, I told you that we received only very good commitment but it is not fulfilled. The demand still remains. We see no results.
The Washington Post: There is a perception that Bangladesh’s Rapid Action police play the role of judge, jury and executioner and they operate with impunity. Is that true?
Sheikh Hasina: No, there is a law, there are rules, regulations. This Rapid Action Battalion is under home ministry, so they work according to their rules. And Bangladesh at one time had terrorist activities. Since we have formed our government, we have reduced this terrorist activities.
Washington Post: So the perception that these police operate with impunity is wrong?
Sheikh Hasina: If anybody indulges in any wrong, we immediately bring them to book. If you go through old reports, then you will find out that this force was used politically.
Washington Post: What I am trying to get here is that there are news reports saying this police battalion operates with impunity.
Sheikh Hasina: It is totally wrong. Actually in 2004 this force was established, but it is true that at that time the former government used this force politically and they were allowed to kill many people and this and that. At one stage they become so popular because there was no one to talk against them. I think I was the first one who opposed those actions. Since we formed the government, they act according to rules and regulation and there is no case for political victimization and if you see, go through all the records then you can see that. If anybody, any person, or any member of this force does anything wrong under the rules and regulations, they face trial, they can lose the job. But you should notice one thing that since we formed government we are able to reduce the terrorist activities.
Washington Post: So how has Bangladesh become successful in dealing with terrorist activities?
Sheikh Hasina: On Aug. 17, 2005, within half an hour, there were 500 bomb blasts in Bangladesh in 63 districts. Then there was a grenade attack, of which I was the victim, and 22 people died. Since we formed government we declared zero tolerance to terrorism and we have taken action and you can see the result. In the last two and a half years, there have been no bomb blasts, no terrorist activities, nothing. All our law enforcing agencies, police, then RAB, all the intelligence groups, they are working very hard. We have also involved local imams, local community leaders and other social elites to raise awareness about terrorism. But I don’t understand one thing: when the previous government used this Rapid Action Battalion against the political opponent, somehow nobody raised their voice at that time…but when we reduced terrorism, suddenly some quarter started blaming all this on law enforcing agencies who are helping us to curb the terrorism. I don’t understand why.
The Washington Post: So you feel like people are wrong for accusing the special police force?
Sheikh Hasina: Exactly. There is no impunity to anybody.