Opening photo: Aerial view of Dhaka during sunset. By Lumenite
Story by Daniel Buchman, Luis Linares, and Helen von Gohren
Fierce Bengal tigers lurking in the wild. Lush tea plantations carpeting rolling hills. Mysteries lurking in the world’s largest mangrove forest. The friendly yet purposeful competition of the Shakrain Kite Festival. The foot-soothing warmth of the world’s longest uninterrupted sandy beach. The color and vibrancy of roadside stalls and Durga Puja celebrations. While the COVID-19 pandemic has temporarily dampened access to some of these wonders, all of this is Bangladesh.
Hundreds of years of Mughal, British, and Pakistani rule and the unique spirit of its people shaped Bangladesh before its bloody 1971 independence struggle. Every corner of the country confirms its continuing link to this multicultural heritage. Roughly the size of the state of Iowa, Bangladesh is home to more than 165 million people, and its rapidly growing capital region shelters a population of approximately 20 million. The Buriganga, Turag, Dhaleshawi, and Shitalakshya rivers converge near Dhaka, while scattered historical edifices and archaeological sites dot the countryside.
For all its lengthy history, Bangladesh is a young nation. It will mark its 50th anniversary as a sovereign country, March 26, celebrating its independence from Pakistan as proclaimed by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the “Father of the Nation,” and an International Visitor Leadership Program alumnus.
This independence, however, came at a terrible price; the brutal nine-month Liberation War that saw East Pakistan become Bangladesh is solemnly commemorated every year. Bangladesh’s independence also played a unique role in U.S. diplomatic history. On April 26, 1971, Dhaka Consul General Archer K. Blood and 20 members of his staff protested the atrocities committed against the East Pakistanis by the Islamabad-based Pakistani government, which was then playing a key role in the Nixon administration’s efforts to open relations with China. The now-famous “Blood Telegram” was the first use of the Department of State’s new Dissent Channel. The Nixon administration, however, dismissed Blood’s pleas and reassigned him to Washington. Grateful Bangladeshis nevertheless remembered and honored Blood by sending a delegation to his funeral in 2004.
The government of Bangladesh (GoB) is planning for several 2021 festive events from March through Victory Day (Dec. 16), commemorating the end of the liberation struggle. Bangladeshis hope the planned events will recapture the post-Liberation War spirit, and they have invited numerous foreign dignitaries to participate. The celebratory plans for 2021 and the 2022 festivities that will mark 50 years of formal U.S.-Bangladeshi relations will translate into additional opportunities for the Department and embassy to strengthen and deepen engagement with the world’s eighth most populous country.
“It’s an honor and joy to serve with our terrific U.S. Mission team in Bangladesh. [It is] one of the world’s great development success stories, a vital nation of promise and opportunity poised to play an even larger role on the regional and global stage, and a strong and valued partner with the United States,” said Ambassador Earl Miller.
Since independence in 1971, the country has stressed its constitutional principle of “friendship towards all, malice towards none.” Wrapped in the eastern arm of India, targeted by China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and sitting at the geopolitical nexus between South and Southeast Asia, Bangladesh plays a pivotal role in the U.S. approach to the Indo-Pacific. With economic growth exceeding 6 percent over the past decade, Bangladesh offers rich bilateral and regional collaboration opportunities. These opportunities include business partnerships in various fields such as energy; eco-tourism; agrobusiness, including cold chain development; pharmaceuticals and health care; light engineering; and information technology, according to USAID’s most recent Comprehensive Private Sector Report. The GoB is also particularly interested in developing its blue economy (sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods, and jobs while preserving the health of the ocean ecosystem), an area of significant U.S. expertise.
One challenge Embassy Dhaka faces lies in changing the GoB’s approach to major infrastructure and defense purchases, as well as improving the business enabling environment.
“American products are higher quality and longer lasting, but are often underbid by Chinese suppliers,” said Brent Christensen, counselor for political and economic affairs at Embassy Dhaka. In addition to encouraging the GoB to increase transparency, predictability, and good governance, “We see helping American businesses navigate Bangladesh’s often challenging business environment as a critical part of our work, benefitting both Bangladesh and the United States.”
Major industries, extensive renovation and expansion of principal ports, and growing demand for energy are taking off in Bangladesh, making now a great time to establish new partnerships and business.
A major focus of the work of Embassy Dhaka centers around the ongoing refugee crisis in Cox’s Bazar, home to approximately 1 million Rohingya refugees fleeing atrocities committed in neighboring Burma. The embassy regularly hosts congressional and other high-profile delegations interested in this complex matter. The United States continues to be the largest contributor of humanitarian aid, nearly $1.2 billion since 2017, supporting both the refugees and the host communities affected by the unexpected influx. As the crisis enters its fourth year, the interagency refugee team is fully engaged in working with the GoB, international organizations, and like-minded diplomatic missions to find sustainable, dignified solutions to this deeply challenging issue.
Embassy Dhaka is a cooperative interagency hub, hosting staff from the Departments of State, Agriculture, Defense (DoD), and Justice, as well as the largest USAID mission in Asia and representatives from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Library of Congress. Five decades of interagency work in the health, economic and business development, food security, agriculture, and other sectors have had a direct impact on millions of lives. Bangladesh is projected to graduate from “Least Developed Country” status in 2024. This underscores both Bangladesh’s development success and the efficacy of more than $8 billion in support of health, food security, and disaster assistance from USAID alone since independence.
Embassy Dhaka’s close working relationship with local and national authorities was built over decades through regular consultations, training programs, exchanges, and the tangible results produced.
“It is a partnership driven by common interests that also recognizes Bangladesh as a key U.S. strategic partner,” said USAID Mission Director Derrick Brown.
These partnerships encompass a huge range of issues. USAID, CDC, and DoD staff have furnished more than $73 million in new, virus-related aid while providing relief from the impact of cyclones, flooding, and endemic diseases. Committed, connected work with counterparts meant Bangladesh moved down from Trafficking in Persons Tier 2 Watchlist to Tier 2 in 2020. This progress demonstrates how embassy staff has a genuine impact on lives and policy. With more than 7.3 million followers, post’s Facebook page is the most followed U.S. embassy page in the world, offering an engaging mix of policy and cultural content. Promoting worker safety and labor rights, planning a new embassy compound, and constant coordination with post’s superb locally employed (LE) staff committee means there is fulfilling work for everyone at Embassy Dhaka.
Beyond meaningful professional opportunities, Dhaka stands out for its community. Newcomers may find themselves at a first and second tour professionals’ happy hour, game night, or mentoring session with the ambassador and deputy chief of mission (DCM); a gardening party; a concert organized by the LE staff committee; a community liaison office-organized boat trip; or at one of several international social and dining clubs. Informal cricket and soccer competitions, like those organized by Procurement Supervisor Khan Jahan Ali, have brought American and Bangladeshi staff together. As the COVID-19 pandemic recedes and the embassy welcomes the return of families, post continues to assess ways to manage risks while providing greater flexibility and opportunities for personal and cultural exploration.
Eager to share their culture with American staff, post’s LE staff committee developed a cultural sponsor program through post’s I DARE (Inclusion, Diversity, Acceptance, Respect, and Equity) initiative. The embassy’s program, as DCM JoAnne Wagner describes it, is organized “to ensure a diverse, inclusive, welcoming place where each member of our embassy community is seen, heard, valued, and respected.” The program pairs new arrivals with local staff and formalizes what has long been central to work there: the deep ties between U.S. and local staff.
“I have found a family here,” said Professional Exchanges Program Manager Kashfi Chowdhury. “The embassy stands out among local employers in Bangladesh for how well it supports and empowers the women who work here.”
Housing is split between the neighborhoods of Gulshan and Baridhara, both full of high-rise buildings—some with rooftop pools, gardens, or fitness centers. Gulshan bustles with Dhaka’s international gastronomy and culture scene, while Baridhara is the quiet diplomatic enclave, home to the embassy and the American International School of Dhaka (AISD). Many employees can walk to work and do not need a car for daylight commutes. And while mosquitoes and humidity are facts of life in South Asia, the General Service Office (GSO) stands ready with mosquito nets, dehumidifiers, and tennis racket-sized mosquito zappers. Dhaka’s air quality can reach hazardous levels, and embassy staff works to mitigate the pollution’s effects. In addition to the chancery’s HEPA air filtration system, every residence has multiple air filters, and GSO inspects homes with an air quality sensor.
With the 2020 return of families to post, Embassy Dhaka has abundant family member employment opportunities. Lauren Kuritz, labor officer and employee family member, came to Dhaka with her husband because “it offered the most choices for me as an international development and human rights professional.” She has already “toured factories, visited government hospitals dealing with dengue, observed local elections, and met with activists changing the global fashion industry.”
Another draw for families is the exceptional AISD. Close to the embassy, it houses the largest English-language library in Dhaka, a well-equipped gym, pool, and giant indoor climbing wall—all open to the post community. Regional Education Officer Beatrice Cameron called AISD “a hidden jewel,” providing “a superb academic program.”
“AISD is well known amongst international teachers,” said AISD Director of Teaching and Learning and parent David Brooker. “Part of the reason we came is our friends raved about the school.”
Additionally, the American Embassy Employees Association runs the American Club in the Gulshan neighborhood and a well-stocked commissary at the embassy’s annex. It provides a welcome retreat with its green spaces, playground, pool, tennis and squash courts, spa and barbershop services, bars, and restaurants (the club’s carrot cake is a local favorite).
While many embassy staff members have come for rich, meaningful opportunities, they end up staying for the warm, welcoming people and the relationships that they have formed. They proudly call Embassy Dhaka their favorite assignment, often exclaiming during departures abar dekha hobe! (see you again!)
Daniel Buchman, Luis Linares and Helen von Gohren are first-tour officers and vice consuls in the Consular Section at Embassy Dhaka.