The year 2023 turned out to be a crucial year for Bangladesh and signified a few diplomatic milestones for the country while it attempted to foster meaningful bilateral ties with the Scandinavian nations. The countries seemed keen to cooperate, focusing on deepening bilateral ties, and growing trade relations through multiple visits, action plans, Memorandums of Understanding (MoU), and projects.
Since the onset of bilateral ties, Bangladesh and the Scandinavian countries aimed to maintain synergy to establish and nurture multifaceted and dynamic development partnerships. Historically, Scandinavian countries have been active contributors to development projects in Bangladesh, focusing on areas such as education, healthcare, climate change, and poverty alleviation. The partnerships have aimed to enhance the living standards of the Bangladeshi population and promote sustainable and inclusive development. Bangladesh, with its growing economy and textile industry, attracts investments and trade partnerships from Scandinavian countries looking to diversify their economic engagements.
Since its independence in 1971, Bangladesh has been among the top recipients of development assistance from the Scandinavian nations, spanning a variety of sectors including transportation, water transport, agriculture, fisheries, and rural development during its early decades. It began with humanitarian relief and progressed to development cooperation, producing lasting consequences and an array of effects. One of the main pillars of the partnership has been development collaborations, which have assisted Bangladesh in attaining robust and long-term economic growth as well as poverty reduction. Relations between Bangladesh and the Scandinavian nations have developed and widened over the past few decades, allowing them to address contemporary global issues.
Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has been quite enthusiastic and active in her attempts to strengthen bilateral ties with the Nordic countries. During her historic bilateral visit to Sweden in 2017, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina with her Swedish counterpart Stefan Löfven agreed to work together to take the bilateral relations to a “higher level”. While on her official trip to Finland, Sheikh Hasina met with Finnish President Sauli Niinisto on June 4, 2019, and both leaders agreed to work together on the issue of climate change. At the meeting, the Bangladesh Prime Minister also sought strong support from the European Union for the safe and dignified repatriation of over 1.1 million Rohingya people from Bangladesh. has started marking 50 years of diplomatic affiliations between the countries. When Crown Princess of Denmark Mary Elizabeth Donaldson and Danish Minister for Development and Cooperation Flemming Moller Mortensen paid a courtesy call to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in 2022, a promising fresh start of cooperation on multilateral sectors of mutual benefits including energy and technology between Bangladesh and Denmark was discussed.
The Scandinavian countries have been collaborating with Bangladesh for many years to explore ways of promoting gender equality, such as protecting women’s rights, preventing violence against women, granting them access to education and employment opportunities, and enhancing nutrition and health. The Nordic countries have shown strong support for Bangladesh’s endeavors to guarantee the fundamental rights of the Rohingya refugees. Apart from offering relief to the refugees, the nations have also offered diplomatic support to Bangladesh for its endeavors to guarantee the dignified, safe, and voluntary return of the Rohingyas to Myanmar.
Over a hundred Scandinavian businesses currently operate in Bangladesh. The volume of trade between Bangladesh and the Nordic countries was close to $1.67 billion in the 2019–20 fiscal year, with $1.35 billion in exports and $0.2 billion in imports. More than 5% of Bangladesh’s total exports are going solely toward the Nordic region. This is one more indication of a vibrant cooperation that is evolving. Over time, there has been a consistent increase in the amount of trade and investment between Bangladesh and these nations. The government of Bangladesh has launched 100 economic zones, which are open to Scandinavian businesses. Strong bilateral trade ties will enable Bangladesh to attract foreign investment from Scandinavian nations, which would be mutually beneficial.
It is evident that the Nordic region can be a lucrative hub for Bangladeshi export goods. In a growingly tumultuous global market, Bangladesh needs to harness the possibility the Nordic countries come with to diversify its export market. This brief focuses on the trends observed during the year 2023 in the bilateral ties between Bangladesh and Scandinavia.
Sweden’s government is working with Unicef to better the lives of children in Bangladesh by donating 150 million Swedish kroner and the funds will be used to help Unicef’s Country Program in Bangladesh, which focuses on child safety, WASH, nutrition, and health. Sweden has been a major contributor to Unicef’s global core resources since 2005, contributing over $60 million to the organization’s work in Bangladesh. In September 2023, the Swedish Ministry of Justice awarded VFS Global the global tender to provide visa services in 37 countries across the globe, including Bangladesh. Sweden has shown interest in continuing to work to enhance its partnership with Bangladesh toward sustainable economic growth.
Bangladesh is an important and growing Swedish trade partner in Southeast Asia. Swedish import of products from Bangladesh amounted to USD 629.38 million and Swedish export of products to Bangladesh was worth USD 63.04 million in 2021. Machinery and apparatuses are the most important export products to Bangladesh. 50 Swedish companies are active in Bangladesh, many of them well-known global brands.
During her visit on October 9-10 2023, the Swedish State Secretary for International Development Cooperation and International Trade Diana Janse conveyed interest in collaborating with Bangladesh on the development of IT sectors and green transition, praising Bangladesh’s accomplishments in adapting to climate change. There were also talks of development assistance to Bangladesh, notably in the areas of improving living conditions for the underprivileged and promoting gender equality.
Bangladesh and Denmark launched a Joint Action Plan on 13 June 2023 to implement the “Sustainable and Green Framework Engagement” that was signed previously in 2022 to strengthen partnership on climate and green transition between the two countries. The Joint Action Plan is an indication of Bangladesh and Denmark’s growing commitment to cooperating to build a greener future for everyone on the planet. Additionally, a grant-based framework agreement worth BDT 474 crore was signed on 7 June 2023 by both nations to execute a bilateral development program between 2023 and 2028. The framework agreement’s objectives encompass several crosscutting priority areas, including advancing bilateral partnerships, empowering women and girls, strengthening democracy, and improving gender equality.
Denmark also expressed interest in investing US $1.3 billion to produce offshore wind energy in Bangladesh on 11 July 2023, in line with the Mujib Climate Prosperity Plan. In this regard, Bangladesh was invited to form an understanding with Denmark and Costa Rica. In the same month, the visiting Danish Ambassador to Bangladesh Winnie Estrup Petersen shared that Denmark is looking forward to investing in various sectors of Bangladesh, including information technology (IT). Bangladesh and Denmark signed a MoU on 17 August 2023 to establish new collaborative opportunities for food safety and sustainable food production. The two countries have a history of cooperation and a shared desire to continue cooperating in the food and agricultural sectors for the benefit of both countries, as stated in the agreement called “Sustainable and Green Framework Engagement” between them.
Ambassador of Bangladesh to Norway, Mehdi Hasan, paid a visit to King Harald V of Norway on 17 March 2023, who recognized the contribution of the Bangladeshi government to the country’s socioeconomic growth and poverty reduction. The King also conveyed his satisfaction with the two nations’ bilateral relations. Following a brief ceremony, the ambassador was greeted at the Royal Palace with a guard of honor given by the military guards. Over the last few years, Bangladeshi exports to Norway have been remarkable and by 2020, exports to Norway had exceeded USD 270 million. Even in 2023, both countries have shown interest in deepening trade ties in the upcoming years.
On 20 August 2023, the Bangladesh government partnered up with the Norwegian government and the United Nations Development Programme to promote tolerance, inclusivity, and unity in Bangladesh. This multi-year project emphasizes the value of transparent politics, inclusive institutions, and the protection of fundamental human rights.
In February 2023, while presenting his credentials to Finnish President Sauli Niinistö, Ambassador Mehdi Hasan outlined Bangladesh’s priorities with Finland, aligning with Vision 2041’s goal of transforming Bangladesh into a developed and smart nation. Mr. Hasan discussed the countries’ robust bilateral relations and the President expressed satisfaction with the existing ties. From June 2023 to October 2023 Finland’s exports to Bangladesh amounted to 16.6 million Euro and in the same timeframe, Finland’s imports from Bangladesh were worth 85.7 million Euro. The focus of collaboration between Bangladesh and Finland spans diverse sectors, including trade, investment, manpower recruitment, education, IT, technology transfer, and addressing climate change.
Notably, President Niinistö expressed strong interest in Ambassador Hasan’s proposal to hire workers from Bangladesh to help Finland deal with its shrinking population and labor shortage. Ambassador Hasan emphasized the potential for joint efforts in green solutions and smart technology. The discussions also encompassed simplifying visa processes for Bangladeshi students, addressing the Rohingya crisis, and urging Finland to influence Myanmar for a conducive environment in Rakhine State. The emerging partnership is a reflection of both countries’ common resolve to fortify trade interactions while simultaneously making a significant effort to mitigate the effects of climate change worldwide.
Relations between the Scandinavian nations and Bangladesh hold enormous potential. Ensuring food security and strengthening agriculture could be a future sector of expansion in bilateral relations. The provision of clean and safe drinking water for all is a common interest between Scandinavia and Bangladesh, and the Danish private sector is offering Bangladesh substantial expertise in both knowledge and technical solutions. This marks the start of a promising journey, with the potential for Danish technology and engineering educators to play a pivotal role in educating Bangladeshi students about science, thereby nurturing innovation.
In order to address the new challenges in the food safety landscape, Bangladesh is already showing much potential in adopting best practices, learning from international experiences, and implementing evidence-based strategies through partnerships with the Scandinavian nations. Together, these initiatives will further strengthen Bangladesh’s global standing in ensuring food safety for its citizens. Bangladesh has already played the role of a pioneer by introducing relevant and effective technological advancement in the agricultural sector. This offers an opportunity for Bangladesh and Scandinavian countries to further work on this sector.
Other areas that have the potential for additional cooperation include the Blue Economy and marine resources including shipbuilding and recycling, port facility development, and environmentally friendly high-tech extraction of coastal and ocean resources. Climate change and environmental sustainability have been critical areas of collaboration. Both the Scandinavian nations and Bangladesh are vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, and they share common concerns about rising sea levels and extreme weather events. Collaborative efforts in environmental research, renewable energy projects, and climate change mitigation strategies have been key features of their relations.
Now that Bangladesh will soon exit the LDC category, the Scandinavian nations are in an ideal position to deepen and strengthen their ties in the business and trade sectors. It will be challenging for Bangladesh to better utilize its current trade and economic ties with Scandinavian countries once it loses its LDC privilege. Bangladesh must continue to forge closer connections with these nations while also focusing on improving business culture to avoid alienating potential investors in the future.
The relationships will keep changing in the future, reflecting the shifting dynamics of both the socioeconomic and political environments around the world. But Bangladesh with its various promising diplomatic and economic endeavors will continue to get support from the Scandinavian nations, which have a reputation for emphasizing peace, development, democracy, human rights, and climate change. The partnership between these countries and Bangladesh demonstrates a shared desire to accomplish global multilateralist objectives. The Scandinavian countries are thus well placed to remain valued partners to Bangladesh, to ensure sustainable development and mutual growth.
– Tahia Afra Jannati is a Research Intern at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).