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US to shift Dhaka aid away from politicians ‘Bangladesh must do more’

WASHINGTON, Feb 12, (Agencies): The United States said Tuesday it will curtail aid that benefits Bangladeshi politicians and redirect it to address labor and other concerns amid frustration over the country’s prolonged political infighting. Nisha Biswal, the assistant secretary of state for South Asia, reiterated US calls for new elections after a Jan 5 vote boycotted by the opposition. She also urged Bangladesh to make greater strides in factory safety following a series of horrific disasters.

Addressing the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biswal said the United States was “curtailing any programs that are providing any direct benefit to members of parliament.” Instead, US assistance will support “broader issues of institutional strengthening” such as improving labor rights and making the judiciary more effective, she said. “Really none of the economic gains, or development gains, in Bangladesh can be sustained if there’s not the transparent, accountable institutions to form the bedrock,” she said. Biswal said assistance that benefits politicians was already “fairly limited” and that the United States was trying to set priorities at a time of tight budgets. Bangladeshi politics have been bitterly divided for decades by an intense, personal rivalry between Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and opposition leader Khaleda Zia.

Biswal said the United States was working with other countries to encourage dialogue between the rivals and fresh elections. But she acknowledged: “I would not say that we have had tremendous positive traction.” Meanwhile, Bangladesh needs to do much more on improving labor standards to win back duty-free trade benefits suspended after the global textile industry’s worst disaster, US officials said Tuesday. Washington suspended the benefits last June, two months after the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory building in Dhaka that killed 1,129 people. The disaster put a grim spotlight on low wages and lax safety in the impoverished nation’s lucrative apparel business that exports nearly $5 billion annually to the US.

Among those providing written testimony to a Senate Committee on Foreign Relations hearing on Bangladesh was Reba Sikder, 18, who was pulled from the rubble of the Rana Plaza after being trapped for two days. She recounted her struggle to recover. “What has been most debilitating is the trauma and panic I still feel, which has made it virtually impossible to find work,” said Sikder, who attended the hearing, but did not speak in person. “I feel afraid just looking at tall buildings and I am scared to go inside. I worry there will be another collapse.” Senior Labor Department official Eric Biel said that late last month, the US conveyed to Bangladesh that despite progress in some areas, it had not done enough under an action plan laid out by Washington for restoration of the Generalized System of Preferences, or GSP, that gives duty-free on some 5,000 products.

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