Published:  05:15 PM, 20 March 2018

Invest in communications: Khalidi to BIMSTEC

Invest in communications: Khalidi to BIMSTEC
BIMSTEC must invest in communication strategies to interact better with the main stakeholders of the Bay of Bengal grouping, the people of seven member states, said Editor-in-Chief Toufique Imrose Khalidi.

Speaking on the ‘role of media in promoting Bay of Bengal identity’ on Tuesday, Khalidi said it is “very difficult” to explain what BIMSTEC is all about as there is no one description for the group.

He said the media can “really help you redefine BIMSTEC if you would like for communication purposes.”

But if the deliberations of the organisation are “lacking in substance, not followed by concrete action, not resulting in real benefits for the peoples you represent, we in the media cannot do much,” he added.

Khalidi said the media need an incentive in order to go the extra mile to promote the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, abbreviated as BIMSTEC.

Scholars, think-tanks, government officials, diplomats, business leaders and other stakeholders of the BIMSTEC member states - Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand -- convened in Dhaka on Tuesday for a daylong conference to take stock of the achievements of the 20-year-old organisation and chart a future course of action.

Foreign Minister AH Mahmood Ali inaugurated the conference, and stressed the importance of a “result-oriented” organisation to better utilise untapped potential. No high level representatives from the other six member states were in attendance.

BIMSTEC connects South Asia with Southeast Asia, and serves as a platform for inter-regional cooperation between SAARC and ASEAN member countries.

The BIMSTEC region accounts for 21 percent of the world population, and has massive potential for trade. But intra-BIMSTEC trade is very low, which experts say is mostly due to the low level of economic integration within the region and a dearth of infrastructure, especially transport connections, within the member countries.

In spite of the solid foundation of geographical contiguity, shared history and cultural ties, BIMSTEC has yet to make visible progress in advancing concrete cooperation among the member states.

But, according to BIMSTEC Secretary General Ambassador M Shahidul Islam, two recent developments have generated renewed hope that BIMSTEC is poised to take off as a viable regional grouping.

First, BIMSTEC established its permanent Secretariat in Dhaka in 2014.

Second, BIMSTEC cooperation received new impetus from the Leaders’ Retreat held in Goa, India in 2016, where the leaders pledged to work collectively towards making BIMSTEC stronger, more effective, and result-oriented.

Some think-tanks now see the organisation as an alternative to SAARC following the India-Pakistan tensions that led to the postponement of the 2016 SAARC summit in Islamabad.

But BIMSTEC still lacks visibility in the region.

Director of Indian Studies Centre of Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok Dr Surat Horichailkul, spoke on the role of people-to people contact at the session.

The visibility of BIMSTEC is “very low”, and they found that people in Thailand do not know about this regional organisation, he said.

“We are trying hard to put BIMSTEC in the picture,” he said, suggesting activities such as a BIMSTEC food festival, a BIMSTEC film festival in Bangkok, student exchanges and nominating Mr and Mrs BIMSTEC to promote the grouping.

Member of parliament Mahjabeen Khaled emphasised the role of parliamentarians in making BIMSTEC more result-oriented.

Professor Emeritus of BRAC Institute of Educational Development Dr Manzoor Ahmed spoke on the need of university level collaborations.


The editor-in-chief, Khalidi, spoke at length on how BIMSTEC could promote a “Bay of Bengal identity”.

In doing so, it is necessary to define the Bay of Bengal community, he said.

“Is it just the littoral states and the landlocked states or also those historically dependent on using [the Bay of Bengal] as a highway for transportation, trade, commerce and cultural exchanges?”

“Countries in this region have done pretty well in forming blocs and forging effective cooperation: ASEAN is the example. I am not sure about SAARC, now that it’s even failing to hold its summits.”

“We in the media will keep repeating those statistics. Less than 3 percent intra-regional trade among BIMSTEC countries while ASEAN has nearly 30 percent. And there’s no dearth of such negative data to denigrate the efforts by BIMSTEC countries.”

“So my first point is: the media cannot do this alone. The media I believe can only be part of that process of defining or part of the attempt to conceptualise what that should mean,” Khalidi said.

“This is an evolutionary process and everyone involved has to start thinking in that direction -- from diplomats, civil servants who take the first steps in organising events or meetings to politicians or ministers who further shape the agenda at the very top and the heads who give the stamp of approval in most cases and in some cases setting the guiding principles.”

Khalidi said the media “only responds and reacts to what you do or these people do”.

“Media only takes the message across to the larger audience,” he said, “Of course the media comments and criticises but that too comes essentially from conversations that you are having in small rooms like this.”

“If your deliberations are lacking in substance, not followed by concrete action, not resulting in real benefits for people you represent, we in the media cannot do much,” he said.

“The platform will end up being criticised as useless shoptalk.”

“And actually the first real step has to come from the politicians who run these countries. Not all the countries are run by politicians though, there are instances politicians are subservient to public servants in uniform.”

“Creating effective, functional communication channels is the key,” he said.

“Some of you may not like it but I can tell this Secretariat is not adequately equipped to handle the challenges in the age of New Media. This is, I get the feeling, an understaffed, poorly-resourced entity. Today, you communicate not just through the so-called mainstream media, there are other channels too.”

“Using the social media to do that requires some resources diverted in that direction.”

However, the perspective of people outside the media should also be taken into consideration before action is taken, he said.

“We in the media often fail to get the perspective right ... sitting in the newsroom editors often see things through their own prism rather than that of the larger audience. It happens everywhere, it’s not that we do not try and often succeed in avoiding that.”

“Our own microcosm becomes the macrocosm ... at times we get it completely wrong.”

“So you need to invest in your communication strategies,” he said.  “How you want to interact with your main stakeholders, the peoples of the seven countries.”

He cited the tweets of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, highlighting the ways in which both of his accounts keep producing content for the larger media landscape as well as for the direct consumption of the public.

“Of course with 30-odd million followers he is bigger than any single media entity. I am not sure about the engagement level though.”

“President Trump, you may not like him, does reveal himself through his tweets. His tweets help us understand him, his personality, his thought process. Even the timing of his tweets is taken into account when we try to analyse the man elected to lead the world’s largest economy.”

Does BIMSTEC have Twitter handle that I can follow? said Khalidi.

“Let’s get to the main point and let’s be honest about this. It is very difficult to explain what BIMSTEC is all about. Even in Dhaka, the host city for the Secretariat, it is quite a task to introduce BIMSTEC. There’s no one-liner, you can’t find a one-liner to define or describe BIMSTEC. It’s not SAARC, it’s not ASEAN, so what is it?

“Renaming often helps. It has already been renamed once. The acronym hasn’t changed though. Acronyms do not always help. Unicef, as an acronym, works because, just to give you an example, a young, diminutive striker, unassuming man called Leo Messi who is probably a million times more known than BIMSTEC has Unicef inscribed on his shirt.”

“The United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund is too big a name and so we started calling it the UN Children’s Fund. Now UNICEF works although in some parts of the United States people may never have heard of UNICEF. “

“There are plenty of examples of formal names that are very big and not very easy to use for communication purposes,” he said.

“So we can help you redefine BIMSTEC, if you would like, for communication purposes.”

“For instance, if it’s called or described as the Bay of Bengal Community, and we in the media start writing sentences like this – 'BIMSTEC, better known as The Bay of Bengal Community, will have its fourth or fifth summit in 20 years later this year.'

“Some acronyms only help civil servants exchanging letters between themselves, but not when you communicate with the people you are trying to serve,” he said.

He also took note of the lack of representation of member states in the conference and BIMSTEC is almost a year behind marking its 20th anniversary.

“And looking at the level of representation from the other six capitals is not very encouraging either,” he said. “So we in the media do not get the kick in going the extra mile to promote BIMSTEC.”

Ambassador Muhammad Zamir, chairman of Institute of Conflict, Law and Development Studies, chaired the session.

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