Bangladesh-origin Zia Choudhury,who was recently appointed as the UN resident coordinator in Botswana, tells Dhaka Tribune's Reaz Ahmad of his Scottish upbringing and his bid to establish ethical business
United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres recently appointed Zia Choudhury of Bangladesh as the UN resident coordinator in Botswana. With 25 years of experience in development and humanitarian work, Zia was involved primarily in NGO leadership as well as agricultural research, humanitarian policy and consulting roles in the UN system — with the Food and Agriculture Organization and with the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
In an exclusive interview with Dhaka Tribune, Zia recalled the days when his father migrated from Sylhet to Scotland in 1960s and raised a proud family, besides contributing to community development and entrepreneurship in the UK. In 2017, Zia’s brother Sir Akhlaq Ur-Rahman Choudhury was made Knight Bachelor, becoming the first British-Bangladeshi to be appointed to the High Court of Justice in the UK. Their parents, Azizur Rahman Choudhury and Sultana Choudhury, raised funds to contribute in the fight for Bangladesh’s liberation during the war in 1971.
Mr Choudhury, congratulations on your appointment as the UN resident coordinator in Botswana. Tell us what it takes to become the country head of a UN mission.
The resident coordinator is responsible for ensuring that all UN agencies in a country are working effectively with each other, the government and all others who influence the development of a country. That includes NGOs, civil society, private companies and more.To be an RC, you need to be able to demonstrate that you can effectively bring diverse people and agencies together to work towards the Sustainable Development Goals and the national development plans.
The resident coordinator’s role is pivotal to the UN’s success in reaching the goals in each of the countries it serves. The resident coordinator leads and strategically positions the UN country team in support of common goals for development. What challenge are you looking up to in Botswana?
Botswana is already an upper middle-income country, due to rich mining industry, stable government, and progressive economic policies. However, the wealth inequality is very high, and there is over dependence on one major industry. A major challenge is to diversify the country’s income sources and ensure more equitable distribution of wealth.
Botswana is the longest functional democracy in Africa and has come a long way from being a poverty-stricken nation to one of the fastest growing economies. But it is also home to one of the largest populations of AIDS/HIV patients. What priorities do you have in mind as you take over the UN charge there?
My first priority is to understand the challenges and what different agencies are doing to solve those issues. I would like to talk to people who suffer from HIV, and those who have not benefited from the country’s phenomenal economic growth, and then learn from their perspective. Botswana is also a large and very dry country, with almost 75% of land being desert, and I believe that Botswana’s adaptation to climate change will be a key focus during my tenure.
You started your career as a national field officer in Bhola about 25 years ago, and have since worked in coordination and leadership roles across Africa, Asia and Europe. Tell us, in brief, about your professional experiences so far.
After two years in rural Bhola, I worked for several years in management of humanitarian response programs, before moving to work in humanitarian policy issues, focusing on systems to ensure that aid agencies were accountable to the people they serve, and always treat them in respectful and dignified way. I took a two-year break from NGO work, to establish an ethical business, selling organic, halal sausages. It was hard work and fun, but I missed working in development. Also, now I am vegetarian!
Your most recent postings have been as CARE International country director in Sudan and Bangladesh. Tell us something about your role as the head of CARE Bangladesh.
Being the head of CARE Bangladesh has been a huge privilege, as this is one of oldest and most respected agencies in the country. We have been here for 70 years and worked in almost every district of the country. I have enjoyed working with the dedicated team and also appreciated the excellent relations CARE has with the communities, national NGOs and the government. I truly believe that CARE has played an integral role in the development of Bangladesh, especially in the empowerment of women and girls to access their rights and achieve their full potential.
Before you, who were the other Bangladeshis who served in UN resident coordinator roles?
I believe that there have been two others: Subinay Nandy (brother to great artiste late Subir Nandy), and Ameerah Haq (now the chairperson of Brac International Board).
Tell us a little bit about where you are from, your family, ancestry and academic life.
My parents and extended family are originally from the border areas of Karimganj, Assam in India and Zakiganj, Sylhet in Bangladesh. My father migrated to the UK in the 1960s and, like many Bangladeshis, he worked hard in factories before opening his own restaurant business in Scotland, the country I was born in. My parents were well known in the Bangladesh community of Scotland, and they raised funds for the Liberation Movement as well as for subsequent operations to rebuild the war-affected country. In Scotland, my parents were also known for their support to poor and vulnerable communities, both immigrant and indigenous. I believe this was a part of my early inspiration to work in development field.
My father was the founding member of the Bangladesh Association of Glasgow (BAG). As soon as the new government of Bangladesh had developed the correct paperwork and procedures, my father made me a Bangladeshi citizen, and I have always been grateful that he instilled in me a deep love and loyalty to both Bangladesh and Scotland.
I obtained a Bachelor of Arts in geography from the SOAS University of London and a Master of Science in management from Manchester University.
Do you foresee – with you joining there – any possibility of better economic ties between Bangladesh and Botswana, or for that matter with countries in the African south?
Definitely, there is good scope for better ties between Botswana and Bangladesh, as we have a very diverse and rapidly growing economic base, and can surely share our expertise in different sectors. While our geographies and population structures are very different (Botswana is four times bigger in land size than Bangladesh, but has a population of less than two million), Bangladesh has much to share in terms of climate adaptive agriculture techniques, youth entrepreneurship, manufacturing and much more. One area where both the countries need to improve on is reaching the most remote and vulnerable communities, so we can achieve one of the UN mantras for the SDG goals: “Leaving no one behind.”