Framingham State professor headed to UN

Bangladesh names frequent critic as its ambassador

Abdul Momen lives in Ashland with his family. Abdul Momen lives in Ashland with his family.
By James F. Smith
Globe Staff / July 28, 2009

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For more than 30 years, almost from the day he arrived in Boston as a young graduate student, Abdul Momen relentlessly criticized successive governments of his native Bangladesh for corruption, for abuse of human rights, for mistreating women, for tolerating child slavery.

Now he has a chance to do something about it from the inside.

The government of Bangladesh announced yesterday that Momen, chairman of the department of economics and business administration at Framingham State College, has been appointed ambassador to the United Nations.

Momen said that soon after a progressive government took office following a landslide election victory in December, the new prime minister phoned him to ask him to join in transforming and modernizing the country in a diplomatic role.

Momen’s challenge will be to translate his experience from the often abstract world of acade mia to the real-life issues of international diplomacy and development.

“I am a teacher, I am not a diplomat,’’ Momen, 61, said in an interview. He recalled the work of the late Harvard economist, John Kenneth Galbraith, as US ambassador to India as a valuable example: “Kenneth Galbraith was my teacher at Harvard. He was never a diplomat either, but he was one of the most successful diplomats ever for the United States.’’

“I should be candid,’’ he said. “If people don’t like it, I will still tell the truth.’’

The UN role is critical for Bangladesh, one of the world’s poorest countries. And Momen’s command of management and finance will lend him credibility as he pushes his struggling nation toward good governance, and makes its case for global support. The South Asian nation relies heavily on UN assistance for development programs, and the UN is a critical forum for human rights debates.

Jalal Alamgir, a Bangladesh native and political science professor at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, said Momen “will be a very good advocate for democratic reform, and not just in Bangladesh, but also through the prominent role that Bangladesh plays in the UN in organizing least-developed countries and Muslim countries. He’ll be a prodemocracy advocate for those larger groupings, as well.’’

Alamgir, whose father recently was cleared of what critics called trumped-up treason charges in Bangladesh, said “There’s a very good window for reform now’’ after the December election that gave a two-thirds majority in Parliament to the progressive Awami League. The league is led by Sheikh Hasina Wazed, the new prime minister. She is the daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founding father of Bangladesh and its first prime minister after it seceded from Pakistan in 1971.

Momen had agitated for her release from prison on corruption charges, and helped get 42 members of the US Congress to push for a fair trial instead of “a kangaroo court.’’

Momen also has paid a price for his activism. He came to the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard in 1978 for a master’s degree in public administration, authoring one paper on “Military hegemony in Pakistan and Bangladesh.’’ He went on to Northeastern University for an MBA degree and doctorate in economics. After a second military coup in Bangladesh in 1981, he spoke out again, and the government stripped him of his scholarship. But he stayed on, and later became a US citizen.

The military government barred him from traveling home for 11 years, until 1989, so he wasn’t able to attend either of his parents’ funerals.

He called attention to abuses including the trafficking of children as young as 3, who were abducted or sold into slavery. Working with Faith Willard, a Cape Cod woman, Momen helped rescue children who were destined to be used as camel jockeys. He also spoke out against trafficking of Bangladeshi women in Middle Eastern countries as servants and prostitutes.

He has taught management and economics at Merrimack College, Salem State, and, for the past six years, at Framingham State. He worked in Saudi Arabia from 1998 to 2003 as an economic development adviser to the government there. Momen was initially asked by the Bangladeshi government to become ambassador to Saudi Arabia. Yesterday, the foreign ministry said he would be going to the UN instead.

Sandra Rahman, now acting chairwoman of the economics department at Framingham State, said, “I think Abdul will make a great diplomat. He is one who searches for fairness and honesty and is willing to work hard so that justice is given. . . . He is an exceptional networker, really able to pull people together, get them excited, and make change happen.’’

Momen’s appointment also won praise from members of the Bangladeshi expatriate community around Boston, some of whom have felt the sting of the extrajudicial killings and roundups of political foes that have scarred Bangladesh’s public arena in the years since independence.

Nazli Kibria, a Boston University professor whose father, a former Cabinet member, was assassinated in 2005 in a case that remains unsolved, said Momen had supported her fight for justice.

Momen lives in Ashland with his wife and three children. He has traveled to Bangladesh at least annually since he was allowed to return there.

He said he is especially excited by Hasina’s determination to raise Bangladesh out of extreme poverty and into the ranks of middle-income countries by 2021, the 50th anniversary of the nation’s founding. He said she wants to utilize digital technology to advance education and healthcare goals, and to cut the red tape that cripples growth.

Hasina’s election, Momen said, demonstrated that “Bangladeshis are very progressive, by and large. They oppose terrorism, and all forms of mullah-isms. . . . The new government wants to eliminate fanaticism, and we want US help.’’