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Volume 4 Issue 2 | February 2009



Original Forum Editorial

Between Fundamentalism and Imperialism--Tarek Fatah
Digital Bangladesh: Going Beyond the Rhetoric-Mridul Chowdhury
Food Prices and Food Security-- Jyoti Rahman
Our Politics of Dispossession--Naeem Mohaiemen
Photo Feature: Special the world comes to Dhaka
The Future of Foreign Aid-- Fahmida Khatun
1/11: An Obituary-- Rumi Ahmed
Promises to Keep-- Syed Akhtar Mahmood
The Lost Decade-- Zakaria S. Khondker
Made in Bangladesh-- Mamun Rashid
Month in Frame


Forum Home


Digital Bangladesh: Going Beyond the Rhetoric

Mridul Chowdhury

In the lead up to the 2008 election, Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia seemed to be on a race to promise a Digital Bangladesh to the citizens. Khaleda went on to promise the "delivery of a Digital Bangladesh" much before 2021, the AL-proposed date, as if the concept is something tangible like a bridge or a highway! All this war of words indicates two things:

  • Even if those leaders do not really know what they mean by Digital Bangladesh, it is a positive sign that they are thinking that this term associates them with modernity and progressive-thinking;
  • There is a growing public demand from at least the educated section of the society to see their government place more strategic emphasis on the use of information technologies (IT) for national development.

Even after the election, the AL government has continued their rhetoric about Digital Bangladesh, albeit never clarifying what it is that they really mean. What is the threshold beyond which a country can be dubbed "digital"? What exactly is AL aiming to achieve by 2021? Granted that these are not easy answers, we, the citizens, can surely demand to get an intelligible clarification of their use of the term, and also demand to know what the AL plans to achieve in the next 5 years to realize their 2021 vision.

This piece outlines some thoughts on the concept of Digital Bangladesh and some pertinent policy issues.

Why Digital Bangladesh?
Before getting into specific issues concerning Digital Bangladesh, it is important to review the basic premises. We have difficult challenges in every sphere of our economic and social lives, and use of technologies will not necessarily make them go away. Technology is not a silver bullet; it is useful in some areas, mandatory in some and overkill in some others. The purpose of Digital Bangladesh policy-making should be to make clear distinctions between those three areas, and sometimes make hard choices if needed. The questions surrounding Digital Bangladesh are real and often politically sensitive. Should the government implement a mid-day meal program to attract students or pay for a computer in a school (a Tk. 20,000 computer can feed 15 students for a year!)? Should the government build a new bridge or computerise the Roads and Highways Department?

When resources are severely limited, these are valid and difficult questions. But these should be answered in the context of a rapidly changing world. Over the course of the last few centuries, the world has shifted from agricultural to industrial based societies, where efficiency in manufacturing has determined global economic influence. Over the last few decades, the world has been shifting from industrial to knowledge-based societies, where proficiency in creating and disseminating knowledge has been an increasingly predominant factor for national growth.

The phenomenon is well reflected through the shift in national goals of Malaysia, a country widely perceived to be on the forefront of transition countries. In 1991, the then leader Mahathir Mohamed declared that Malaysia would become a fully industrialised country by 2020. However, over the next decade, the national Vision 2020 was updated to reflect Malaysia's aim to become a "knowledge society" rather than a fully industrialised nation.

During these phases of global transition, countries which have been able to ride on the bandwagon of inevitable change have succeeded, and those which have not been able to, have fallen behind. Bangladesh government's decisions on its priorities during this on-going global transition will determine whether we will be in the category of "emerging economies" or "laggard economies."

What is Digital Bangladesh?
The concept of Digital Bangladesh should be centered around the creation of what is popularly termed as a "knowledge-based society," in which creation and exchange of "knowledge" becomes an increasingly key factor of production, and in the process reducing the relative importance of traditional factors of production such as land, labor and capital. Information and communication technologies (ICTs) are a critical component for building this knowledge-society. So, Digital Bangladesh, in that sense, is the crucial platform, the enabler for such a vision.

There are various dimensions to building a Digital Bangladesh, all of which are equally important pillars. A Digital Bangladesh may constitute the following:

Governance: A government that has the capacity to deliver services to citizens through the Internet, radio and TV and also to make its internal operations more efficient and transparent through the use of ICTs.

Education: An education sector that utilizes information technologies and communication networks for dissemination and exchange of knowledge.

Health: A health sector that makes use of ICTs for connecting relevant healthcare service providers and for connecting doctors with remote patients.

Commerce and industry: An industrial sector that uses ICTs for marketing and promotion of its products, for producing internal efficiencies, and for communication and transaction between entities.

Software and hardware industry: A vibrant ICT-based industry that is part of the global supply chain for ICT products and services, while serving as the platform for enabling the above goals.

Communication infrastructure: Last but not least, a communications infrastructure that allows ICT-based services to be deployed equitably throughout the nation.

Tanvir Ahmed/ Driknews

Measurement of change
Rhetoric and promises are all good, but unless they are translated into sincere efforts towards change, it means little. In order for the government to hold its own feet to the fire, what is needed is some measurement of change in the various components of Digital Bangladesh, without which the Prime Minister can hardly keep track of real changes and demand specific actions from the relevant government bodies. Activist organizations such as Jagoree (jagoree.org) will develop its own metrics of Digital Bangladesh and keep tab of change and make policy recommendations whenever appropriate. However, it is important that the government has an internal mechanism as well this is too dynamic a sector for traditional government bodies such as IMED (Implementation, Monitoring and Evaluation Division) to keep track of.

The Malaysian government has created something called the Knowledge Imperative Index, which keeps track of "the level of change in the formation of an information or knowledge society, arising from the impact of contemporary Information and Communication Technologies.' Although Bangladesh may not be in an advanced enough stage to develop a Knowledge Index, we can surely take the first step in developing indexes for impact of ICTs or level of 'digitization' on society to keep account of our progress towards the grand vision of Digital Bangladesh.

Administrative structure
It is apparent from the components of Digital Bangladesh listed above that we will require a holistic approach that will address all of the components systematically. An important implication of that is that the government's administrative structure should be re-organised to handle such policy-making that spans across different sectors.

The ICT Ministry and its subsidiary Bangladesh Computer Council (BCC) need to be strengthened and empowered with greater authority to make that happen. During their last tenure, the BNP government left these entities rather weak, with the ministry headed by a minister who had little political and administrative clout. The government's e-governance efforts were coordinated by the Planning Ministry and the line ministries had their own ICT-related efforts, which were often uncoordinated and unplanned. It would be a grave mistake if the AL government does not learn from the mistakes of the past BNP government.

The activities and planning of the ICT Ministry and BCC need to be well integrated with other relevant ministries such as Post and Telecommunication, Education, and Health. The ICT minister has to have enough political clout over other ministers to be demanding and sometimes directing initiatives to harness information technologies optimally. The minister also has to have enough knowledge and progressive mindset for envisioning the nature of Digital Bangladesh or the capacity to choose capable advisors. The Prime Minister's Office itself has to be closely involved in the supervision of efforts towards Digital Bangladesh -- otherwise, this issue will not get enough importance from the perspective of rest of the administration.

The government has in its control the instruments of regulation, policy and strategic financing to encourage the growth of the ICT sector, none of which the last two governments had been able to take particular advantage of. Critical policies regarding issues such as Right to Information, online payment gateways and community radio were not enacted. The Export Promotion Bureau funding for encouraging software exports was largely misused, and so was the R&D budget of the ICT Ministry. The AL government needs to seriously take stock of the shortcomings of the past administrations in order to avoid repeating mistakes.

Azizur Rahim Peu/driknews

The government may also consider creating a high-powered advisory body for realising the vision of Digital Bangladesh -- a body of technocrats from different relevant areas who have the requisite expertise and vision. The Indian government, for instance, has created a high-powered advisory body called the National Knowledge Commission that reports directly to the prime minister. It is chaired by Sam Pitroda, a former advisor of Rajiv Gandhi widely regarded as one of the architects of the telecommunication boom in India, and its membership is composed of academics, entrepreneurs and top bureaucrats.

Role of NGOs and grassroots organisations
In its vision to create a Digital Bangladesh, the government has to recognise that NGOs and grassroots organisations are a critical stakeholder. Development of telecommunication infrastructure is almost meaningless if there are not adequate locally relevant content to pass through it. Knowledge has to be disseminated in Bangla, sometimes distilled in a format that is easily accessible and comprehensible. These are critical tasks for the creation of a Digital Bangladesh, which some NGOs such as D.Net and Amader Gram already have a head-start in. Another critical function of NGOs is to serve as watchdogs of the government and to voice demands from citizens about ICT-based services and relevant policies. In that light, the government should seriously consider partnering up with relevant NGOs for joint planning and execution of ICT-based initiatives rather than treat them as adversaries or competitors.

Role of the private sector
The sooner the government realises fully that creation of Digital Bangladesh is very much a collaborative effort, where the private sector is a key player, the better. There have been past successful models of outsourcing some non-critical government services to the private sector for efficiency and reduction of corruption and citizen harassment, in areas such as railway ticketing, tracking of Hajis etc. This effort has to be continued and expanded drastically. Services such as utility billing, which are amenable for ICT-based delivery, should be outsourced to the private sector. While development of the ICT industry is a noble goal and generates employment of knowledge-based workers, it has to be kept in mind that it does not directly impact the creation of a Digital Bangladesh. The ICT sector has to be utilized for efficiency in domestic organizations, particularly the government, which will ultimately lead to better services for citizens.

Digital divide?
The million dollar question which I am sure is lurking in the minds of many readers is whether a Digital Bangladesh will really benefit the disadvantaged of the society or will it further widen the difference between the haves and have-nots. It is a valid question and our approach to Digital Bangladesh will determine which direction it will go. To ensure that the benefits are equitably shared, the government should keep in mind at least the following considerations.

  • Priority should be given to automating government services that benefit a large section of the population, such as land record digitisation.
  • A common pitfall to over-emphasise on technologies such as computers and the Internet should be avoided. It is apparent that these technologies will be out of reach for much of the population in the near future. Instead, emphasis should be placed on other communication technologies such as community radio and mobile devices such as handhelds and mobile phones.
  • Development of web, radio and TV content that is comprehensible by large sections of the population should be emphasised and encouraged.
  • Special incentives should be given to the private sector and NGOs to develop ICT-based services specifically targeted towards the under-served.

The government has to realise that Digital Bangladesh is a vision that can be turned into reality only through joint efforts by all sectors -- if they think that it is something that the government will deliver to the people on their own, they will start from the wrong premise and Digital Bangladesh may always remain nothing more than a politician's game of words and hollow promises.

Mridul Chowdhury is a co-founder of Jagoree, CEO of ClickDiagnostics, a socially responsible global tele-health company and former e-Governance Consultant to the Ministry of Planning.

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