Digital Bangladesh: A Prime ministers dream Vs Understanding the Present

Author's name: 
Prof. Syed Ahsanul Alam,Chairman-Center for good governance, University of Chittagong
Dhaka

Digital Bangladesh:
A Prime ministers dream Vs Understanding the Present by Prof. Syed Ahsanul Alam,Chairman-Center for good governance, University of Chittagong

Ironical to note that the term “Digital Bangladesh” still remains as a misunderstood concept to many. Due to the strong desire of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina the vision has been accepted with interest in the Government, private sector and as well as the politician. If I have not misunderstood Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, by using the term Digital Bangladesh ———- she emphasized on using ICT in Governance and service delivery organs both in the public and private sector.

1. Digital Bangladesh for Coping with globalization

The forces of globalization and technology are continuously reshaping our economy. The impact of information and communication technology (ICT) are giving rise to a new type of economy —— the knowledge based economy. Technology has had a crucial role in defining today’s globalized market structure. In this context, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has given the first step by declaring her vision towards “Digital Bangladesh”. Despite the fact that, many still consider this to be the dream of a Prime Minister, while others think the concept is yet vague for consumption of our mass people, yet I believe Bangladesh can make steady stride towards digitalization if guided by strategist capable to formulate short time, midterm & long term planning for the digitalization process. In the light of our previous lesson learnt the concept of “Digital Bangladesh” must be understood clearly, practically and pragmatically in the context of a economy like Bangladesh. It is necessary to mention that in the short run “Digital Bangladesh” aims at E-Governance and service delivery through utilizing ICT. But the vision “Digital Bangladesh” encompasses the whole arena of a knowledge based Digital Economy. Bangladesh can’t afford to achieve that goal in the short and medium run. I invite thinkers, technocrats and IT experts to focus on the short run issues and measures the present Government should undertake to digitalize Bangladesh. It is important to start digitalizing service delivery organs like Police, City corporation, Land Department, Tax Department, PDB, Water supply, Gas and other authorities also including sectors like Banking, Insurance, Customs, Tax Collection. Urgent steps should be taken to digitalize institutions like Bangladesh Bank, NBR, PSC, UGC, EC, ACC and other vital institution to go a step ahead towards Good Governance.

2. Phasing out the Digitalization Process

What is important for the planner is the ability to explore all the possibilities of phasing out a digitalization process for Bangladesh. We can share the experience of developing & neighboring countries. India has made giant steps towards acquiring competence in Information and Communication Technology (ICT). The success story of the Indian IT industry bears testimony to this. However, technical competence is a pre requisite for digitalization of Bangladesh economy.
Everybody knows Information technology reduces costs, saves time, improves efficiency, raises comfort levels and increases the confidence of citizens. Hence, developing countries such as Bangladesh should leverage the power of IT to leapfrog poverty barriers, and promote economic and social development. But we have to keep in mind that technology (ICT) alone won’t fix or alleviate economy, nor guarantee dynamic service delivery to citizens. It is important to understand that ICT facilities Good Governance but ICT itself don’t guarantee Good Governance.

3. Slow Paced IT revolution and the Digital Divide

Even with the slow paced IT revolution in Bangladesh, around 50% or more of our villages are still without telephones. 75% or more of our population resides in the rural areas and do not have adequate exposure to technology. A vast majority lives below the poverty line and 35% or more are illiterate. Like any other developing country a vast majority of Bangladesh population will be vulnerable to the risk of getting marginalized in the IT revolution. Logically citizens will be getting divided into people who do and people who don’t have access to ICT and the capability to use – modern information technology.
This divide exists and shall remain to exists between the cities and rural areas, between the rich and the poor, and between the educated and uneducated.

4. Digital Bangladesh – the misconception

Digital Bangladesh does not necessarily mean one man one computer. For the near future neither does it means Internet literacy for 100% population. But it indicates towards networking with all administrative units like, Upazila, Districts and Division. It definitely means bringing more citizens to the Information Highway- giving a bigger mass of the population access to information. Digital Bangladesh should be the first step towards the death of distance particularly for the rural people with the secretariat or any other powerhouse with whom the citizens are involved for Governance.

However we have to keep in mind the following assumption :

i) Bringing 17 crore citizens (approx) on the information high way will not be easy.
ii) Bringing whole public sector under a network will not be easy.
iii) Bringing economic units of private sector under a common platform will not be easy.
The aim of Digitalization in the first phase should be :
i) Ensure easier access to government forms and documents by citizens.
ii) Ensure submission of applications, forms, and complains electronically.
iii) Ensure greater access to information by citizen charter and websites.
iv) Ensure University admission process to be digitalized except the admission test.
v) Ensure greater connectivity by wireless internet.

5. Digitalization Process – Pin Pointing Priority Sectors

Sustainable progress can be achieved, only if we bring this vast majority of Bangladesh rural people on the information highway, and thus, benefit from the increased productivity that Information and communication technology offers. The anytime-anywhere and death of- distance paradigms of technology will enable better leveraging of scarce resources such as healthcare and education, agriculture and other service delivery organizations.

To create ownership of digital Bangladesh by the general public it should focus in promoting the following broad areas:

i) Health
ii) Education, ,
iii) Agriculture
iv) Other Service Delivery Organization

To enhance citizens’ participation and promoting accountability , transparency and efficiency in governance process.

i) Health
In Bangladesh, 51% of the population does not have access to essential drugs. Further, there are only 26 physicians per 100,000 population compared to 279 for US and 162 for China. ICT can help bring medical expertise to Upazilla and District headquarters. Tele-medicine, for instance may link healthcare centers in remote locations, through satellites, with super specialty hospitals at major towns / cities. Thus it can bring connectivity between patients at remote end, with specialist doctors, for medical consultations and treatment. For example a few Health care center in Bangladesh uses tele-medicine to bring health-care facilities from super specialty center abroad.

ii) Education
Distance education has tremendous potential to spread learning in any country. Elearning is a cost-effective way of providing education at a distance. This is especially important considering that around 80% of our illiterate population are from the rural areas.
In this context, it is essential that the government, the industry, NGOs and academia forms partnership to accelerate the Digitalization process. Together, they need to create an ‘enabling environment’ for the proliferation of ICT in Bangladesh. There are some basic steps that Bangladesh needs to foster online education to be offered by Open University and our National University.

iii) Agriculture
Since more than half of our population is employed in agriculture, our planner should put ICT to good use in agriculture. For example, India has led the use of remote sensing satellite information for locating irrigation projects. The Internet has been effectively used in some of the villages to ensure effective dissemination of agricultural commodity price information. The National Dairy Development Board (NDDB) in India has used IT effectively, to enhance competitiveness of the dairy industry and to provide benefits to the rural masses. Towards digital Bangladesh we can use the Indian experience of using ICT in different sectors of the agriculture.

iv) Other Service Delivery Organization
In the public sector, ICT can be used for more efficient governance. In a developing country like Bangladesh, there is a significant need for introducing transparency and efficiency in government operations. Through E-governance, the service delivery organization can effectively deliver their service to citizens. By separating the delivery of services from decision-making, the chances of corruption are reduced. Further, E-governance reduces the time in interactions with the government. For instance,
The Internet can be used as a cheap communication channel that governments can use to reach out to their citizens and vice versa. For instance, citizens can monitor the progress of various government initiatives online. ICT also enables effective planning. Simulation can be used as a good tool for what-if analysis. It helps the citizens understand the parameters of public systems (over a period of time) like pollution levels, provision of basic infrastructure – schools, water, electricity, health care, commuting times, etc.

6. Increased Connectivity

An important step is to improve connectivity. With a PC density of 2.9 per 1,000 population and a tele-density of 32 fixed lines per 1,000 population, Bangladesh needs to increase penetration in terms of PCs and communication lines. Connectivity options to the rural areas can be improved, by using wireless access. In addition, Cyber cafes in the urban centers and village information kiosks in the rural areas will enhance the IT access throughout the country.
The high cost of IT equipment accessories which acts a barrier towards proliferation of IT access needs to be lowered. Due to high tariff levels, the cost of hardware and software in Bangladesh is significantly higher as compared to the rest of the world. For instance, A PC in Bangladesh costs around 12-15 months of average per-capita income as compared to China’s 4 months and USA’s 12 days. Hence, we need to reduce the tariff levels of ICT equipment and accessories to bring even a bigger population under Internet coverage.

7. Role of Private Sector

Private companies and NGOs can partner, in order to enhance awareness and utilization of ICT at the grass-roots level. For instance, NGO’s can work to bring elementary computer literacy to the people of rural Bangladesh. They can make arrangements so that IT professionals and educators visit rural schools and help students get familiar with technology.
In addition, Bangladesh needs an efficient innovation system of industry, science and research centers and universities to create new knowledge and technology. In this regard, we need an effective higher education system that provides specialized training, education and research.

8. The language Divide

We may consider to import simputer without tax from India. Importation of new inventions such as the Simputer can further reduce costs by providing affordable computing. The Simputer was developed by scientists from the Indian Institute of Science, and a software company called Encore. One can get computing facilities at a drastically lower cost as simputer only cost US$150 per piece compared to US$ 400 for a PC. Further, it has a local language interface. This is an instance of how the scientist, academia and industry can collaborate to develop technology to suit a particular economy.
Bangladesh has a sizeable population without English literacy. Creating and maintaining locally relevant content in bangla is a challenge. Nevertheless, Bengali language content will make ICT more relevant and accessible to a broader cross-section of the population. Hence, we need to develop applications that support Bengali language. In addition, we need to develop voice applications that will let Bangladesh rural people to communicate with ICT tools using the spoken Bangla.
In Bangladesh IT literacy is critical to ensure that people can derive appropriate benefits from the technology revolution. However, at a more fundamental level, providing basic IT education is the first step towards enabling our people to use ICT. Today, only 55% of the Bangladesh population is literate. Huge subsidies, however, should be given to IT education and ICT literacy programs and not in higher education. In addition, higher education must also function in a free-market environment.

9. The Political Commitment

Our government must take proactive steps to take technology to rural citizens. However our dream towards digital Bangladesh has a long way to go. Digitalization of Bangladesh will depend how best the Government can leverage the power of ICT to increase the access to information of its population.

Author
Syed Ahsanul Alam is a Governance analyst, Professor of Marketing at the University of Chittagong and Chairman, Center for Good Governance. He is an Internationally reputed Policy Strategist on Governance. His recent administrative post includes Vice Rector( IIBT) Premier University, Director, Sadharon Bima Corporation., Treasurer. USTC (SWC), Representative of the President,USTC. He lectured widely at variousUniversities at home and abroad and has numerous International publication(See Internet) in his credit.The Author may be reached at Fax : 880-31-2550872, E-mail:professorparvez@gmail.com, Web: www.goodgovernancebd.org

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Bazlu
_______________________
AHM. Bazlur Rahman-S21BR
Chief Executive Officer
Bangladesh NGOs Network for Radio and Communication(BNNRC)
&
Member, Strategy Council
UN-Global Alliance for ICT and Development (UN GAID)

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