The government’s Access to Information project is a game changer
Not long ago, in 2005, one out of every four people in Bangladesh would go to bed hungry. By the end of 2017, however, it is projected that less than one person in every 10 would be skipping a meal each day.
Bangladesh has reduced poverty from 40% in 2005 to 24.3% in 2016. It is only proof of the veracity of our measures that we continue to progress beyond the Millennium Development Goal deadline of 2015 to halve poverty and hunger.
Hence, it is little surprise that Bangladesh is dubbed a development wonder — a role model for eliminating hunger.
But since the focus has shifted towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), this discussion will strive to underpin how Bangladesh continues to achieve its development goals largely through the effective diffusion of Information and Communications Technologies (ICT).
The uniqueness of this story is that the Bangladesh government is not doing it alone, but facilitating an environment that encourages the people to contribute to progress.
We will focus on three strategic innovations here among many, that would help achieve certain SDGs: Ending poverty (SDG 1), ensuring inclusive and equitable education and universal learning opportunities (SDG 4), achieving gender equality, and women’s empowerment (SDG 5), promoting inclusive and sustainable economic growth, productive employment and decent work (SDG 8), and reducing inequality (SDG 10).
Translated into monetary terms, the Digital Centres have saved poor Bangladeshis more than $1 billion
Digital centres for rural populations
One of the large-scale innovations of the Access to Information Project (a2i) is the Digital Centre, a one-stop shop for digital needs, located conveniently within 4km of a village.
There are currently 5,000 one-stop Digital Centres throughout the country, which ensure that rural people, including women, people with disabilities, and the elderly, regardless of their literacy, computer skills, or location, have effective access to vital information and services.
Digital Centres have substantially reduced the average 20km commute to the sub-district office and the 35km journey to the district office.
These centers, run by “citizen entrepreneurs” jointly with local elected representatives, provide free and paid service using modern technology.
Services include land records, birth registration, telemedicine, passport, and overseas job applications — as well as mobile financial services, insurance, and online training.
Let’s say, seven years ago a certain service used to cost a poor villager Tk100, took 100 hours to deliver, and required five visits to the district or sub-district office.
A study shows that it now costs Tk27, takes 15 hours and requires three visits. Translated into monetary terms, the Digital Centres have saved poor Bangladeshis more than $1 billion.
The Teachers’ Portal for school and college teachers is an online social platform with modern, far-reaching supplementary tools to traditional teacher-training methods.
Over 70% of the 222,695 teachers who are members of this portal have been trained to operate multimedia classrooms.
Active participation is quite evident from the almost 59,000 blog entries.
Over 138,000 monthly active users generate about 2.2 million page views.
The portal now has over 35,000 Multimedia Classrooms (MMCs) which are equipped with one laptop with internet connection and multi-media projector, quite literally revolutionising education at the grassroots.
Having joined the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI), the largest global coalition that works to reduce internet cost, Bangladesh will be able to ascertain the main obstacles to cheap internet connectivity and remedy the situation through sound policies and regulations.
With over 67 million cheap and available internet connections, Bangladesh has spawned a wave of tech-savvy youth whose initiatives are contributing to Bangladesh’s progress towards the SDGs besides the government innovations and interventions.
Internet expansion has made Bangladesh the second most favourite country for freelancing according to the Oxford Internet Institute.
A recent report found that there were more than 650,000 freelancers in Bangladesh registered on Upwork alone, and in 2013, they earned $21 million on the website. That figure could only have grown since, claims the same report.
Easy internet access has led to a league of extraordinary entrepreneurs whose tech-based startups will help the e-commerce industry employ over 10 million people within 10 years.
“The Amazing Bangladesh Story” is merely the tip of the iceberg.
Despite overwhelming challenges that include climate change fallouts, terrorism, and the more recent Rohingya refugee crisis, Bangladesh is marching forward to fulfill its dream — of our Sonar Bangla or Golden Bengal — a dream on which we never gave up.
Anir Chowdhury is the policy advisor of the a2i (Access to Information) Program at the Prime Minister’s Office, Bangladesh. In his 23-year career, he co-founded several software and service companies in the US and Bangladesh focused on enterprise management and IT strategy for Fortune 500 corporations. This article previously appeared on The World’s Bank’s website.