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OP-ED: Digital Bangladesh: What it is and what it isn’t

  • Published at 12:18 am December 12th, 2020
digital computers
Photo: BIGSTOCK

Technology is the great enabler that helps us reach our goals quicker

What is it that you think of when you hear Digital Bangladesh? What is the first thing that goes through your mind?

The term “Digital Bangladesh” is now ubiquitous. Ask any housewife in Bhurungamari or a student of grade three in Bandarban or a honey collector in the Sundarbans -- they have heard the term. 

Not only that, chances are that they have encountered it when they tried to get a service from the government in the last few years. In fact, the first visible demonstration of Digital Bangladesh happened when the Honourable Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina launched 4,500+ Digital Centres countrywide from Char Kukri Mukri in 2010.

Digital Bangladesh started as a cornerstone of the Bangladesh Awami League’s election manifesto in 2008, and, as a surprise to most naysayers, has become a driving concept in our country’s socio-economic development, and not just technologically, for the last 12 years.

Digital Bangladesh has also been at the core of the government’s Covid-19 response; be it through telemedicine and mobilizing doctors, providing education to millions of school-going children, or expanding the social safety net and disseminating cash and resources to the needy, such initiatives have been made possible because of Digital Bangladesh. There is no denying that.

As we look to end 2020 still very much battling this global pandemic, 2021, besides hopefully ending this pandemic, is a landmark year for Bangladesh as it marks 50 years of independence after the glorious Liberation War of 1971. Additionally, it is also a year of reckoning and assessment -- to see if Digital Bangladesh, in tandem with Vision 2021, was a success or failure. 

However, to narrow the 12 years of hard work, strategizing, planning, and implementing countless initiatives and undertakings down to definitives such as “success” or “failure” would not only be a disservice, but it would also not be an accurate representation of what Digital Bangladesh stands for. 

Dispelling the myth of Digital Bangladesh

Have the following questions ever registered in your mind: What has Digital Bangladesh meant for me? What effect has it had on my life? Has there been any difference in my life between 2008 and now? Where is Digital Bangladesh?

You are not alone if you answer “nothing, none, no, nowhere” to the four questions above. However, since you are reading this article in the Dhaka Tribune, Digital Bangladesh, while certainly relevant to you, is not designed for you. You are not the target audience. 

Kindly allow me to explain.

“Digital Bangladesh,” to some, immediately means a futuristic Bangladesh, at the very least, one that is internet-enabled. 5G internet. 100% smartphone penetration. 100% high-speed internet penetration. Smart homes with smart appliances. Artificial intelligence in our everyday lives. Robots doing all our tasks. The Internet of Things. Some would venture out to say “merging of the physical, the digital, and the biological,” repeating after Professor Klaus Schwab of the World Economic Forum.

That is the general expectation from certain sects of the economy -- dare I say, the “privileged” class.

Make no mistake about it, we have made tremendous strides when it comes to internet penetration over the past decade, mostly riding from 2G to 4G, and going from about 1% penetration to over 60% penetration in the last 12 years, while the cost of internet access has become 1% of what it used to be just before the declaration of Digital Bangladesh. Yes, 1% -- not a typo!

The ICT industry in Bangladesh has also experienced tremendous growth, with revenue from ICT related work has jumped from $25 million to a whopping $1 billion, with the number only increasing by the year. Our e-commerce sector has rapidly expanded, and coupled with mobile financial services and the huge adoption drive triggered by the pandemic, it is only going to get bigger. We have even managed to send our very own satellite into space. 

However, what is often forgotten is that the majority of Bangladesh does not belong to the privileged class. The average reader of the Dhaka Tribune is NOT the average Bangladeshi. The average Bangladeshi, in the villages, in the Union Parishads, in the upazilas, isn’t thinking about AI, or 5G internet, or robots, and is frankly not close to being ready for them either, be it due to cost, accessibility, or even skill.

Those Bangladeshis are just trying to make their lives a bit better, are trying to get closer to the “digital” lives that their richer, more educated, urban counterparts are living. 

In a sense, if Digital Bangladesh started with the urban elite, it would only result in expanding this socio-economic divide.

This is the truest essence of Digital Bangladesh, to try and help those people bridge the gap that undoubtedly exists between the richer echelons of society and the masses across the country. 

The “elitist” view of Digital Bangladesh places the focus on “digital” when, in reality, it was always -- ALWAYS -- about Bangladesh and the Bangladeshi -- Bangabandhu’s “sonar mati” and “sonar manush”.

Digital Bangladesh has always been about improving Bangladesh, about reaching “Sonar Bangla,” of us building an equitable society with equitable distribution of services. The digital aspect of it is just the means to an end, as technology is the great enabler that allows us to reach our goals quicker.

As such, the primary challenge of Digital Bangladesh was not to improve the internet, or to facilitate e-commerce platforms, or to usher in robots and AI. Rather, it was about designing digital solutions that would help the masses, those without internet, those without smartphones, and help bridge that “digital divide” -- one which undoubtedly exists and threatens to widen. 

We must remember that it is ineffective to design a solution without sincerely knowing the problem; one must always diagnose the problem first before devising a solution. Similarly, we must also remember that development means nothing if it’s not equitable. If the major cities keep moving ahead while the rural population -- which remains the lion’s share of the population -- remains stagnant, is that even progress?

Trickle-down economics doesn’t always work. Thankfully, we didn’t follow the economist Art Laffer when designing Digital Bangladesh. Inspired by Bangabandhu’s philosophy and the honourable prime minister’s vision, we designed it from the bottom up. The Digital Centre in Char Kukri Mukri is a prime example of that. 

Out of the nearly 7,000 Digital Centres across the country in all union parishads, paurashavas, and city corporations, the Union Digital Centres, popularly known as UDCs to the villagers, serve the highest number of people and generate the most profit for the micro-entrepreneurs who run them.

Keeping that in mind, the national emergency hotline, 333, is among the most notable of examples of a digital service that catered to everyone in the country, not just a select few, for though smartphone and internet penetration remain relatively low, mobile phone penetration is quite significant. As for 333’s contribution, the story below highlights just how impactful it has been.

Lives saved. Societies transformed

It is Friday, July 12, 2019. Aisha, a 15-year-old girl from Chandpur wakes up early in the morning to help her mother with household chores, just as she always does. However, on this Friday morning, she quickly realizes that not all appears to be as per usual.

Today, she is not required to work at all. She is elated. But her mother is being unusually nice to her. Something feels off. She is given a bright red sari and jewelry. Though a bit confused at first, Aisha is a smart girl. She realizes what it is that is about to happen -- she is about to be married off. She wants to run off but cannot muster the courage. Where could a 15-year-old girl go on her own?

Aisha remembers an ad on TV for the national helpline: 333. Desperate and hysterical, she somehow manages to get hold of her father’s mobile phone which he left behind when he went to Jumma, and promptly calls the number.

To her utter surprise, not only does the call go through, but is immediately forwarded to a human being, the Upazila Nirbahi Officer and Executive Magistrate Mamota Afrin, who shows up at her house within the hour. Aisha’s marriage is stopped. A mobile court fines Aisha’s father Tk30,000.

Aisha is one of thousands of young girls whose marriages were stopped and whose lives have all but been saved by these three dialed digits -- 333 -- since it was introduced by a2i and launched by the honourable ICT advisor to the honourable prime minister in 2018. 

In many ways, the story of Aisha is the story of Digital Bangladesh. A story of unprecedented development and innovation of Bangladesh, for Bangladesh, by Bangladeshis. 

More recently, with the outbreak of the pandemic and the country in the middle of a nationwide general holiday, the same 333 national helpline was repurposed to enable millions of people fearful and stuck at home, to dial in, at first to report Covid-19 symptoms to enable the government to track disease progression. Then, based on their outcry for help, it was used for urgent food relief and doctor’s consultation over the phone. That’s when 333 evolved into the country’s largest telemedicine service with nearly 4,500 doctors providing services pro bono round the clock.

333 has proven to be a remarkable example of the Digital Bangladesh ethos of inclusive innovation -- being citizen-centric rather than technology-driven and creating critical national infrastructure that is focused on leaving no one behind, especially during moments of crises.

Yes, it’s also about hitting certain milestones, one more step taken in our journey to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and emerge on the global stage as a prosperous, poverty-free country where no one is left behind.

But above all, it is a story of hope. 

Vision 2041: The future we aspire to

An impossibility that was made possible in eight years was set in motion when John F Kennedy made his historic speech in May 1961, urging the American nation to band together to set foot on the moon. 

Another impossibility was achieved in the form of independent Bangladesh in nine months when Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman instructed 70 million of his countrymen in March 1971 to “build a fortress in each and every home and face the enemy with whatever you have.” 

The more recent impossibility that became a reality was triggered by Honourable Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s call to collective action to the nation in December 2008 to build a middle-income country and a knowledge economy by 2021 -- the process which became “Digital Bangladesh.”

In all these three instances of turning an impossibility into a reality was the realization that the nation possessed the resources and talents necessary to make that leap. After that realization, it was a matter of aligning the right leadership in many levels within the government, private sector, civil society, academia, media, and citizenry to paint a long-term vision, set short and medium-term targets, and manage resources and time to achieve them.

Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s words uttered in 1974 in front of world leaders at the 29th UN General Assembly still ring amazingly true today after close to five decades: “… we will look to a world where humanity is capable of great success in the era of astounding advances in science and technology … By the equitable distribution of all the resources and technical knowledge of the world, the door to such welfare will be opened where every person will have the minimum guarantee of a happy and respectable life.” 

Bangabandhu hoped to see “astounding advances in science and technology” creating “equitable distribution.” This welfare philosophy is powerfully reflected in the Digital Bangladesh 2021 clarion call of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, which has led to remarkable progress. 

Digital Bangladesh focused on taking services to citizens’ doorsteps, being implemented with direct implementation guidance of its architect Sajeeb Wazed, the honourable ICT advisor to the honourable prime minister and relentless monitoring by the Honourable Minister of State for ICT Zunaid Ahmed Palak.

As disheartening as 2020 has been, and as much of a road-bump as it has been to Bangladesh’s development journey, we must remain undeterred if we are to achieve the SDGs by 2030 and Vision 2041.

Certainly, if we are indeed to become a prosperous, developed, poverty-free, and equitable nation by 2041, the next two decades will require unprecedented innovation, for the world itself is set to undergo unparalleled transformation, the likes of which human civilization has never experienced before. 

Everything will change: Starting from how we will deliver quality healthcare and education to all, how we will be ahead of the tectonic shift in the global job market, how we will eradicate poverty, how we will tackle climate change and ride out the next disaster, and how we will help our neighbours and the entire human race. In fact, we will have to deeply think about how we remain human.

For now, however, we remain in the present, and on Digital Bangladesh Day, we gather strength from our many achievements of the past, reflect on our humbling experience of the present, and aspire to innovate for the future.

We hope to build our “Dream Bangladesh,” our “Sonar Bangla,” via Digital Bangladesh.

Anir Chowdhury is a US techpreneur turned Bangladeshi govpreneur serving as the Policy Advisor of a2i in ICT Division and Cabinet Division supported by UNDP.

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