Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina‘s dream of a ‘Digital Bangladesh‘ is moving towards its goal in quick pace. The ambitious programme is rapidly transforming the country towards the national goal of building a Golden Bengal – poverty free, steadily progressive and steeped in democratic values – as envisioned by the Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
Starting from healthcare system, education, online business has completely changed the face of the country. Many of the new government’s efforts ride on technological support.The cities of Bangladesh, including its capital, turn ‘Hi-Fi’ with lots of Free Wi-Fi Hotspots. Digital Bangladesh has created a global buzz with its massive outreach and innovative solutions. Bangladesh is now ready to cooperate with other countries to improve cybersecurity.
Digital Bangladesh with Vision 2021 is a big impetus for the use of digital technology in the country. The National ICT Policy-2009 was developed with a view to achieving the middle-income status for the nation by 2021 and the developed country status by 2041.
Prime minister’s son Sajeeb Wazed Joy spearheads the ‘Digital Bangladesh’ campaign, the main election slogan of ruling Awami League, when it came to power in December 2008.
As of August, the mobile internet subscriptions stood at 7.19 crore, according to the latest report of Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission published on October 4, this year. According to the report, total number of active internet connections stood at 7.71 crore, with mobile internet leading the way with 93.18 per cent connections in August. The report also said that by August, the total number of active mobile subscribers reached 13.93 crore.
Top-Down Strategy Coupled with Bottom-Up Implementation
ICTs allow unprecedented leapfrogging – something that can disproportionately fast-track the rate of development of countries. This realisation has prompted the prime minister’s office’s Access to Information (a2i) Programme, with technical support from the UNDP and the USAID, to directly spearhead the digital transformation. The Cabinet Division provides coordination amongst all line ministries and field administration for widespread administrative buy-in; the Local Government Division hosts one-stop digital centres in all of the thousands of local government offices and institutions across the country for deeper citizens’ access; the ICT Division and Posts and Telecommunications Division are aggressively laying connectivity in all nooks and corners of the country.All line ministries have signed Annual Performance Agreements that incorporate simplification of service delivery along with digitisation.
To ensure that the dividends of a Digital Bangladesh’s progress were shared equitably by all, especially the most vulnerable of citizens, the formulated a 4-pronged strategy: i) developing human resource that can take a Digital Bangladesh forward; ii) ensuring high-speed internet connectivity to extend access to Digital Bangladesh for all citizens; iii) establishing a Digital Government to improve and increase pro-poor services; and iv) leveraging ICTs to promote access to markets by disadvantaged producers and businesses.
Connecting the Unconnected
Ensuring access to a Digital Bangladesh for all citizens, poor or rich, literate or illiterate, urban or rural is another foundation stone of the incumbent government’s strategy. The key objective of this component was to find sustainable channels so that people could benefit from all that the country had to offer in a manner that was easy to use and affordable. The price of international internet bandwidth was reduced by about 90 per cent in the last few years making the internet affordable to the marginalised.
3G services are being provided in telecom and internet services while 4G is in the pipeline. The ICT Division has taken a number of large initiatives to develop robust high speed connectivity within the government, to allow much more transparent and faster decision making.
Bringing Higher Accountability, Transparency and Efficiency to Government
The key objective of pursuing the establishment of a ‘Digital Government’ was to leverage technology to ensure delivery of much needed services to those who
were the least served. Thousands of ICT-empowered one-stop service delivery outlets popularly known as‘Digital Centres’ are operating in rural areas, with financing from the government, private sector and local entrepreneurs. The centres were established with the aim to a) bring services to citizens’ doorsteps, b) redistribute knowledge and expertise from urban to rural, c) pave the way for an inclusive economic sphere, and d) create linkages to government processes through decentralised local governance.
Many ministries redesigned their services to make them ‘e-deliverable’through these centres. Every month, over 4 million hard-to-reach citizens electronically access diverse critical services including over 60 public services such as birth registration, land records, exam results, and registration for work permits abroad through these digital centres conveniently located only about three km from a typical rural citizen’s home, whereas district government offices can be 40 km away.
Innovations like ‘e-Filing’ and Digital Land Records system replaced archaic bureaucratic traditions that saw a service request by a citizen who spent numerous months crisscrossing myriad government officers’ desks. The entire process now takes place online. Villagers used to have to travel to the district government office multiple times to get a certified copy of their land records, the rural Digital Centres now allow online submission of requests and doorstep delivery saving tens of millions of dollars and precious workdays for them.
Following launching of the National e-lnfopedia, the country’s largest e-content repository of livelihood information in the vernacular was created in partnership with 300+ universities. Moreover, the government created one single address, www.bangladesh.gov.bd by virtually uniting all 42,000 of its offices, detailed information on nearly 400 services from the ministries and agencies and a thousand government forms in one virtual location.
Possibly one of the largest government information portals under one umbrella in the world, this is the most visible implementation of proactive information disclosure under the Right to Information Act in Bangladesh.
The legal and policy facilitation for all this was achieved through the formulation of functional laws, policies and directives. The age-old Secretariat instructions, considered the bible for the bureaucracy, were revamped to include massive digitisation.
The year, 1998, was a milestone for eHealth in Bangladesh as the first eHealth project was launched by Swinfen Charitable, a not-for-profit institute. It involved collaboration between the Centre for the Rehabilitation of the Paralysed (CRP) in Bangladesh and the Royal Navy Hospital Haslar, in the UK. The same year, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) initiated its first eHealth initiative. Just a year later, the Telemedicine Reference Centre Limited (TRCL), a private company, initiated the use of mobile phones for healthcare delivery. In 2001, a professional coalition was established named the Bangladesh Telemedicine Association (BTA). This provided a platform for the on-going and sporadic eHealth initiatives in the country. A similar platform called the Sustainable Development Network Programme (SDNP) was formed in 2003, aiming to establish better collaboration and understanding between the service providers. Later in 2006, TRCL paired with GrameenPhone (GP) and initiated a mobile phone based call centre for subscribers called Health Line:789. A number of NGOs, including BRAC, Sajida Foundation and DNet subsequently developed an interest in eHealth and mHealth. The main focus of their interest was on enhancing the efficiency of project implementation, for example by monitoring and evaluating interventions. Later, many private entities became involved in telemedicine and/or patient record systems in their clinics and hospitals.
mHealth, also called mobile health, is a novel approach that uses mobile technologies such as mobile phones and Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) to deliver health services and information to patients. The mobile revolution in Bangladesh has created enormous opportunity to implement mHealth to transform the way healthcare is delivered in the country.
An on-going project calls Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action (MAMA) delivers related information to pregnant mothers and their family members through voice and text message every week of pregnancy. The project is currently being implemented in four districts of Bangladesh on a pilot basis and shows certain challenges and lots of potential to provide health information in better and easier ways.
Creating strong linkage with mHealth solutions, people are brought from home to hospital in greater number.
Telemedicine is the use of telecommunication and information technologies to provide clinical healthcare at a distance. It helps eliminate distance barriers and can improve access to medical services that would often not be consistently available in distant rural communities. It is also used to save lives in critical care and emergency situations.
In Bangladesh, clinical healthcare is provided to lots of patients using the technology. As for example, the private-owned Telemedicine Reference Centre Limited (TRCL) has provided some 11 million telephone consultations in five years. According to TRCL, only 40 per cent of the patients had to be referred to a doctor, seven per cent of whom required hospitalisation.
The ‘National ICT in Education Roadmap’ was able to take the nation towards unprecedented adoption of ICTs in both public and private classrooms. Multimedia classrooms were established in thousands of primary schools, secondary
schools and madrassas across the country. The use of information and communication technology in teaching and learning helped improve students’ learning outcomes and boost access to education.
The widespread use of the internet and the revolution in ICT led to new methods of teaching and learning.
The prime minister officially launched new interactive digital multimedia content to cover entire primary school curriculum on February 14, 2016. The digital content covered the entire curriculum of primary education (grades 1-5) and it is accessible on any device. Through this initiative, all of Bangladesh’s 20 million primary school students are able to access their entire curriculum online via any device. In public schools, it is being accessed on the computers that the government has already integrated into over 1,500 digital classrooms across the country as part of its Digital Bangladesh vision. Teachers are also trained on the use of multimedia projectors and digital devices. The government transformed 17 books made by the National Curriculum of Textbook Board (NCTB) into interactive multimedia digital education content. The multimedia content created an innovative and engaging learning environment, moving away from the traditional teacher-centric classroom. The multimedia based interactive digital content is an approach to make education more interesting and joyful for children. There are multimedia classrooms in 5,000/1500 schools and the government has a plan to reach 65,000 by 2021, thus contribute creating a Digital Bangladesh.
As per World Bank (WB), Bangladesh launched its electronic government procurement portal (e-GP) in 2011 to allocate public funds more effectively and transparently, and improve ways to do business with the private sector. Since August 2015, more than 28,000 tenders valued at about $3 billion have been processed online and time required to process a contract has decreased substantially.
Every year, the Bangladesh government spends around $10 billion dollars on public procurement, a major part of its annual development programme, the WB story said. In the past, no uniform regulatory framework for procurement existed. Inefficiencies and inappropriate use of funds reportedly cost the country over 1.5% of GDP growth a year. Out-dated, lengthy, confusing and complex bureaucratic processes made public procurement cumbersome.
Public funds can be used effectively for the people only when the procurement system is transparent and efficient. In the last few years, the country has been shifting away from traditional procurement practices to digitising the process.
Public Procurement reforms increase efficiency and transparency:
The Government of Bangladesh has brought sustained and systematic changes to transform its public procurement environment under Public Procurement Reform Project II (PPRPII). The WB said that the Bangladesh government had introduced four pillars of change:
• Institution Building: It established the Central Procurement Technical Unit to regulate public procurement.
• Regulatory Framework: The Parliament passed a Public Procurement Act detailing out rules for all types of procurements.
• Institutionalisation & Professionalisation of Capacity:
The government instituted a pioneering capacity development programme with 18 courses for government and non-government actors; an international accreditation programme; and a Masters in Procurement. So far, 15,500 government and non-government officials have received trainings.
• Digitising Procurement: In 2011, the government launched electronic government procurement (e-GP) which was rolled out in 2012 across four key public sector agencies: the Bangladesh Water Development Board, the Bangladesh Rural Electrification Board, Local Government Engineering Department, Roads and Highways Division. These sectors together spend about half of Bangladesh’s annual development programme.
w era in public procurement:
e-GP has changed the face of public procurement in Bangladesh. Now, public procurement is conducted through a single web portal from beginning to end. Bidders do not need to submit realms of papers anymore. They can submit tender applications and track key milestones online from anywhere in the world, at any time. The tenders are also opened, evaluated and approved on line. Once a contract is awarded; winners’ details, tender numbers, and contract values are all published on the web. Even procurement system performance is electronically measured. The tenders can access 24/7 helplines if needed. With greater transparency and increased competition among bidders and decreased award contracting time, the e-GP has paved a new way of doing business by the private sector. The cost of doing business and risk of collusive practices is also going down significantly.
The e-GP system is gradually becoming self-sustaining with the revenues it generate. As of August 2015, e-GP processed over 28,000 tenders worth about US$3 billion.
Over years, procuring entities, the business community, civil society, and the media have all embraced e-GP, which has helped spur growth of the system. The government has also initiated a grassroots campaign to change the behaviour of those involved with public procurement. As a consequence, computer literacy has gone up; creating new job opportunities at the local level with reforms accelerating growth and improving people’s standard of living.
According to Bill Gates, bKash already revolutionised banking for the poor. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the world’s largest philanthropic organisation, in the past gave away money, much of it to fight infectious diseases. Now, it has a new strategy of investing in technologies that can make goods and services affordable to the poor. Bloomberg’s Erik Schatzker sat down with Bill Gates and travelled to Bangladesh to see how bKash, invested in by the Gates foundation, is transforming finance.
Bill Gates thinks that bKash revolutionised banking for the poor, reported Bloomberg Television.
“Banking is more fundamental than I realised. There have been attempts: the microfinance groups, co-operatives, but the transaction fees have always been too high. Until we get those services down with very low fees onto the cell phone in digital mode then banking will always be for those who are better off,” Gates said in a conversation with Erik.
CEO Kamal Quadir and his brother Iqbal Quadir founded bKash in 2011. They had 5 million dollars-profit from a previous startup and a plan to bring mobile money to the unbanked.
“This is the country which has a 200 billion dollar economy right now and the country was growing back then, so it’s not that it’s only charity, it is pure economic opportunity” says Kamal Quadir, the CEO of bKash in his interview with Bloomberg Television’s reporter.
With two million accounts after its first full year in operation, the company saw an explosion in usage, reports Bloomberg Television.
Workers who used to take time off or hire agents to carry cash back to their villages can now wire it instantly with a few simple clicks on a mobile phone.
bKash just isn’t for money transfers. It’s a payroll system, a mobile wallet and a savings account; all digital, all affordable, all regulated by the central bank says Erik in his video report. bKash is by far the fastest growing mobile service provider.
On the streets of Dhaka, bKash is everywhere. The company has more than 100 thousand agents across the country. Withdrawals are how it makes money. They cost 1.85pc. The Gates Foundation initially thought BKash as a case for charity. Then in 2014 it became an investor.
Now Quadir has even bigger ambitions-loans, insurance. In short may be international expansion, reports Erik Schatzker on Bloomberg Television.
At present, Bangladesh is being regarded as a role model worldwide. The United Nations (UN) now seeks expertise from Bangladesh to digitise other poor countries. Many countries also came to Bangladesh and seek cooperation to make their countries digitised.
Human development is a process of expanding possibilities and choices through widening human capacity.
The impact of this digitisation process on human development is visible already –
Bangladesh’s social indicators such as gender equity, women’s empowerment, life expectancy, primary school enrolment, reduction in child and maternal mortality rates and health hazards are remarkably better than those of neighbouring countries with much higher GDPs.
In recognition of these remarkable achievements, Bangladesh received the MDG Award from the UN in 2010 for reduction of child mortality; South-South Visionary Award in 2011, also from the UN, for best use of ICT in the health sector; an award from the International Organisation of South-South Cooperation in 2013 for special contribution to poverty reduction; Global ICT Excellence Award from World IT and Services Alliance in 2014; and the World Summit on the Information Society Award from ITU in 2014 and 2015 for best use of ICT for information and service delivery to the underserved.
The writer is a columnist