Going Digital in Bangladesh

“Our vision is to make Bangladesh digital in 2021.”
The quote is from the Election Manifesto of the Awami League, elected to office in 2008 with Sheikh Hasina, daughter of Bangladesh's first president, becoming prime minister. The pledge sounds appealing but how do you make it happen especially in this South Asian nation of 167 million (IMF 2011) where bureaucracy, lines and hassles for citizens are ingrained. Change is starting to come through the Access to Information Programme or as it is widely known, A2I. This United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) supported project is led by the national director, the energetic M. Nazrul Islam Khan, Secretary to the Prime Minister. Mr. Khan is zealous in his desire to reduce hassles for ordinary citizens through the application of ICT to government services.
UISC services
Since its start in 2007, A2I has launched dozens of Quick Wins—citizen oriented e-services where pilots can be quickly implemented and successful ones scaled up. One example is the Union Information Service Center (UISC) which have been installed in all 4,498 of Bangladesh's Unions, the country's lowest administrative division. They were inaugurated with great fanfare in November 2010 by the Prime Minister and Helen Clark, former Prime Minister of New Zealand and head of the UNDP.
UISC entrepreneurs
Operated by a team of two entrepreneurs including at least one woman, the UISC offers services such as Internet access, e-mail, video calls, downloading forms, scanning, printing and digital photography.  In addition the UISCs provide a growing number of value-added services such as mobile recharges and for the first time money transfers via mobile phones. There is also growing access to Bangla content. The entrepreneurs are responsible for operating costs and charge a fee for services to ensure sustainability. The initial equipment and a room were provided by local governments. The average revenue for a UISC was US$40 in July 2011, a little less than the average per capita income. Considering that the UISCs are less than a year old and the number of services is growing, the future looks positive for sustainability for most. Some three million people were making use of the UISCs with a target of 20 million people by 2016. The UISCs are essentially the main source of information services for Bangladesh's rural population who constitute about three quarters of the population.

Multimedia Classroom
The Multimedia Classroom uses a laptop with a projector and screen to assist teaching different subjects in secondary schools. It is an ideal tool for illustrating topics such as the respiratory system or the rotation of planets given the shortage of science laboratories and illustrated textbooks. Conceived as a Quick Win by the A2I staff and the Ministry of Education, the Asian Development Bank has been brought on board as partner to provide resources for teacher training. So far around 1,000 teachers have been trained with some 50,000 targeted over the next few years. The equipment is purchased by the schools. The Multimedia Classroom is the first step in Bangladesh's plans to eventually provide computer labs in all schools. According to a preliminary impact study of the Multimedia Classroom, the amount of Bangla content used in schools has increased significantly and students are more attentive.


e-Purjee is a Quick Win aimed at the agricultural sector. It refers to the pink sheet of onionskin paper—the purjee—used for the last 200 years to inform sugar cane farmers of when to bring their product to the mill. The paper purjee often got lost or found its way to rent seeking middlemen. As a result some sugar cane farmers never received their purjee or had to pay for it. The mills suffered with a mismatch between supply and capacity. e-Purjee is an SMS-based system informing farmers to bring in their cane. Farmers can either register their mobile phone number—increasingly widespread in rural areas—or that of a relative or friend. After a successful trial, e-Purjee was extended to some 200,000 farmers and all 15 of the country's sugar cane mills. Sugar production rose 62% percent following the introduction of e-Purjee and farmers are benefitting from a more transparent system.

Another innovative application is the District E-Service Center (DESC). Bangladesh is divided into 64 districts. Citizens must apply at District Headquarters for various licenses and certificates. This had been burdensome with middlemen benefitting from a lack of transparency and district offices overwhelmed with the paper-based system. The DESC allows citizens to file requests online or directly at the District Center where the paperwork is scanned and entered into the system. Citizens are given a receipt or sent a tracking number by SMS.

District E-Service Center (DESC), Jessore
The DESC was piloted in the Jessore District and the results were impressive with the office able to handle a greater number of requests and turn them around much quicker than before. One reason is the new "dashboard" tool developed for the project used by district officers to monitor requests and investigate backlogs. The DESC has been implemented in ten districts with all 64 slated to receive the system by the end of 2011.
Results before and after introduction of DESC
As part of the DESC implementation, land records dating back many years are being digitized. That alone makes the project worthwhile just to avoid having to go retrieve old records from dusty archives. Stacked on shelves in multiple rooms the dark, brittle paper files look like they are slowly disappearing. A fire would be a disaster and few people know the filing system; if they are not around it can take hours to retrieve a file.

E-services are leveraging on growing mobile access—80 million subscriptions at August 2011 according to the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission and according to the Bureau of Statistics, a household penetration rate of 64% in 2010 (up from just 11% in 2005).  For example there is a mobile application for university admissions. Instead of having to travel to a university to provide application forms and other supporting documents and take needed tests, students can now just send an SMS. This allows them to apply to more than one university--which was almost impossible before because of the need to physically visit one school. The SMS-based admissions results is popular where around 1/2 million students a year take the Higher Secondary Certificate (HSC) examination. They no longer have to face large travel and accommodation costs and the hassle of traveling hundreds of kilometers. Instead they just send their HSC results via a mobile phone and get a reservation for the university exam. Application fees are deducted from the applicant's mobile phone account. Following the successful piloting of the SMS registration, 28 post secondary educational institutions implemented the system in 2010. Another application allows people to pay their utility bills using their mobile phone.

A2I has pursued an innovative bottom up, people-centered strategy,  a more pragmatic approach within the realities of Bangladesh than a traditional top-down process reengineering solution. If A2I had tried a top down model, it would have taken years to implement and would have met opposition from bureaucratic apathy, lack of incentives to change and resistance from those benefitting from the rent-seeking opportunities caused by deficiencies in transparency. A2I has dealt with ingrained resistance through an inclusive approach, creating a network of champions by assigning focal points in ministries and asking each to propose one Quick Win. The idea caught on and ministries are even competing for the best e-services in annual digital fairs. The influence of being in the Prime Minister's Office helps, particularly in getting the government to increase the share of the budget for ICT, up 200% since the 2006-07 fiscal year. 

One impediment to Digital Bangladesh is a lack of broadband access in rural areas. Although mobile networks have nationwide coverage, W-CDMA based mobile broadband has yet to be launched. So most UISC connections are via low speed GPRS or at best EDGE. This inhibits the kind of e-services that can be provided. For example, the British Council had to retrofit its web-based English language training module to run on a scaled down PC version due to a lack of rural connectivity. An auction for 3G spectrum is planned but it may be years for mobile broadband to reach rural areas. Mobile operators will look to recuperate what  they spent on the auction by focussing on high value urban locations instead of rural areas which they perceive as not being profitable. One approach would be to allow operators to use their existing spectrum for mobile broadband. This technologically neutral approach would likely get mobile broadband to rural areas faster but will reduce the value of the upcoming spectrum-dependent 3G auction.

The DOEL-Bangladesh's 1st laptop
The country is progressing to Digital Bangladesh on other fronts. It has a growing software sector with some 400 members of the Bangladesh Association of Software and Information Services (BASIS) generating US$35 million of exports in 2009-10. It has also launched its first home made laptop. Called the DOEL after the national bird, it is priced in the range of Tk. 10,000 to Tk. 20,000 (US$131-262) depending on configuration.

Other developing nations could benefit from the grass roots A2I approach, particularly where there is ingrained resistance to top-down e-government implementation. The Digital Bangladesh vision is encapsulated in the video below (in Bangla) which shows the future through the eyes of a schoolboy who uses a tablet to communicate with school and his grandmother's doctor and a jute farmer who uses a smartphone to manage his business.

Suggested citation: "Going Digital in Bangladesh." ictDATA.org. October 2011.

From the author's observations during a field visit in August 2011 and background documents provided by A2I. 

A2I website: http://www.a2i.pmo.gov.bd
UNDP Bangaldesh website:  http://www.undp.org.bd/projects/proj_detail.php?pid=31
Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission website: http://www.btrc.gov.bd
Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics website: http://www.bbs.gov.bd

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