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Visioning Digital Bangladesh

08 September 2009

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Technology may not be a silver bullet but can act as enabler for a knowledge society, says Mridul Chowdhury, co-founder of youth activist organisation Jagoree. Taking the case of Malaysia, the author calls for knowledge indexes that assess the impact of ICTs on society to account progress.

In the lead up to the 2008 election, Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia seemed to be on a race to promise a Digital Bangladesh to the citizens.

Image credits: Forum-The Daily Star/ Azizur Rahim Peu

Khaleda went on to promise the "delivery of a Digital Bangladesh" much before 2021, the AL-proposed date, as if the concept is something tangible like a bridge or a highway!

All this war of words indicates two things:

  • Even if those leaders do not really know what they mean by Digital Bangladesh, it is a positive sign that they are thinking that this term associates them with modernity and progressive-thinking;
  • There is a growing public demand from at least the educated section of the society to see their government place more strategic emphasis on the use of information technologies (IT) for national development.

Even after the election, the AL government has continued their rhetoric about Digital Bangladesh, albeit never clarifying what it is that they really mean.

What is the threshold beyond which a country can be dubbed "digital"? What exactly is AL aiming to achieve by 2021? Granted that these are not easy answers, we, the citizens, can surely demand to get an intelligible clarification of their use of the term, and also demand to know what the AL plans to achieve in the next 5 years to realize their 2021 vision.

This piece outlines some thoughts on the concept of Digital Bangladesh and some pertinent policy issues.

Why Digital Bangladesh?

Before getting into specific issues concerning Digital Bangladesh, it is important to review the basic premises. We have difficult challenges in every sphere of our economic and social lives, and use of technologies will not necessarily make them go away.

Technology is not a silver bullet; it is useful in some areas, mandatory in some and overkill in some others. The purpose of Digital Bangladesh policy-making should be to make clear distinctions between those three areas, and sometimes make hard choices if needed.

"Over the last few decades the world has shifted from industrial to knowledge-based societies"

The questions surrounding Digital Bangladesh are real and often politically sensitive. Should the government implement a mid-day meal program to attract students or pay for a computer in a school (a Tk. 20,000 computer can feed 15 students for a year!)? Should the government build a new bridge or computerise the Roads and Highways Department?

When resources are severely limited, these are valid and difficult questions. But these should be answered in the context of a rapidly changing world. Over the course of the last few centuries, the world has shifted from agricultural to industrial based societies, where efficiency in manufacturing has determined global economic influence.

Over the last few decades, the world has been shifting from industrial to knowledge-based societies, where proficiency in creating and disseminating knowledge has been an increasingly predominant factor for national growth.

The phenomenon is well reflected through the shift in national goals of Malaysia, a country widely perceived to be on the forefront of transition countries. In 1991, the then leader Mahathir Mohamed declared that Malaysia would become a fully industrialised country by 2020.

However, over the next decade, the national Vision 2020 was updated to reflect Malaysia's aim to become a "knowledge society" rather than a fully industrialised nation.

During these phases of global transition, countries which have been able to ride on the bandwagon of inevitable change have succeeded, and those which have not been able to, have fallen behind. Bangladesh government's decisions on its priorities during this on-going global transition will determine whether we will be in the category of "emerging economies" or "laggard economies."

What is Digital Bangladesh?

The concept of Digital Bangladesh should be centered around the creation of what is popularly termed as a "knowledge-based society," in which creation and exchange of "knowledge" becomes an increasingly key factor of production, and in the process reducing the relative importance of traditional factors of production such as land, labour and capital.

"In order for government to hold its own feet to the fire, what is needed is some measurement of change in the various components of Digital Bangladesh"

Information and communication technologies (ICTs) are a critical component for building this knowledge-society. So, Digital Bangladesh, in that sense, is the crucial platform, the enabler for such a vision.

There are various dimensions to building a Digital Bangladesh, all of which are equally important pillars.

A Digital Bangladesh may constitute the following:

Governance: A government that has the capacity to deliver services to citizens through the Internet, radio and TV and also to make its internal operations more efficient and transparent through the use of ICTs.

Education: An education sector that utilizes information technologies and communication networks for dissemination and exchange of knowledge.

Health: A health sector that makes use of ICTs for connecting relevant healthcare service providers and for connecting doctors with remote patients.

Commerce and industry: An industrial sector that uses ICTs for marketing and promotion of its products, for producing internal efficiencies, and for communication and transaction between entities.

Software and hardware industry: A vibrant ICT-based industry that is part of the global supply chain for ICT products and services, while serving as the platform for enabling the above goals.

Communication infrastructure: Last but not least, a communications infrastructure that allows ICT-based services to be deployed equitably throughout the nation.

Measurement of change

Rhetoric and promises are all good, but unless they are translated into sincere efforts towards change, it means little. In order for the government to hold its own feet to the fire, what is needed is some measurement of change in the various components of Digital Bangladesh, without which the Prime Minister can hardly keep track of real changes and demand specific actions from the relevant government bodies.

Activist organizations such as Jagoree will develop its own metrics of Digital Bangladesh and keep tab of change and make policy recommendations whenever appropriate.

However, it is important that the government has an internal mechanism as well this is too dynamic a sector for traditional government bodies such as IMED (Implementation, Monitoring and Evaluation Division) to keep track of.

The Malaysian government has created something called the Knowledge Imperative Index, which keeps track of "the level of change in the formation of an information or knowledge society, arising from the impact of contemporary Information and Communication Technologies.'

Although Bangladesh may not be in an advanced enough stage to develop a Knowledge Index, we can surely take the first step in developing indexes for impact of ICTs or level of 'digitization' on society to keep account of our progress towards the grand vision of Digital Bangladesh.
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