Digital Bangladesh: fact or fiction?

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Published in The Independent, April 2010

Visiting Australian Professor Brian Shoesmith tested out the new service from Grameen that allows customers to purchase train tickets using a mobile phone.  He was able to buy an outward ticket but was unable to buy a return – for that he had to make a special trip to the train station.

In many ways, this single example represents the progress being made towards achieving a Digital Bangladesh.  Professor Shoesmith, who is an adjunct professor at Edith Cowan University and also a professor at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB), delivered a special lecture titled “Digital Bangladesh” at ULAB yesterday.  His impressive lecture highlighted the contradictions surrounding the concept and reality of a Digital Bangladesh. His findings are simultaneously a cause for concern and a sign of encouragement.

Firstly, Professor Shoesmith said that only a quarter of people he surveyed were aware of the concept of a Digital Bangladesh.  Over half of respondents said they had nothing to say on the subject.  Yet despite many people being left in the dark, in reality there are several signs that Digital Bangladesh has already arrived.  Mobile phones are a strong example – there are now 40 million mobile phone users in Bangladesh, and the pace of take-up is equal to that of India’s.

However in terms of global comparisons, the statistics are gloomy.  Harvard University has devised a means of ranking 133 countries around the world in terms of their “Network Readiness Index” (NRI) – that is, how close they are to transforming to a digital economy.  It’s no surprise that Sweden comes out on top, with Singapore and the UK following.  Vietnam has the highest ranking of any developing nation.  Bangladesh is ranked very close to the bottom, at 118th.  Professor Shoesmith believes that Sheikh Hasina was “courageous” to announce that Bangladesh would interact in a global digital society by 2021 when it is currently lagging behind on the digital stage.  “There is so much room for failure,” he cautioned.

Nevertheless Professor Shoesmith does not believe that it will be impossible for the Awami League to fulfil its election pledge to make Bangladesh a middle income country by 2021 and to become a “Digital Bangladesh.”  He said that prior to 2006, Vietnam and Bangladesh had made the same progress in terms of the availability of digital communications.  When the Vietnamese government decided to actively digitise their country through the “Doi Moi” programme, the results were almost immediately discernible.  There is no reason why Bangladesh cannot pick up the pace.  For the meantime, however, Bangladesh is languishing “at the far end of the digital divide,” said Professor Shoesmith.  In terms of Sheikh Hasina actually delivering on the promise that captured the imaginations of so many, only three concrete advances have so far been made: 500 computers have been rolled out to district officers in upazilas, computers have been upgraded in some ministerial departments, and train tickets can now be purchased online (with the aforementioned difficulties).  Professor Shoesmith said that he has found no evidence that computers have been distributed to schools.

He further explained the concept of a “digital divide” (the gap that exists between the technological haves and have-nots) by comparing an election pledge of the Australian Labor Government.  Australian Prime Minister Kevind Rudd promised the electorate that every single child in Australia would be given a personal computer to use at school.  Although this has not yet been fully achieved, he said, it highlights the disparity that exists between different nations.

Professor Shoesmith made an interesting observation about the role of the government in creating a Digital Bangladesh.  On the one hand, he said, “There’s much to suggest the announcement was a political response to events already happening.”  But he also cautioned against the dangers of the government playing too large a role in digital communications.  “China is not the model to follow,” he said.  He believes that every stakeholder, whether it be the government, individuals or the commerce industry, must play an equal role in bringing about change and managing information.

He feels at the moment that the government in Bangladesh is playing too large a role and that if anything, it has become a hindrance.  When a member of the audience asked, “When the bureaucracy is so strong and so many villages don’t even have electricity yet, how can we ever achieve our goal to become a Digital Bangladesh?” Professor Shoesmith gave a short reply.
“If I was being flippant,” he said, “I would say ‘give it to the young people – they will sort it out.'”

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