Some Comments on “Digital Bangladesh” from a Community Informatics Perspective

Posted on July 12, 2010

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I’ve now had a chance to take a look at what is described as a “draft version” of the Strategic Priorities of Digital Bangladesh: Operationalizing the ICT policy 2009 document prepared by the Bangladesh Prime Minister’s Office with the help of a local expert team and the UNDP and released in June 2010. The document quite usefully says on its next to cover page “The current version of the document is a work-in-progress, specially prepared for Feedback.” The comments below are meant as a contribution to this work in progress.

First the good features of the document which include that the document:

  • is quite comprehensive and covers the overall issues of application/content areas and policy in considerable depth
  • provides a good introduction to current work in progress in the various ICT areas within Bangladesh and a quite useful in-depth examination in certain areas as for example education and agriculture.
  • is explicitly “pro-poor” – the Digital Bangladesh vision is unique as it proposes to mainstream ICTs as a pro-poor approach to development and the document mentions the term pro-poor at least 10 times.

The document itself however reveals some very peculiar absences and to my mind missteps:

  • the document seems peculiarly generic in that it doesn’t seem to truly integrate the “reality” of ICT circumstances on the ground in Bangladesh as for example the almost overwhelming significance of electrical service interruptions (or complete absence in rural areas) and how this might impact on the overall proposal
  • there is almost no reference to the extremely active and successful grass-roots micro-finance and more recently local telecommunications activities known globally through the activities of the Grameen Bank , but equaled in many respects by others such as BRAC in their involvement with and support for local development
  • While the rhetoric indicates the plan is “pro-poor” in fact there are virtually no initiatives indicated which would utilize the very extensive locally based NGO and telecentre (ICT) networks already in place within the rural areas of Bangladesh
  • The chapters on Human Resources and the ICT industry focus almost completely on developing capacity and building resources to compete with existing ICT outsourcing powerhouses such as India rather than for example indicating that at least some effort should be made to direct human resource development through tertiary and higher education toward building resources to support the local and rural implementation of ICTs as supports to local development and service delivery.
  • While discussing at some length the role of mobile communications in various areas of service delivery little or no attention is paid to a broader integration of mobile with other forms of digital technologies and particularly as part of an integrated approach to rural development and local service delivery.

I’ve commented earlier on Digital Bangladesh and its relation to a broad “digital transition” to a digital society and I’m pleased to now have access to some of the analysis which underlay the discussions that I had around this issue when I was recently in Bangladesh on a research mission looking at developments in Bangladesh from a community informatics perspective.

In this context the document provides an excellent introduction to the discussion and if, as seems the case, it is being presented to the larger digital environment in draft then this is a very good initiative. The following comments are meant as a contribution to this larger discussion by someone who claims no deep expertise on Bangladesh but as someone who had the opportunity to recently visit and examine in some little depth certain aspects of ICTs and rural development.

The document is quite comprehensive and covers the overall issues of application/content areas and policy in considerable depth although in rather more depth in some areas (agriculture) than others (infrastructure development).  However, as a casual but somewhat informed reader of the document I must say that I came away with the overall feeling that the document was insufficiently anchored in the practical reality of the current Bangladesh that I experienced.  The primary issue here would be the general absence of a discussion in the document of the matter of the frequent breaks in power supply in urban areas and the widespread unavailability of electricity in rural areas.  How a Digital Bangladesh could be achieved in the absence of a suitable electricity infrastructure is not discussed, nor is there anything other than a couple of brief mentions of the issue overall.

The overall document explicitly presents itself as “pro-poor” however even after a careful reading it is hard to identify any specific measures that would address the particular needs and community contexts of either the urban or the rural poor.  This is reinforced by the most peculiar absence of any discussion of the role that existing grassroots “pro-poor” organizations such as Grameen or BRAC might play in supporting the development of a Digital Bangladesh.  To my mind among the most significant available resources for implementing a pro-poor in this as in other areas would be to build on the globally recognized skills of these and similar organizations and to use their existing infrastructure to carry on at least some of the requisite training and program development in support of a Digital Bangladesh and particularly in the rural areas.

Equally surprising is the absence of any specific mention of the Bangladesh Telecentre Network (BTN) and only limited references to Telecentres overall.  With some 70% of Bangladesh being rural and telecentres being among the most feasible means to provide digital services to that population one might have expected a much longer and more detailed discussion of the role that Telecentres might play in support of a Digital Bangladesh and a clear indication of the type of partnership that Digital Bangladesh might develop with the BTN to help implement these initiatives particularly in rural areas.

Somewhat related to this is an observation that the chapters on Human Resources and ICT industry development focus almost completely on developing capacity and building resources to compete with existing ICT outsourcing powerhouses such as India rather than for example indicating that at least some effort should be made to direct human resource development through tertiary and higher education toward building resources to support the local and rural implementation of ICTs as supports to local development and service delivery. Developing a pro-active approach to training students in skills required for rural ICT development, including through for example developing focused programs in rural ICT and community informatics as an option in IT and computer science undergraduate programs and encouraging the development of specialized ICT and development and community informatics Master’s and Ph.D. programs in Bangladeshi universities could provide some of the manpower required for a more broadly inclusive Digital Bangladesh.

As well, encouraging and supporting the development of specialized private sector companies to undertake rural ICT activities including through new technology development, service innovation, and providing support for digitally based rural service deployment could be the basis for a Bangladeshi ICT specialization.  Given the similarities of circumstances and needs for rural ICT development elsewhere in Asia and through the Developing world, one anticipates that there might be a relatively open market for these kinds of developments and moreover an opportunity which is not being fully exploited by more developed competitors.

Finally, the document focuses considerable attention on the functioning and role of mobile communication, which as in many other LDC’s has achieved a remarkable distribution throughout the country. However, the possible role of this almost universally accessible digital infrastructure as an element in broader economic and social development, particularly in rural areas is not developed beyond references to current and very limited application areas.  The development of more comprehensive approaches to digitally enabled economic and social development in rural areas including mobiles, rural telecentres and using existing rural social infrastructures such as for example, those involved in micro-finance remains unexplored in the document.