SETTING THE STAGE FOR THE VISION YEAR 2021
What has Digital Bangladesh meant for the average Bangladeshi citizen? What effect did it have on their lives? Has there been any difference between 2008 and now? Where is Digital Bangladesh?
“Digital Bangladesh,” to some, immediately means a futuristic Bangladesh, at the very least, one that is internet-enabled. 5G internet. 100% smartphone penetration. 100% high-speed internet penetration. Smart homes with smart appliances. Artificial intelligence in our everyday lives. Robots doing all our tasks. The Internet of Things. Some would venture out to say “merging of the physical, the digital, and the biological,” repeating after Professor Klaus Schwab of the World Economic Forum.
That is the general expectation from certain sects of the economy – i.e. the “privileged” class.
Make no mistake about it, Bangladesh has made tremendous strides when it comes to internet penetration over the past decade, mostly riding from 2G to 4G, and going from about 1% penetration to over 60% penetration in the last 12 years, while the cost of internet access has become 1% of what it used to be just before the declaration of Digital Bangladesh. Yes, 1% – not a typo!
The ICT industry in Bangladesh has also experienced tremendous growth, with revenue from ICT-related work jumping from $25 million to a whopping $1 billion – the value only increasing by the year. Our e-commerce sector has rapidly expanded and, coupled with mobile financial services and the huge adoption drive triggered by the pandemic, it is only going to get bigger. We have even managed to send our very own satellite into space.
However, what is often forgotten is that the majority of Bangladesh does not belong to the privileged class. The average Bangladeshi, in the villages, in the Union Parishads, in the Upazilas, isn’t thinking about AI, or 5G internet, or robots, and is frankly not close to being ready for them either, be it due to cost, accessibility, or even skill. They are just trying to make their lives a little bit better, and are trying to get closer to the “digital” lives that their richer, more educated, urban counterparts are enjoying.
In a sense, if Digital Bangladesh started with the urban elite, it would only result in expanding this socio-economic divide.
This is the truest essence of Digital Bangladesh, to try and help those people bridge the gap that undoubtedly exists between the richer echelons of society and the masses across the country.
As such, the primary challenge of Digital Bangladesh was not to improve the internet, or facilitate e-commerce platforms, or to usher in robots and AI. Rather, it was about designing digital solutions that would help the masses, those without internet, those without smartphones, and help bridge that “digital divide” — one which undoubtedly exists and threatens to widen.
Digital Bangladesh focused on taking services to citizens’ doorsteps, being implemented with direct implementation guidance of its architect Sajeeb Wazed, the honourable ICT advisor to the honourable prime minister, and relentless monitoring by the Honourable Minister of State for ICT Zunaid Ahmed Palak.
LIVES SAVED, SOCIETIES TRANSFORMED
It is Friday, July 12, 2019. Aisha, a 15-year-old girl from Chandpur wakes up early in the morning to help her mother with household chores, just as she always does. However, on this Friday morning, she quickly realizes that not all appears to be as per usual.
Today, she is not required to work at all. She is elated. But her mother is being unusually nice to her. Something feels off. She is given a bright red sari and jewelry. Though a bit confused at first, Aisha is a smart girl. She realizes what is about to happen – she is about to be married off. She wants to run off but cannot muster the courage. Where could a 15-year-old girl go on her own?
Aisha remembers an ad on TV for the national helpline: 333. Desperate and hysterical, she somehow manages to get hold of her father’s mobile phone which he left behind when he went to Jumma, and promptly calls the number.
To her utter surprise, not only does the call go through, but is immediately forwarded to a human being, the Upazila Nirbahi Officer and Executive Magistrate Mamota Afrin, who shows up at her house within the hour. Aisha’s marriage is stopped. A mobile court fines Aisha’s father Tk 30,000.
Aisha is one of the thousands of young girls whose marriages were stopped and whose lives have all but been saved by these three dialed digits ‘333’ since it was introduced by a2i and launched by the honourable ICT advisor to the honourable prime minister in 2018.
In many ways, the story of Aisha is the story of Digital Bangladesh. A story of unprecedented development and innovation of Bangladesh, for Bangladesh, by Bangladeshis.
More recently, with the outbreak of the pandemic and the country in the middle of a nationwide general holiday, the same 333 national helpline was repurposed to enable millions of people fearful and stuck at home, to dial in, at first to report Covid-19 symptoms to enable the government to track disease progression. Then, based on their outcry for help, it was used for urgent food relief and doctor’s consultation over the phone. That’s when 333 evolved into the country’s largest telemedicine service with nearly 4,500 doctors providing services pro bono round the clock.
333 has proven to be a remarkable example of the Digital Bangladesh ethos of inclusive innovation – being citizen-centric rather than technology-driven and creating a critical national infrastructure that is focused on leaving no one behind, especially during moments of crises.
Yes, it’s also about hitting certain milestones, one more step taken in our journey to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and emerge on the global stage as a prosperous, poverty-free country where no one is left behind.
But above all, it is a story of hope.
As disheartening as 2020 has been, and as much of a road-bump as it has been to Bangladesh’s development journey, we must remain undeterred if we are to achieve Vision 2021 and the SDGs by 2030.
Anir Chowdhury is the Policy Advisor of a2i, Bangladesh government’s flagship innovation and digital transformation program in ICT Division and Cabinet Division supported by UNDP. He is also a member of the Prime Minister’s National Digital Task Force.