Thats are catch phrases in Bangladesh these days. The buzzwords are no longer confined to the lexicon of information and communication technology (ICT) enthusiasts, but have entered the vocabulary of the educated section of the population. In its election manifesto leading up to the Ninth Parliamentary Elections in 2008, the Awami League (AL) coalition envisioned a Digital Bangladesh by 2021. The alliance led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) countered with a promise of an even earlier delivery.
ICT activists in the country may find this competition to own the issue heartening, as it may be a realization among the politicians that digitization is synonymous with being modern and forward-looking, and that investment in ICT is important for national development. The creation, dissemination, exchange and application of knowledge play an increasingly important role in the economic development of the “knowledge-based society” that the world is embarking upon. It is imperative that Bangladesh positions herself well to avail that rising tide to become a member of the group known as the “emerging economies. The pursuit of a digital Bangladesh by 2021, the golden anniversary of the nation’s independence, will be a coveted endeavor. Questions need to be asked though: What is the scope of Digital Bangladesh? What are its mission and goals? Is there a roadmap to achieve the desired end? Activists and enthusiasts who like to go beyond rhetoric and look for concrete plans of action are raising these questions from different pulpits and platforms. Answers to these questions are yet to be articulated, and as one waits for those to take shape, expectations build, demands grow, and interest groups come up with their own interpretations and agendas.
While the scope of Digital Bangladesh is likely to evolve, being shaped by the economic, political, social and cultural realities, there will be some common threads that reasonable people can agree upon. Digital Bangladesh will entail applications of ICT to enhance efficiency of operation, administration, management, and governance. In a Digital Bangladesh: -Educational institutions will be connected to the world wide web of knowledge and communication networks enabling open exchange of ideas and information. Heath-care institutions (medical colleges and hospitals in big and small cities, diagnostic laboratories, hospitals and clinics in rural areas) and heath-care providers (doctors, nurses, medical technicians, paramedics) will be connected to one another and to patients everywhere including remote locations; information on hygiene, safe health practices, disease prevention, spread of diseases, and health alerts will be easily available. -Governance will be made efficient and transparent through the use of ICT, the government officials will be able to communicate with and provide services to citizens promptly and effectively. Industrial concerns will use ICT for promoting and marketing their products, managing communications between management and workforce, and democratizing the decision making process. -Agriculture sector will be brought under digital management so that seeds, fertilizers and other enabling commodities are readily accessible to farmers, and relevant alerts, information, and know-how can be promptly communicated. -Overall land administration that includes land survey, land records, and land management will be integrated and pertinent records and information digitized. A robust industry to develop cutting-edge software and hardware products will flourish and ICT trained manpower will be a national resource; and -An information and communication highway system will make the benefits and services of ICT sector available everywhere in the country. Realization of Digital Bangladesh is a formidable challenge that will require a concerted effort by Government, private sector, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), along with mobilization of resources and expertise on a national scale. Non-resident Bangladeshis (NRBs) can play a supportive role.
Many of them are employed in the ICT field and can share their valuable technical expertise, and contribute funds to help implementation of relevant projects. It is encouraging that the allocation for the ICT and telecommunication sector almost doubled to $82M in the proposed budget for the 2009-2010 fiscal year compared to that for the previous year. It includes targeted allocations of $15M for ICT development, $30M for the Equity and Entrepreneurship fund for ICT promotion, and $20M for an annual development program for the Science and ICT ministry.
While unveiling a nationwide ICT strategy, the finance minister announced that digital management will be introduced in the sectors of education, health, and land administration. The minister further mentioned 2012 and 2014 as target time frames for the introduction of e-commerce and e-governance. The process of transforming Bangladesh to a “digital” country will be complex. Many administrative, strategic, management-related, and even socio-economic issues have to be addressed and resolved along the way.
Two core issues are manpower development and democratisation. A competent workforce with the requisite technical expertise, as well as communication and managerial skills, will be necessary, not only in the big cities but throughout the country including rural areas. This in turn will require supreme emphasis on education in general, and strengthening of the science, technology, engineering, mathematics, communication and management education, in particular.
In order for a “Digital Bangladesh” to be meaningful for all her citizens, the benefits of digitisation should reach the disadvantaged everywhere in the country, and not be limited to an elite few. Anything less will have the undesirable effect of widening the “digital divide” and accentuating the disparities between the privileged and the underprivileged. Visiting a rural Computer Literacy Center Flash back to a trip we took to visit a computer literacy center (CLC) on a hot and humid day in July 2008.
Our trip started in Dhaka early in the morning. Our destination was Kadambari High School in Kadambari, a village in the low lands of Rajair upazila in the district of Madaripur. Nearby significant business and governmental activity centers are Gopalganj and Tekerhat. In the not-too-distant past one had to access Kadambari by boat during the rainy season and on foot during the rest of the year. Thanks to recent developments in roads and highways, our van could be parked by the roadside near the school in the early afternoon.
The school structure consists of a small brick building in need of substantial repair work, a sharp contrast with some of the high school buildings that I saw in Dhaka and Gopalganj. The classes were not in session as the students prepared for an upcoming examination. The headmaster, members of the teaching and support staff, and some members of the school board greeted us, along with one of the computer teachers Trained by the Computer Literacy Program (CLP), he had made special arrangements to take time off from a training session to meet with us.
We spent some time talking about students, concerns that are specific to the school, and issues that the secondary schools face in rural Bangladesh. What I found most striking was that even though rural high schools in Bangladesh had a paucity of qualified teachers to teach advanced mathematics, Kadambari High School had two good mathematics and science teachers. I had also began to notice a paradigm shift where commerce was attracting brighter students who would have earlier gone into science and humanities