Digital Bangladesh to Digital World: What’s all the Hype About?
Tarif Rahman, Lecturer, Dept. of ECE, NSU
The Annual Digital World 2015 which was inaugurated by the Prime Minister had just concluded. Amidst all the glitz, glamor and nationalistic rhetoric, there was a lot being said about Bangladesh’s love affair with the ‘Digital World’. Ever since the current government came to power in 2009; it has been a priority for them to promote the slogan ‘Digital Bangladesh’. The meaning of the slogan is quite vague in the sense that official documentation only states what it intends to achieve but, as to how it will get there and whether it is beneficial to the people are questions that remain unanswered. Policymakers along with Bangladesh’s elite have long argued that ‘Digital Bangladesh’ or the manifestation of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) in our daily lives are undoubtedly beneficial and any counterarguments shall remain unheeded. The ‘Digital Bangladesh’ policy paper is tied to two important aspects: 1) The usage of ICTs in the socio-economic development of Bangladesh. 2) Bangladesh’s ICT industry as the country’s future largest foreign currency earner. Both aspects require serious examination as to whether ‘Digital Bangladesh’ is out to serve the former or whether there is a greater economic interest being pursued by both local and foreign corporations.
Whenever we hear about socio-economic development, developmental economics or developmental models, Bangladesh is one of those names that can found as one of the top contenders. After all it is home to Grameen Bank and BRAC, both of which started as ‘developmental’ agencies in rural Bangladesh and have since gone global. Lamia Karim’s groundbreaking book ‘Microfinance and its Discontents’ articulates with great detail on the evolution of such ‘developmental’ agencies in Bangladesh with particular focus on Grameen Bank. As stated in the book, Bangladesh, a nation born in the 70s, very impoverished till today relied heavily on foreign aid. However, development agencies such as USAID, DFID and a number of other foreign aid agencies had by then adopted neoliberal policies which resulted in the minimization of government involvement. Therefore, it should come to nobody’s surprise that aid money was being channeled through NGOs such as BRAC and Grameen Bank. Such actions were detrimental as it amounted to the dismantlement of elected government from rural areas. 3Most functionaries of the government were taken over by NGOs. Since NGOs are not elected bodies; it’s very obvious that they would look after their interests and that of the donors instead of the people that were supposedly serving. Today BRAC and Grameen Bank are huge corporations, each having their own chain of companies. Grameen Bank has shares in the telecoms giant Grameen Phone (GP), which is Bangladesh’s largest cellular phone operator. GP’s ascent to the top could not have been possible without the help of Grameen Bank’s microcredit schemes where phones were being bought by the borrowers using the loans that they were being issued. That allowed GP to be unrivaled as it was able to rope in more than 300,000 customers at that time and the success was such that the visiting US President Bill Clinton at the time remarked “I want my fellow Americans to know that the people of Bangladesh are a good investment. With loans to buy cell phones, entire villages are brought to the information age”.
A good investment indeed, especially in a country whose government fails to provide the basic necessities of life coupled with poor infrastructure. Hence, NGOs such as BRAC and Grameen Bank take over basic functions of rural life as business ventures intertwined with their local and international corporate partners. When basic functions become commodities, it becomes extremely difficult for a villager to afford such services. Consequently, NGOs then issue microcredit loans and the villager is caught in a vicious cycle of simultaneously repaying loans and acquiring services. Even if the rural commoner doesn’t subscribe to the loans, he/she is forced to look for work elsewhere and send money back to their own village. And yet the service of remitting money back to the village has also been taken up by bKash which is one of BRAC’s business ventures. Bkash is a service that allows someone to remit money via the mobile phone. The absence of state banks gave BRAC an excellent opportunity and became an overnight hit for rural people as it allowed the latter to avoid crooked freelance money couriers. The business of bKash is apparently lucrative with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation being one of its investors. Bill Gates’ experience in the investment led him to comment in a banking conference that ‘Bangladesh was wildly adopting technology’.
GP and bKash are examples of how ‘digitization’ of basic services took place in the name of development; how much is it for the sake of improving the lives of local people remains questionable. Rather, it’s evident that they are successful business ventures and notions such as socio-economic development are used as a pretext. ‘Digital Bangladesh’ is not a novel idea, the very concept predates the slogan, GP and bKash being prime examples. ‘Digital Bangladesh’ is cleverly thought out rhetoric wrapped around ideas proliferating the ideas accentuated by GP and bKash. In a country that lacks development, ‘Digital Bangladesh’ may seem to many as a wild card to achieve developmental success overnight. The premise of such an argument has lead to the talk of promoting e-solutions or digital solutions to Bangladesh’s already abysmal education and heath care sectors. The current education secretary(formerly ICT secretary, a couple of years ago) in a recent address to students at an university orientation program remarked: “subjects like history, geography and literature don’t require the students to be present in the classroom rather we can setup virtual classrooms and students can attend lectures using their mobile devices via the Internet”. In addition, on numerous occasions government ministers have been promoting e-health care in rural areas. In other words, rural people can get access to doctors via the Internet.
As noble as it may sound, to many it may seem that e-solutions to such problems are the best alternative considering the sorry state of these essential sectors.  However, the hypocrisy or inconsistency in such a policy can be realized when primary school teachers went on strike for the attainment of a living wage and the government refused citing the lack of budgetary funds. Yet, the government is open to the idea of setting up virtual classrooms which requires some spending and the cost of a smart mobile device is more than the salary of a primary school teacher of $96. Quite recently, 25,000 mobile tablets each with its separate Internet subscription were distributed among state employees, ironic considering the ‘lack of funds’. At the same time, e-health care is nothing but an insult to injury when the health care industry is dominated by private consortia charging exorbitantly whereas, state hospitals lack equipment and doctors alike.
The government’s enthusiasm to spend on ICT projects shouldn’t be hard to understand. Bangladesh’s ‘development market’ is extremely lucrative, the political class along with the elites have an intimate interest in getting a share of money from public coffers. Most development projects are paid for by the state itself via public money or through aid money which has to be repaid back in the form of loans. In the last three decades, corporations who had a direct involvement in development issues were the ones that were embedded with NGOs like BRAC, GB, USAID and their local conglomerates. ‘Digital Bangladesh’ is a rhetorical paradigm shift in the sense that development problems can be solved through ICT and it is an open invitation for venture capitalists and corporations situated in Silicon Valley. The invitation has been accepted and ‘Digital World 2015′ is a manifestation of that. The delegates are representatives of those big names in Silicon Valley that are lurking for contracts that Bangladesh has to offer. If one is to see Digital World and its talking sessions, it seems that they have an e-solution to almost everything ranging from waste management to land administration and agriculture. In addition, Google and Microsoft have setup offices in Dhaka over the last decade. And it also should come to no surprise that the USAID is actively sponsoring ‘Digital Bangladesh’.
‘Digital Bangladesh’ also promises to take Bangladesh to new heights especially when it says that one day the IT sector will be Bangladesh’s largest employer and the future largest foreign currency earner as well. In saying such, it has set a target of earning $1billion by 2018 as a result of IT based exports, be it software or IT based services. However, if one is to analyze BASIS (Bangladesh Association of Software and Information Services) data, such a target may seem quite ambitious if not impossible. Over the last three financial years, Bangladesh IT export earnings have increased in revenue but the rate of growth has declined. In the last recorded financial year (2013 – 2014) Bangladesh’s earnings stood at 120 million USD compared to the previous year of 102 million USD which is an 18% growth. Compare that with the previous two years, the rate of growth was 44% and prior to that it was above 50%. Therefore, in order to achieve a $1billion dollars by 2018 the IT industry would have to grow by almost 100% each year for the next four years. Such a target is seemingly improbable considering the current industrial trends in Bangladesh. At the same one has to remember that when big IT companies make a gradual entry into Bangladesh, it will make small and medium sized local software companies unsustainable to compete as the amount capital resources the former possess is overwhelming. Simply depending on foreign orders are not enough to sustain an entire industry. On the contrary it needs its own research and development. For that to happen it needs to service local businesses and the community in general according to their needs. Such will create more innovation and will allow the IT industry to grow and make a name for itself on the world stage. In the current context such a phenomenon is unlikely as Bangladesh has been pursing neoliberal economics for quite some time; allowing cheap imports coupled with a zero tax for foreign investors. In essence, achieving $1billion dollars in exports and making this largest employer in the country seems at the moment, a complete illusion.
Whether we agree with ‘Digital Bangladesh’ or not, we dare not ask the people to whom these technologies are manifested on, whether they want it or not or how such technologies will benefit them and their cultures. The Bangladesh elites seem to believe that they know best and ‘IT-fication’ is the way forward for those in rural and disadvantaged areas. The ‘Digital Bangladesh’ policy paper only states dreamy outcomes but there is no mention of people for whom these technologies will applied to or whether they will consent to such rapid changes in their lives. All this shows the contempt of consensus and by extension democracy by the very elites that control the vast resources of this country.
1. Digital World 2015, http://www.digitalworld.org.bd/
2. Digital Bangladesh | Access to Information Programme, (2009, November 5), Retrieved from: http://www.a2i.pmo.gov.bd/digital-bangladesh
3. Karim, Lamia. (2011). MICROFINANCE AND ITS DISCONTENTS: WOMEN IN DEBT IN BANGLADESH. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
4. bKash, www.bkash.com
5. Bangladesh ‘wildly adopting’ technology: Bill Gates (2013, October 5), Retrieved from: http://bdnews24.com/technology/2014/10/05/bangladesh-wildly-adopting-technology-bill-gates
6. Attended the orientation session in which the Education Secretary Spoke.
7. Many Teachers injured in Bangladesh Protest (Date Not Specified on Website), Retrieved from: http://www.teachersolidarity.com/blog/many-teachers-injured-in-bangladesh-protest/#more-3429
8. Govt starts distributing tablets amongst officials (2015, February 5), Retrieved from: http://www.thedailystar.net/govt-starts-distributing-tablets-amongst-officials-63390
9. BASIS Resource Center (Date Unspecified), Retrieved from: http://www.basis.org.bd/index.php/resource
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