The present Awami League government had incorporated the pledge to build a Digital Bangladesh by 2021 in its election manifesto announced on December 12, 2008, based on which it assumed office in January 2009 after a thumping victory in parliamentary election. The information and communication technology (ICT) division of the government therefore observes December 12 as the 'Digital Bangladesh Day' each year. The concerned minister recently claimed that the government had achieved more than what was pledged by the ruling party before assuming office. But the relevant statistics show Bangladesh lagging behind even compared to neighbours in digitalisation of the socio-economy, with progress mostly confined to towns and cities.
The Network Readiness Index (NRI) of the World Economic Forum measures the national trends in utilising the opportunities inherent in the ICT sector. Its 2020 report ranked Bangladesh at 105 out of 134 countries, whereas the rankings for India, Vietnam and Malaysia were 88, 62 and 34 respectively. The strengths in the NRI index for Bangladesh included bridging the rural-urban socio-economic disparities through mobile banking services, reduction in prices and taxes on mobile phones, internet facilities in schools, governance goodwill for enhancing investments in technological sphere, and increase in software usage. The bandwidth price has declined, from Taka 27 thousand per MBPS in 2009 to Taka 4 hundred per MBPS in 2020. Besides, the number of broadband subscribers has also risen to 8.6 million. Bangladesh is also expanding e-government in many sectors, including health, agriculture, education, transportation and social safety net, in order to make public services more transparent, efficient and effective.
It may be recalled that Bangladesh was ranked 115th among 193 countries by the United Nations E-Government Survey 2018. Through this, the country had moved up nine notches from its earlier ranking of 124th and also received the highest ranking amongst the least developed countries. But sadly, the ranking has gone down by four notches in 2020. Side by side, the survey titled 'Gearing E-Government to Support Transformation towards Sustainable and Resilient Societies' had shown Bangladesh's E-Participation standing improve by 33 notches to reach 51st in 2018 from 84th in 2016. But again, the ranking went down to 95 in 2020.
Notable progresses in the pursuit of a Digital Bangladesh in recent years included the launching of Bangabandhu Satellite and its use by local channels, and the rapid proliferation of mobile banking. The latter's subscribers stood at 96.4 million in October this year, with monthly transactions totalling Taka 532.58 billion. The size of the e-commerce sector up to March this year stood at Taka 85 billion, which almost doubled to Taka 160 billion during the Covid-19 pandemic. The number of personnel working in the country's ICT sector has now reached 1 million with yearly software exports crossing Taka 1 billion. Telemedicine is also playing a significant role, especially during the corona-infected times. As many as 15.50 million people have received telemedicine services from the hotline of health department up to December. But paradoxically, growth in the ICT sector has occurred despite Bangladesh suffering from an all-pervasive digital divide as well as widespread social exclusion, where a vast segment of the population remains outside the reach of digital services. The reasons include pervasive poverty and extensive illiteracy.
The Network Readiness Index (NRI) has also identified some weaknesses with regard to Bangladesh's ICT sector, particularly in the areas of mobile apps, internet domain registration, skilled technologists, quality control, purchases through internet, hi-tech exports, internet uses and facilities, and ease of doing business. Broadband facility is still city or town-centred, as it has not yet reached the nooks and corners of the rural areas. According to estimates of Internet Service Providers' Association of Bangladesh, 80 per cent of the facilities are used in divisional cities. Bangladesh also lags behind India and Pakistan in terms of broadband and mobile internet prices.
The world is undergoing a digital revolution, which is not only about technology but also about the centrality of people and planet. E-governance has ushered in significant changes in the way people live and interact with each other, their surroundings and the delivery of services. There are numerous and complex opportunities for deploying e-governance to build resilient societies. Therefore, necessary preconditions, ways and means through which the attainment of sustainable development goals could be advanced have to be identified urgently. Besides, accessibility to mobile and online services has to be enhanced in order to ensure a sustainable transition to a more digitised society.
An improving trend in the transactional online services has been observed globally in recent years. The most commonly used services have been found to be payment for utilities, submission of taxes and registration of businesses. A total of 140 countries offered online payments for utilities, 139 countries allowed online submission of income tax, and 126 offered registration of new businesses in 2018. But Bangladesh still lags behind in some of these services, like tax payments, customs procedures and port operations. It appears that apart from government lethargy, deeply entrenched vested quarters inside and outside the administration have been responsible for this inexcusable delay.
In the above backdrop, quality ICT education from the primary to tertiary levels, building up sufficient ICT infrastructure, and orienting the masses towards ICT and e-services should receive top priority. Bangladesh needs inclusive e-participation policy, broad-ranging e-services, extensive open-government data portals, more local contents in Bangla, extension of internet access to remote areas, wider e-ticketing for transportation, reduction of digital divide between different social segments, wider use of online transactions between government agencies, businesses and other entities, and a comprehensive strategy for reducing paper-work by the government. The latter can effectively respond by formulating required policies, rules, regulations and services. The principles of efficiency, effectiveness, inclusivity, accountability, trustworthiness and openness should be the guiding principles. While e-government began with bringing services online, the future is about the power of digital government to leverage societal innovations cum resilience, and transform governance for achieving sustainable development.
Dr Helal Uddin Ahmed is a retired Additional Secretary and former Editor of Bangladesh Quarterly. [email protected]