Digital Economy: How is it shaping a new Bangladesh?

| Updated: June 18, 2019 20:27:29

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With the advent of rapid digitisation, many emerging countries like Bangladesh are focusing on Digital Economy: a global market where digital outsourcing of different works takes place. The digitisation of a country's economy not only drives innovation in its service industry but also fuels domestic job opportunities, enabling faster economic growth. On the other hand, in their quest of lowering costs and risks, many large corporations in developed nations like the US, UK and Australia are turning to IT outsourcing from labour intensive countries like Bangladesh, leading to the recent boom in the freelancing market. Freelancing jobs range from computer programming to web designing to tax preparation to Search Engine Optimisation (SEO), providing a wide range of choices for the freelancers. Fortunately, this has generated a plethora of new opportunities for the people of emerging markets. Data show that Asia has become number one in providing outsourcing services to the rest of the world.

Freelancing offers advantages in many ways including the freedom to choose clients and projects, multi-faceted exposure in the global market, flexibility of location etc. Most importantly, freelancers can avoid the long, frustrating commuting hours in notorious traffic jam in cities like Dhaka. It has thus become a popular career option to many Bangladeshis, offering a new and flexible earning source that perfectly suites their aspirations and lifestyles. The rapid digitisation of Bangladesh including easy internet access in the urban areas and some inclusive government and non-government initiatives to promote freelancing have contributed to the recent growth of freelancing activities in the country. As a result, Bangladesh has already become the second largest country in supplying online labour, according to the Oxford Internet Institute (OII). About 500,000 active freelancers are working regularly out of 650,000 registered freelancers in the country, making $100 million annually, according to the ICT Division of Bangladesh.

According to the data, India is the largest supplier of online labour which is close to 24 per cent of total freelancing workers, followed by Bangladesh (16 per cent) and US (12 per cent). Different kinds of freelancing services are focused by different countries' workers. For instance, where the technology and software development category is ruled by the Indian freelancers, sales and marketing support services are dominated by Bangladeshi freelancers.

FREELANCING--A SOLUTION TO THE BURGEONING UNEMPLOYMENT PROBLEM: One in every ten of the country's 44 million youth population faces unemployment, according to research by World Vision, Bangladesh. Moreover, thousands of graduates who are finishing their tertiary education from different public and private universities in Bangladesh every year are failing to find suitable positions in the job market. As a result, the rate of educated unemployment in the country is increasing exponentially. The International Labour Organisation (ILO)'s research reveals that one-third of the young people of Bangladesh, approximately 1.8 billion, are not involved in any sort of employment, education or training. However, these young unemployed people can easily start their career by taking some IT training and doing freelancing work online. By doing so, they can not only make a living for themselves but also contribute to the economy by earning valuable foreign exchanges.

OPPORTUNITIES FOR WOMEN: A lot of women in Bangladesh including highly educated ones often sacrifice their careers for taking care of the family responsibilities. Freelancing-as a noble alternative to traditional jobs-is becoming a preferred career option for many Bangladeshi female jobseekers, providing them the opportunity to work from home. This also provides them with a hassle-free job option which some women yearn for. Thus, women in many developing countries like Bangladesh are fulfilling their personal aspirations without neglecting family responsibilities. Moreover, Bangladeshi women who wanted to become self-reliant are finding a great solution in freelance jobs. Some research even shows that in terms of the quality of work, Bangladesh's female freelancers have started gaining more credibility than their male counterparts. Therefore, increasing women's participation in freelancing is not only augmenting the sector's trust but also securing a respectable status for Bangladeshi women.

CHALLENGES: The government's incentives for the development of the ICT service sector such as high tech Park in every district run by the low-cost workforce has made Bangladesh a key player in the global outsourcing market. Nevertheless, several challenges hinder the growth of this industry in Bangladesh. Absence of uninterrupted power supply is still a major problem for the country. Freelancing work like complex coding for software development requires a high level of concentration which is often disrupted by the frequent power cuts. In addition to this, lack of quality internet services along with higher bandwidth prices is a major problem for freelancers in rural areas. In spite of having broadband connections in some areas, freelancers often find it too slow to suit their work. The nonexistence of an easy payment system-especially getting payment for the performed freelancing works from the foreign clients- is another problem for this fast-growing industry in Bangladesh. Many thought that the problem would be solved by the recent launch of the PayPal-owned service Xoom, but freelancers are not getting the expected result. It is thus expected that the government would create an enabling atmosphere to attract women in the world of IT-freelancing.

WAY FORWARD: Bangladesh is one of the few countries in Asia which has a huge young population. In fact, of its 163 million people, almost 65 per cent are under the age of 25. This vast young and strong human resource should be provided with the right direction so that it can be turned into a formidable force to cash in on the competitive global market. "There must be a long-term plan to take its human resource to tap the huge opportunity of demographic dividend," says the President of the Bangladesh Association of Software and Information Services (BASIS), the national trade body for Software & IT Enabled Service industry of Bangladesh.

Although freelancing as a career has gained much popularity over the last few years, thousands of Bangladeshi young people are in need of proper training and government support to take advantage of this opportunity. Especially, the government should focus on turning the unemployed young people into tech-savvy workers and engage them in IT-based freelancing works in an attempt to attain the goal of translating the vision of Digital Bangladesh into reality by focusing on human capital development for the global digital economy.

Azaz Zaman is a lecturer at the Bangladesh Army International University of Science and Technology (BAIUST).

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