Dreaming in Digital

Six months ago, we, in the midst of recovering from the delirium of Obama’s victory and promises of change, let ourselves be seduced by another changemonger’s campaign slogan. So what if “Digital Bangladesh” is nothing like “Yes We Can”? It was still just enough to make a disillusioned populace start to dream again.

And so, enraptured by this dream of change, like millions of Americans in early November, we swept a new government into power. “Digital Bangladesh” spoke to our hearts and souls, even if we had no idea what exactly it is that it meant.

Six months later, we still have no clue. And, even more worryingly, neither do the politicians who dreamt it up in the first place, it seems.

Let’s face it: Digital Bangladesh makes a great vision statement. Although it isn’t time-bound in any sense, it ranks up there with those tired old visions we’ve heard our politicians espouse so frequently – middle income country blah blah blah. At least it’s a newer, cooler vision, and is something that can appeal to the youth.

However, one would expect that, six months down the line, someone would at least have come up with a few accompanying mission statements, to articulate or explain what all this hype is about. But nobody’s done anything about it – the phrase remains just as ambiguous as it was six months ago. The longer it remains ambiguous, the more it will lose its allure.

We’ve seen this before – politicians hooking on to a concept or idea, then selling it to the people as the miracle cure for all societal or economic ills, and then beat that particular horse to death until nobody cares anymore.

So, in the absence of a proper explanation of Digital Bangladesh, I’m forced to create one myself. I see Digital Bangladesh as being the junction of two different dimensions – at least from the government’s point of view.

First, there’s the issue of service delivery. The e-governance train has long been a popular one for politicians, bureaucrats and civil society alike to jump aboard, but badly done e-governance is just as bad – if not worse – than none at all. What does this mean?

The government delivers services to its clients, whether they are civilians, businesses or institutions. We’ve all been through at least one such service delivery process: most readers have a passport, I’m sure. There are lots more we could potentially go through, but we tend to avoid them like the plague – they are all long, slow and terribly bureaucratic, not to mention cesspools of corruption and nepotism.

Transferring these inefficient processes to a computerized system won’t do any good for anyone – the delays will continue, and there will still be opportunities for corruption. What therefore needs to happen is that the government, prior to computerizing, needs to look at the entire process and find the steps that are unnecessary, or pose the greatest opportunity for corruption or harassment, and cut off these links in the chain. This will ensure government service delivery is simple, smooth and transparent, both online and offline.

The second dimension is the issue of infrastructure, which itself requires action on two fronts. The issue of physical infrastructure seems most challenging, but it can be easier than it looks: the government should let the private sector handle this entirely. GrameenPhone advertises its Community Information Centers, with computer access for all, and there are now computers on boats traversing our rivers. These days, you can buy a simple plug in device that turns your SIM card into a portable modem. Giving tax breaks to mobile companies who operate such free information centers would spur them to set up many more, since the marginal cost of an extra mobile intranet user is very low. The cost of the centers could easily be offset by the savings from the tax break; plus, it looks great from a CSR perspective.

Human infrastructure, however, is inherently more difficult. The government should help ensure that there is sufficient ability to use computers and online systems. These days, this is simpler and cheaper than ever – just the other day, I saw advertisements for computer training for 300 taka. What the government needs to do is provide this training for free to whoever wants it, or they can incentivize the private sector and NGOs to provide it on their behalf.

In the meantime, there are clearly lots of unemployed youth who are computer-literate who could help others use computers – a year or so ago, they were helping the Army build the new voter list. Reemploying them to help out in, or even run, Community Information Centers should be easy enough. Mobile companies can even franchise out these centers, like the way they’ve franchised FlexiLoad services.

Tying all of these dimensions together is a set of policies and regulations that enable and protect all these activities. We need tons of them – for data security, data integrity, data backup, system compatibility, online fraud prevention, electronic payments – the list is endless. All of these need to be in place before anything else can happen. At least by now, one would have expected the government to have assigned someone to start working on all of this. But nothing’s happened yet.

I’m writing this blog on a BlackBerry while listening to music on an iPod and texting on my mobile – clearly there’s no way I could become any more digital without becoming some sort of android. But for millions of Bangladeshis, Digital Bangladesh can make a massive difference in the way they live their lives. All they are waiting for is for the government to transform this vague vision into reality.

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