Digital Bangladesh: virtual dreams, real lives

Delwar Hussain
8 May 2009

It is a familiar cycle in democracies: as post-election euphoria fades and a new government faces a myriad of problems, ambitious projects whose announcement injected some life into the campaign start to lose their sheen.

Delwar Hussain is a researcher on Bangladeshi society

Also by Delwar Hussain in openDemocracy:

"Bangladeshis in east London: from secular politics to Islam" (7 July 2006)

"Islamism and expediency in Bangladesh" (11 January 2007)

"Life and death in the Bangladesh-India margins" (13 January 2009)

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Will this be the fate of "digital Bangladesh"? The Awami League (AL) won a major victory in the election of 29 December 2008 in part by offering this transformative vision - a claim on the future, a commitment to make Bangladesh a modern, technologically sophisticated and networked country by the time of the fiftieth anniversary of its independence, 2021. The notion was prominent in the AL leader, Sheikh Hasina's campaign rhetoric. But what, if anything, is the substance behind the slogan?

"Digital Bangladesh" shares with all good political slogans a malleable, reverberative quality. The details of what it might entail have always been sketchy. Sheikh Hasina's speeches during huge election rallies offered meagre clues amid the jargon and soundbites. At one gathering on 16 December, she announced: "the Awami League-led grand alliance has set the vision 2021 for the youth. We want to build a ‘digital Bangladesh' where people will get a developed life, free from crime and misrule and [able to] face the challenges of the 21st century."

This was different from what I had envisaged: fishermen being able to throw computerised nets into rivers which would digitally calculate which fish were old enough to catch and which too young. It is an attractive vision, but where does the "digital" come in? After all, a country "free from crime and misrule" will be guaranteed not by any digital fix but by a society which values justice and is governed by politicians of integrity (and who do not have millions of dollars in overseas bank accounts).

Perhaps another of Sheikh Hasina's speeches is more enlightening. At a meeting in Bangladesh's capital on 26 December, she said: "Bangladesh should be developed and emerge with dignity in the global arena. We will make Dhaka a modern city free of criminal activities, traffic congestion and outages of power, water and gas, and we'll improve communication with other parts of the country." She continued: "We will build a developed country full of possibilities and free of poverty, where all will have access to healthcare and education. There will be food security, so no one is deprived of food. The challenges of the 21st century will be faced boldly."

Again, the aspiration is hard to fault. But the puzzle remains: there's no mention of e-government, computerised schools that do not require teachers, or boats that row themselves during the annual floods.  

This may sound cynical. But in a country where electricity is as intermittent as girls from poor homes being able to complete their full high-school education, the proclaimed "digital Bangladesh" already had the whiff of a vote-catching election gimmick. After the Awami League's decisive victory, I emailed the new government asking for more information about the initiative. So far, there has been no response.

"Digital Bangladesh" is working in one respect, however: there are jokes. A farmer sets off for the market to buy a cow. On the way, he meets a friend who tells him that he can buy one on a mobile-phone. The farmer calls the number and hears an automated message: "For cows press 1. For goats press 2. For chickens press 3." The farmer presses 1. "For Bangladeshi cow press 1. For foreign cow press 2." He presses 1. "For black cow press 1. For brown cow press 2. For white......" The line is disconnected: the farmer has used up all the credits on his phone.

The new Bangladesh still has a way to go. In fact, however, many in Bangladesh do believe that there is something to the "digital Bangladesh" notion. The slogan may yet lack actual substance, but people want it to become more than a virtual dream. The political notion has found a social echo that in post-election Bangladesh will not yet allow its promise to disappear. 

The cellular hope

The most enthusiastic supporters of the project are to be found on the social-networking site Facebook. The approximately 4,000 members of the "digital Bangladesh" group - almost all middle-class, urban-based and educated - are in varying degrees engaged by the idea of the country becoming technologically advanced.

Saiful is one. He writes that the "promise of a 'digital Bangladesh' has created renewed hopes in the government and the public equally, particularly for the young generation [ ]. Bangladesh can be the next destination of the IT generation all over the world. This campaign is like another War of Liberation, giving the country a real chance for a digital evolution."

Ismail writes: "Digital Bangladesher shopno amra dekhchhi - we can see the dream of ‘Digital Bangladesh‘". Mustafa says: "recently I visited some villages and talked to young housewives.... I was surprised to note that they are absolutely conscious about the future of their children's education. Even they think that their kids should know how to use computers".

But these young proponents of the cause are realistic. They ask how a digital Bangladesh is possible when there are regular power-cuts even in the major city-centres, and hold the government responsible for such failings; say that the general development of the country is hampered by pervasive corruption that is most visible in local and central government; and question where the money will come from. Most raise the issue of low literacy levels, and the consequence of the rural poor being left out of any kind of development. Engr, for example, asks: "What will ‘Digital Bangladesh' deliver? Is it important to [the] 80% underprivileged people of Bangladesh?...‘Digital Bangladesh' will be Frankenstein. Only 10-15% will take the opportunity and will deprive others using [the] ‘Digital Bangladesh' outcomes."

The comments and questions are impressive. But reading them left me no better informed. Here as elsewhere, there is very little actual explanation of the scope of "digital Bangladesh": its mission and goals, and a clear statement of how these will be achieved.

The modern vision 

Hafiz Siddiqi is the vice-chancellor of one of the largest private universities in Dhaka. He considers "digital Bangladesh" to be an extremely ambitious plan - and one with immense potential. He believes it will allow the country to become more efficient, transparent, and commercially more productive. The project in his view is about establishing an integrated Information and Communication Technology (ICT) network with education at the heart that could push Bangladesh towards the status of a middle-income country. This means building on and extending existing e-governance, e-commerce, e-banking, and mobile-phone network capacities. 

The universities are partly digitised already, all colleges, high schools, primary schools and madrasas will be wired with third-generation technology by 2021. "After five years of schooling, all students should have regular access to computers with internet facilities. The use of the automated library is spreading slowly in most universities, although they have to go a long way to be digital in the real sense". Hospitals, clinics, and healthcare services at all levels will also be connected electronically. This will mean that medical reports can be analysed in Dhaka, and recommendations and prescriptions for patients sent back to a village (perhaps hundreds of miles away) in a matter of minutes.

In the tricky area of governance, communication between those making the decisions and those employed to implement them will become faster and more effective. The monitoring of performance will be built in. For the first time, there will be an easy flow of information between ministries, administrative offices at district levels, right down to the village.

Siddiqi acknowledges that to realise the aspirations of the 2021 vision, the country must be able to produce its own engineers, scientists and technological know-how. This means more investment in education. If this doesn't happen, Bangladesh will be dependent and vulnerable. "If we fail to manage a sustainable digitised Bangladesh with our own resources, ‘Digital Bangladesh' 2021 will harm rather than benefit the country." 

The village voice

Bangladesh begins at the village level, far from the places where most university professors and Facebook users live. It is people living in rural areas who delivered victory to Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League. If "digital Bangladesh" is ever to be implemented, the rural inhabitants must be part of it and the government must make every effort to ensure this.

Many Bangladeshis living far from urban centres don't have electricity or clean drinking-water, and even face the prospect of dying in the bed they were born in after a life that has left them more impoverished than their parents.

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Also on Bangladesh in openDemocracy:

Farida Khan, "Getting real about globalisation in Bangladesh" (15 April 2004)

Naila Kabeer, "The cost of good intentions: 'solidarity' in Bangladesh" (24 June 2004)

Liz Philipson, "Bangladesh's fraying democracy" (26 June 2006)

Farida Khan, "Muhammad Yunus: an economics for peace" (25 October 2006)

Timothy Sowula, "Bangladesh's political meltdown" (24 November 2006)

Firdous Azim, "Women and religion in Bangladesh: new paths" (19 December 2007)

Jalal Alamgir, "Bangladesh: a verdict and a lesson" (13 February 2009)

Liz Philipson, "Bangladesh: revolt and fallout" (30 March 2009)

I visited a village that is eight hours' drive from the capital. A primary class is being held in the courtyard of the local mosque as there is no school here as such. When I arrive, around thirty 4- and 5-year-olds, arranged in rows and sitting cross-legged on the ground, are learning the English alphabet. The children are hardly dressed; none wears sandals. They share a few books, which are covered in old election posters.

The teacher, also bare-footed, is an elderly bearded man wearing a purple shirt and white hat. He is actually a rice farmer, but teaches the class a few times a week. He uses a stick - an extension of his finger - to poke dozing kids and tap the shoulders of the chatty ones. There are more girls here than boys, a proportion that will be reversed when the children are about 13.

I join the class at the letter H. "H diye house", the teacher says. "H diye house", the class repeats with enthusiasm. You can hear the joy of learning something weird and new in their shrill voices. "House holo ki?" ["What is a house?"], the teacher asks. He answers himself. "House holo basha." The kids repeat the words. "Who lives in your house?" he asks. The children shout out various responses: "my mum", "granddad", "uncle's wife", "my dad's cows", "our ducks". All of this takes place in Bangla.

They move onto the letter I. "I diye ice-cream". "Ice-cream holo ki?" the teacher asks. "Ice-cream holo ice-cream" the pupils answer. Some are surprised that "ice-cream" is the same in English and Bangla. "Ice-cream is bad for you" the teacher cautions. "You will get aches in your bellies if you eat too many of them". The class looks unconvinced.

Onto J. "J diye jug. Jug holo jug". Now the kids are laughing. This English thing is easy - they're mostly Bangla words! Two girls take the opportunity to sneak to the back, where there are taps used by the men of the village for ablution before prayers. The girls turn a tap on and stick their mouths to it. Dripping with water, they rejoin the class. "Water is very important", the teacher is telling the class, unaware he has two returned absconders. "If you don't drink enough water, you die. If you drink too much water, you also die. You have to drink the right amount. Only a little this way, or that way, and you will die". The teacher adds: "this is how Allah has made the world. He has told us about benefits and detriments. He wants you to follow those things that are beneficial to you and to avoid that which will be detrimental".

The class is interrupted by the call for the lunchtime prayers. The kids all run home for their rice. I ask the teacher (in English) what he thinks of "digital Bangladesh". He has no idea what I am saying. I try Bangla. He smiles and says he's never heard of it. I ask him whom he voted for in the election. It's not rude to ask here: almost everything in such places is party-politicised, and this kind of information is common knowledge to most anyway. He says, the boat - the symbol of the Awami League. I try to explain "digital Bangladesh" to him. From what he is able to grasp, he thinks it's a good idea. He would like computers for his students. He thinks they will really benefit from them. But he would like a school building first, some books and pens even. A fan for the hot season would also be good, as would be a lightbulb. 

The brave new world

"Digital Bangladesh" in its current iteration would benefit the urban middle classes and could bring significant progress. But this should not be at the expense of other provisions, which must be a priority in any event: including rural schools (chairs and tables and books and pens and fans and lightbulbs and all), as well as other essential services the rural poor have been denied for so long. The two types of project are not mutually exclusive, nor need they be in competition with each other.

In fact, a successful "digital Bangladesh" would need a more literate population. A mass computer-literacy programme or even a government-sponsored computer course, offered perhaps as an incentive for every student who completes his or her secondary-school education, would benefit everyone. If there is will - backed by investment - there is a way.

The signs are mixed. The new government blocked access to the video-sharing internet site YouTube after the posting there of a recording of army officers berating Sheikh Hasina over the deaths of their colleagues in the Bangladesh Rifles mutiny on 25-26 February 2009 (see Liz Philipson, "Bangladesh: revolt and fallout", 30 March 2009). The recording was quickly reposted to other internet sites via proxies - a technique developed by cyber-dissenters in China.

st1\:* { BEHAVIOR: url(#ieooui) }Such behaviour - reflecting the wider political culture of control and personalism that has handicapped the country since independence - casts doubt over the government's integrity vis-à-vis "digital Bangladesh". Insofar as it has substance, the 2021 vision carries hopes for a different approach: more democracy, transparency, and accountability - ideals that successive Bangladeshi governments have eroded and treated as anomalies. A meaningful "digital Bangladesh" would start at the top: effective websites for government departments, departmental financial accounts published online, citizens' direct email access to public representatives, the voting record of every MP open to scrutiny. Such a "digital Bangladesh" would help to change the political culture for the better. If combined with essential social-development programmes that bring measurable improvements to Bangladesh's rural inhabitants, the result would be a major advance for the country. Are Bangladesh's leaders willing to rise to the challenge?

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