Throughout history, any process of innovation has not been readily accepted. The target can first appear overly ambitious and out of reach. Indeed, the first reaction is often no reaction at all. Ridicule follows, with the innovator chastised for their ludicrous propositions and in receipt of little to no support. Significant pushbacks and barriers follow the ridicule in the face of persistence. Eventually, with determination and perseverance, success is achieved. That is the story of Bangladesh of 50 years ago in 1971, and the Bangladesh of today, in 2021.

This process of innovation was pivotal to Bangladesh’s independence in 1971, which took place under the leadership of Bangladesh’s founding leader Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. The core idea behind innovation involves reaching that tipping point and creating an avalanche effect: an independence movement. Some 50 years later, the same process of innovation has been reapplied to fulfill the vision of Digital Bangladesh under the guidance Bangladesh’s current prime minister, Sheikh Hasina.

In June 2021, Mihir Sharma of Delhi-based think tank Observer Research Foundation noted in a Bloomberg column that Bangladesh, a country that secured independence from Pakistan, was 70% poorer than Pakistan in 1971 but is now 45% richer in 2021.

Bangladesh has a very specific mission: to become a poverty-free, high-income, equitable and prosperous nation by 2041. In order for Bangladesh to succeed with its mission, the process of innovation needs to be at the forefront.

The process of innovation has three integral components. It is difficult, if not impossible, to create impact without these components. They are:

1. A need to include goal-setting

The goal-setting that exists in the process of innovation must be like unshakeable faith. Nothing happens by accident either; it is deliberate, steadfast and unwavering.

Mujib believed in Bangladesh’s freedom from colonial oppression: a vision built upon principles and values of freedom and self-determination, and ultimately won through resilience. In his speech during the 29th session of the UN General Assembly in 1974, he recounted the value of setting goals with conviction.

The Government of Bangladesh’s Digital Bangladesh vision, set in 2009, was an ambitious goal to become a knowledge-based, middle-income country by 2021, the 50th anniversary of the nation’s independence. Over 12 years, the vision has permeated different layers of government and society. It galvanised collaboration and innovation to fast-track the country’s development.

2. Experimentation, setbacks, and course-correction

The process of innovation is steeped with uncertainty, ambiguity, risks and setbacks. It warrants experimentation and perseverance. As Thomas Edison famously said to a reporter when asked how it felt to have failed a thousand times before inventing the light bulb: ‘I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.’

The process of innovation is steeped with uncertainty, ambiguity, risks and setbacks.

Mujib experienced a series of events in his fight for the liberation of Bangladesh. While these events – such as the six-point policy appeal of 1966 – are recognised as seminal events in Bangladesh’s history, they did not achieve expected outcomes immediately. Yet, they slowly chipping away at the oppressive establishment, building momentum for independence.

For Digital Bangladesh, it was also a series of events that paved the way for its current state in 2021. Every government entity, ministries and agencies, was encouraged to get involved with digitising their services. The ultimate goal was to cultivate empathy for citizens in civil servants and use that to drive reduction of the time (T), cost (C) and the number of visits (V). As a term, ‘TCV’ has become a byword for innovation in the government. The result: digitisation of public services alone has saved Bangladeshi taxpayers over USD 10 billion in 12 years in terms of TCV reduction.

To create confidence, the Government of Bangladesh established achievable small innovation initiatives, or so-called ‘quick wins.’ Quick wins intended to reduce citizens’ hassle by lowering TCV. There were over 2,500 such innovation initiatives between 2009 and 2017, but many of them did not see the light of day.

These experiments were met with several setbacks. Not only were they severely criticised, but also funding ran out and policies were blocked. Nevertheless, a broad-based coalition was formed to oversee the ultimate objective. Soon a culture of citizen-centric innovation which encouraged risk-taking and experimentation was inculcated.

One of the quick wins which did not proceed beyond the prototype stage was the eco-milk analyser for milk production, the cooperative Milk Vita. The eco-milk analyser was ultimately created to test the purity of milk provided by producers. Another example is the e-Purjee (electronic purchase order) of the publicly owned Bangladesh Sugar and Food Industries Corporation which created a massive impact for a few years but failed to evolve.

In Bangladesh, the digitisation of the mutation of land ownership has been a cumbersome process. The initial efforts to develop a digital mutation system by pioneering the Assistant Commissioner (AC) Land, the authority for land record-keeping, dissipated. However, it gave rise to an advanced e-Mutation system that is now running in all local AC Land offices across the country.

In 2021, a culture of experimentation has been instilled in every government agency in Bangladesh. The corresponding government entities are exploring ways to increase agricultural productivity, reimagine our education system for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, improve the quality of public health care, address the impact of climate change and combat disinformation in cyberspace.

3. Innovation must be scalable

Too often, innovation appears to be nothing but flashy ideas that cannot be scaled up and reach the masses. Innovations, without the ability to scale up, ultimately become meaningless.

For Bangladesh’s independence in 1971, the scaling up was the gradual building of momentum since the 1950s. Numerous skirmishes and setbacks culminated in the War of Liberation. Even then, many within the country still did not believe it was possible to achieve independence.

With Digital Bangladesh 2021, the scaling up was initially ridiculed and it required pushing back against an archaic bureaucratic system replete with vested interests. The vision has culminated in a modern, knowledge-based economy which saves billions of dollars and billions of workdays due to reductions in the TCV required to access government services.

The Digital Centres, which started life as a quick win initiative, went from being just an experiment across 100 unions in 2009 to numbering over 4,500 by 2010. That is one in every smallest administrative unit of Bangladesh. By 2021, over 280 types of services are being delivered to five to six million underserved citizens from these Digital Centres every month.

Another remarkable example of scaleup in Bangladesh is the Teacher’s Portal. It was a platform designed for teachers to help them improve their teaching skills and designing better lessons through an online, peer-to-peer communication platform. It started with just 23 teachers in 2011, and now it boasts nearly 600,000 teachers.

Bangladesh’s experience highlights an important point: the scale up would not have happened without the experimentation (quick wins) on the one hand; and the experimentation would not have happened without the goal-setting (Digital Bangladesh Vision 2021) on the other hand.

 

Looking to the future

Economically, Bangladesh has become a middle-income country, it is poised for LDC graduation by 2026, and it is planning to be a poster-country for the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. Yet, Bangladesh’s loftiest mission is to become a poverty-free, high-income nation by 2041.

 

What must Bangladesh achieve by the time it turns 70?

First off, it is important to remember that the driving philosophy of Bangladesh’s two big visions, the Liberation War and Digital Bangladesh, was the emancipation of the most marginalised in society. The vision is focused around those who are prone to being left behind, be it from a colonial past or unfettered capitalism.

…Digital Bangladesh was a vision, before the SDGs were even conceived, to leave no Bangladeshi behind.

Bangladesh’s Liberation War addressed the social injustice and hardships borne by the marginalised communities. Similarly, Digital Bangladesh was a vision, before the SDGs were even conceived, to leave no Bangladeshi behind.

Bangladesh may, however, be missing the equity parameter and widening the digital divide – something that is also indicated by a steadily increasing Gini Coefficient. Addressing digital divide is more important than ever because as more services go online, the digital divide will exacerbate the education, health, social and economic divides.

Here are a few considerations to bridge the digital divide:

1. Connectivity gap

The digital divide has arguably been more visible in the wake of the covid-19 pandemic. This has been particularly evident in education. According to a research in May 2021 jointly conducted by Bangladeshi think tanks the Power and Participation Research Centre (PPRC) and BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD), 19% of primary school and 25% of secondary school children in Bangladesh are at risk of learning loss. Furthermore, only 10% of students had access to distance learning opportunities to compensate for school closure.

While it has become customary for Bangladesh’s annual budget to earmark a huge sum of subsidies to the power sector, the time has come to designate internet connectivity as a basic utility as well. Subsidising is needed to ensure high-speed, reliable and affordable internet connectivity to learners from all walks of life. This policy step is a necessity if Bangladesh is truly serious about leaving no child behind.

2. Identity gap

In Bangladesh, the digital divide has also been apparent in the small, marginalised businesses, particularly the Cottage, Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (CMSME) who form the informal economy. CMSMEs are the lifeblood of Bangladesh, accounting for 25% of Bangladesh’s GDP and about 36% of all labour employed in the country. As per a detailed study jointly conducted by consulting firm Lightcastle Partners and online marketplace Sheba.xyz at the end of April 2020, over 50% of SMEs had stopped operations.  A further 30% of SMEs saw at least a 50% drop in revenue, and 14% of them had to lay off all employees. Bangladeshi CMSMEs lack a ‘digital footprint’ which is necessary for the appropriate credit score to access subsidised soft loans which have been provided by the government during the pandemic.

The first order of business is therefore to enable a digital footprint for CMSMEs. It will ensure a universal, standardised unique digital ID for each of them – very similar to government-issued ID for every citizen. This CMSME ID will empower their entry into the digital world of payments, subsidies, credits, commerce and insurance. It will essentially pave the way to the mantra of ‘leaving no business behind.’

3. Skills gap

Providing digital access and facilities is not enough. Marginalised individuals, communities and businesses too often do not have the right skills to best utilise these resources. In Bangladesh, initiatives such as the Digital Centres act as a necessary bridge between digital services and people. But it is not the long-term solution.

Eventually, Bangladesh must prioritise ensuring digital skills to its entire population, not just selective parts of society. If there is skepticism about whether near-illiterate people can acquire meaningful digital skills, one only has to look at the ubiquity of mobile phones in Bangladesh to dispel that doubt.

To make the services easier the interfaces need to be in the native language. Bangla voice-controlled interfaces within the mobile devices have to be developed. With the advent of the Fourth Industrial Revolution upon us, it is very possible to leverage the most advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence and big data analysis to develop these interfaces and bridge the digital skills divide.

4. Design gap

Digitisation has often not been demand-driven. Typically, services must be simplified before digitising it. Otherwise, as Bill Gates famously said, ‘automation can amplify inefficiency inherent in an analog system.’ This has happened in innumerable cases. Instead of reducing TCV, digitisation has often increased complexity.

All digital journeys should start by walking – not just a few steps, but a mile at least – in the shoes of the end user and seeing the world through their lens.

How do I want the service? Where do I want it? Who can help me access it? Am I saving TCV after digitisation? Am I saving hassle?

Only with proper answers, true citizen-centric design is possible. Policymakers in Bangladesh ought to keep that in mind.

5. Information gap

Governments are in general bad marketers. It is both an issue of lacking marketing skill on the part of the government and a lack of trust in government messaging on the part of citizens. What is more egregious is the fact that, too often, it is the target audience who are deprived of services simply as a result of not knowing about them.

For Bangladesh, the marketing skill will not mature overnight, but the government must go beyond launching-program-as-the-only-marketing-event syndrome. Information dissemination on important digital services through print, electronic and social media must be consistent, aggressive and targeted. The trust parameter will not change overnight. That is why there is a critical need to utilise the non-state actors and communities in this information dissemination strategy.

The situation should be regularly monitored by the Cabinet Division, the Government of Bangladesh’s inter-ministerial coordination body.

6. Urban gap

In the case of Bangladesh, most people associate the poor with rurality. However, as data from Statista databank demonstrates, the urban population in Bangladesh has steadily been rising and, in 2019, it stood at over 37% of the total population. According to the World Bank, more than half of Bangladesh’s poor households will live in urban areas by 2030. The covid-19 pandemic only served to aggravate that situation, with millions of the urban poor losing their livelihoods and joining the newly poor.

…more than half of Bangladesh’s poor households will live in urban areas by 2030.

Digital Bangladesh has not addressed the needs of the urban poor. The urban poor has neither the financial means nor the literacy to gain access to digital devices, and unlike the rural poor, they do not have well-functioning Digital Centres within a short distance to provide assistance.

As such, a critical focus of Digital Bangladesh must be to digitise the services of urban municipal bodies, namely City Corporations and Pourashavas, in a citizen-centric way.

 

Drawing inspiration from the past

Looking to the future, to reach the goal of an innovative, poverty-free, developed country by 2041, Bangladesh must continue to draw inspiration from its Liberation War. As digitisation and the Fourth Industrial Revolution sweep across the world, supercharged by the pandemic, key questions must be re-asked: is the common person benefiting from digital initiatives undertaken in Bangladesh? Equally, is the spirit of leaving no one behind guiding the country’s policies? Let that be the compass that guides Bangladesh.

 

Photo ©️ Mahmud Hossain Opu

Anir Chowdhury
Anir Chowdhury is the Policy Advisor of the Government of Bangladesh’s a2i programmme supported by UNDP. He is a tech-entrepreneur turned gov-preneur. He co-founded several software and services companies and non-profits in the US and Bangladesh. He is a member of Bangladesh Prime Minister’s National Digital Task Force. He pursued his undergraduate studies at Brown University and graduate studies on management, marketing, and education reform at Harvard University, Columbia University, Bradford University, Oxford University and Boston University.