About Masum Billah

Md Masum Billah is a Bangladeshi ICT4D professional with global experience. Billah worked with several ICT4D projects in Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka and Uganda supported by institutions like the telecentre.org, IDRC, Microsoft, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the World Bank, UNDP, Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex, UK, and University of Washington, USA.

The Telecentre Movement in Bangladesh: Ups and Downs From 1987 to Present

bangladesh-telecentre

Telecentres are known to ICT4D professional as a popular ICT4D initiative to bridge digital divides and build an information society, one aspect of the WISIS 2003/2005 agenda. Being influenced by the WISIS Geneva and Tunisia summit, International donors prioritised telecentre projects in South Asian and African countries. As a result, the telecentre movement was at its peak during last decade in Bangladesh, however telecentres started in Bangladesh in 1987.

Because of my involvement with the telecentre movement in South Asian and African countries during that period, I am in a position to reflect their history and impact. In this post, I am describing the ups and downs of the telecentre movement in Bangladesh from my own experience.

Inception of telecentres in Bangladesh

In 1987, Dhaka Ahsania Mission (DAM) launched Gonokendra (people’s centres), which is considered as the first generation telecentre in Bangladesh. The services of Gonokendra includes facilities to read newspapers, exchange experiences, learn from success stories, get information about innovations to improve livelihoods, etc. using mainly hard copy materials as only 5% of them had computers, none of which had internet connectivity.

After several years, in 2001, organisations like Amader Gram and Relief International started their telecentre projects. With other factors, availability of GSM based internet connectivity (GPRS, EDGE), played a significant role in boosting telecentres during 2005. After 2005 several organisations including corporate organisations like Grameen Phone started telecentres for their commitments to society.

Telecentre as a movement in Bangladesh

Telecentre.org supported the inception of the telecentre movement in Bangladesh which was started with ‘Building Telecentre Family in Bangladesh: A Workshop for the Social Entrepreneurs and Practitioners’ held in Rangpur Bangladesh during August 27-29, 2006.

I am fortunate to have first-hand experience of the workshop where participating organisations in Bangladesh decided to consider telecentre as a movement to fight against poverty and carry it forward. Telecentre.org provided support to learn from the experience in India, Sri Lanka and Uganda to ensure sustainability of the movement.

Birth of Bangladesh Telecentre Network (BTN)

After much though about the modalities to make the initiative sustainable, the momentum created in Rangpur continued with the financial support of telecentre.org to develop a network organisation for telecentre activist in Bangladesh. As an ICT4D professional, I was proud to lead the development of the website, mission2011.net.bd and tools like GIS Based National Telecentre Database and Telecentre Reference Desk which was aiming to help BTN members.

Unfortunately, the member organisations were not encouraged enough to take over those tools after the network start-up funding from telectetre.org ended.

Mission 2011: Pledge to establish 40000 telecentre by 2011

Inspired by the ‘Mission 2007’ of India, BTN declared an ambitious ‘Mission 2011’ to establish 40,000 telecentres in Bangladesh by the 40th anniversary of the independence of Bangladesh adding up the commitments for new telecentres of the members. Gradually, BTN started to realise that it is impossible to reach the target. Despite of efforts to convince people BTN could not stop some of the critics. Unfortunately, like many other development projects BTN’s influence becomes weaker with the phase out of donor funds.

I had access to the complete list of telecentres in Bangladesh as the Bangladesh country manager of the Global Impact Studies. According to my analysis Mission 2011 was able to achieve less than 10% of its target, however my colleagues claim that it played an important role to include telecentre as an agenda in the Digital Bangladesh declaration of the Government of Bangladesh.

Government take over telecentres and scale them up

The Access to Information (A2I) Programme housed in the Prime Minister’s office of the Government of Bangladesh took over the idea. As a result, on November 2010, the Prime Minister of Bangladesh inaugurated one Union Information and Service Centres (UISC) in each Union Parisad (4,501 telecentres in total). However, all of them were not operational at the beginning.

Recently, Bengali newspapers published several articles criticising the quality of UISC services. During my visit to Rangpur and Barisal region in November 2013, I found that among 60 farmers I talked to, only three know about the centres and one used their services. The farmer seems not so happy, but he mentioned it is better to have something than nothing.

Sustainability of Bangladeshi Telecentre

As we know, the sustainability of telecentre is a widely debated issue. A significant number of ICT4D professional and academics claims telecentres are not sustainable. However, there is another group who claims some of the telecentres are sustainable. The case of Bangladesh is not an exception.

As the Bangladesh country manager of the Global Impact Studies, Survey my observation is, on an average only 5 people visits a telecentre each day which is not enough to earn enough revenue for sustainability. However, there may be some exceptional cases.

3 Tangible Outcomes from Digital Bangladesh: An Inspiration for South Asia

digital-bangladesh

In 2008, the government of Bangladesh announced a ‘Vision 2021’ pledge is to improve the quality of life and quality of governance, and achieve mid-income country status by the year 2021, on the golden jubilee of the nation.

The vision was widely appreciated because of its intention to ensure inclusive innovation. The government of Bangladesh is in a process of developing a ‘Perspective Plan of Bangladesh 2010-2021’ to operationalize the vision throughout the country.

Digital Bangladesh

One aspect of Vision 2021 is Digital Bangladesh, a pledge to use modern technology to impact every aspect of public and private life by 2021. Digital Bangladesh is being implemented by the Access to Information (A2I) Programme housed in the Prime Minister’s office of the government of Bangladesh, and they have developed ‘the Strategic Priorities of Digital Bangladesh’ in January 2011, three years after the Vision 2021 declaration.

The strategic priorities of Digital Bangladesh are:

  1. Human resource development
  2. Connecting citizens
  3. Digital government for pro-poor service delivery
  4. ICT in business

Now considering where the Bangladesh government is starting from, and potential impeding factors like lack of skills, infrastructure, integration among interventions and political unrest in the country, the Digital Bangladesh goal of a discrimination, corruption, poverty and hunger free happy, prosperous and educated mid-income country driven by ICTs by 2021, is quite ambitious.

There is no quick solution to these issues, and doing anything on a national scale is very complex and depends on many factors, however, we are hopeful because Bangladesh has achieved most of the targets under MDG goals well before the deadline, and Digital Bangladesh has already achieved three major impacts:

New Technologies

To create enabling environment the government has formed several policies like

  1. National ICT policy 2009
  2. Right to Information Act 2009
  3. Information and Communication Technology (Amendment) Act, 2009
  4. Bangladesh Hi-tech Park Authority Act, 2010
  5. International Long Distance Telecommunications Services Policy (ILDTS)
  6. Telecommunications Act, 2010
  7. Bangladesh Telegraph and Telephone Board Act, 2009
  8. Broadband Policy, 2009
  9. Pornography Act, 2011
  10. Rural Connectivity Policy 2010
  11. Format of the Public Private Partnership Policy

The enabling policies made it possible for corporate sector to reach the bottom of the pyramid and as a result mobile subscription, Internet subscription, and use of ICTs in every step of life had a tremendous increase.

In addition, we’ve seen a welcomed increase in new technologies. Previously, WiMAX, VOIP, 3G and Community Radio were illegal in Bangladesh. As a result of Digital Bangladesh, WiMax technology was legalised in 2009. VOIP was legalised in early 2010, and the Government has issued licenses for community radio starting in December 2010.  The 3G technology providers have received licence to start operation from October 2013.

New Programs

To reach the last mile the government has established 4,501 Information Service Centres at each Union Parishad, the smallest rural administrative and local government units in Bangladesh, and e-Service Centres in each office of the 64 Deputy Commissioners, the District level administrative units in Bangladesh.

The e-Service centres provide access to agriculture, health, education, social safety net, legal aid, disaster management and enforcement of law related services. InfoKosh has-been introduced at the national level to make available livelihood content. As many as 220 organisations and about 50,000 information articles have been uploaded on this website by May, 2011.

Digital Bangladesh has resulted the e-services including:

In addition, actions are underway to prepare a National E-Governance Architecture (NEA) to implement ICT projects in public offices.

The government has introduced e-GP (Electronic Government Procurement) system in public procurement to introduce digital system. The digital land management system has been introduced in order to make land administration and management transparent and accountable.

The government is in a process of establishment of multimedia classroom in all educational institutions to sensitise the teachers for developing digital content. To date, 3,172 Computer Labs and 80 Smart Class Rooms have been set up in different educational institutions across the country. As many as 325 textbooks of Primary, Secondary, Madrasa and Technical Education Board have adopted e-Book versions, which can be accessed from www.ebook.gov.bd.

New Mind-set

As you can see, the hype around Digital Bangladesh has already caused several changes in Bangladesh. Most significantly, I would say, is the mind-set of government officials.

As an ICT4D professional, I used to experience difficulties explaining how technology could be used for social and economic development, but now almost everyone have an understanding about ICTs and their impact. Maybe the understanding is not 100% accurate, but the important thing is now the government and social sectors welcome ICTs.

We may have a long way to go, but the process of digital government has started in Bangladesh.