A reflection of unpreparedness?

Mridul Chowdhury

Published in the Daily Star on 30 June 2009.

THERE is no doubt that Digital Bangladesh is not only a catch-phrase for the government, but is also a reflection of the common man’s desire for a better and modern Bangladesh. The once popular phrase Shonar Bangla is now being replaced by “Digital Bangladesh.”

The national budget reflects the government’s commitment towards Digital Bangladesh, but possibly falls short with respect to giving a clear direction about the approach it will take to realise the goal. Its commitment is indicated by the fact that the total allocation for ICT-related components has substantially increased from last year.

However, there are also indications that the level of commitment may not be matched by the degree of preparation needed for creating Digital Bangladesh, since it is very much of a cross-cutting issue that permeates across almost all sectors.

One of the most talked-about components of Digital Bangladesh is the issue of e-governance, which gets vague and scattered mention in the budget. There is a statement that “we want to transform to e-governance by 2014″ without an explanation of what it means. There are many e-governance projects underway — so the process has already started. In that context, the meaning of this statement is unclear.

Furthermore, except for NBR automation and land record management automation, there is no specific mention of any other digitisation/automation or e-governance project. This does not necessarily indicate a lack of commitment, but possibly reflects a lack of adequate planning prior to budget presentation.

While the government is focused on finding public-private partnership (PPP) solutions for infrastructure development, this attention has not diffused through to issues of e-governance. The section on PPP does not mention e-governance at all, although there is significant scope for private sector partnership, and not just outsourcing opportunities, in this sector. Sustainability of e-governance projects often depends on whether the technological partner has invested in the success of the project. The budget does not reflect that there is adequate appreciation of this aspect within the government.

An example from a neighbouring country can give a better sense of what I am talking about. The Bangalore One initiative by the government of the Indian state of Karnataka covers 26 citizen services pertaining to 11 government departments. There are 17 centres through which these services are provided to citizens. This entire service delivery mechanism has been made possible with little investment from the government since there are 6 private sector players involved, including software companies and banks.

The budget also does not reflect an understanding of the biggest problems of the software industry, which is the main engine for creating a Digital Bangladesh. The two biggest bottlenecks that the software industry is currently facing are — financing options and availability of skilled human resources with technological and management capabilities.

The government has attempted to address the first bottleneck by doubling the Equity and Entrepreneurship Fund (EEF) of the Bangladesh Bank from Tk.100 crores to Tk.200 crores, although the finance minister makes no mention of the fact that there is implementation challenge in the disbursement mechanism itself, since identifying innovative software companies requires a different set of criteria and skill level on the part of the fund manager.

This EEF had remained unused in previous years — so the solution is not necessarily to increase the amount of the fund but to develop capacity to disburse the funds and perhaps also link it to possible PPP initiatives in e-governance.

With respect to the second bottleneck, the finance minister makes no clear commitment except to “target a benchmark of 4,000 computer engineers and scientists graduating each year from the last year of our tenure.” There is no clear allocation of funds associated with this commitment. The software industry has long been proposing the development of training institutes to make the computer engineers and scientists “industry-ready” since the curriculum and approach taken by most universities do not prepare their graduates for employment in the industry.

The Bangladesh Computer Council has, for many years, been subsidising internship of students employed in the software sector, but a more systematic approach to preparing human resource needs more targeted focus from the government.

With respect to access to information and communication technologies, the government makes high-level commitment by promising to extend the reach of fiber optic cables within the country and linking to a second submarine cable. In a time of growing access to Internet through mobile phone networks and upcoming Wimax technologies, one fails to see why the government is still focused on building out fiber optic cables when the real issue that remains untouched is how common people will get access to computers and Internet in an affordable way. Building and extension of telecenters (or “rural cyber-cafes”) is not mentioned, neither is the issue of using government post-offices as telecenters.

With regards to applications of ICT in education and health, the budget demonstrated very little understanding of the issues involved. Even after years of advocacy by NGOs and UNDP, this year’s budget again reflects that the government still seems to fail to appreciate the issue of use of ICT tools for general education — that sending computers to school should not only be aimed at making students computer-literate. The issue of ICT tools for health services in disadvantaged areas is also not touched upon at all.

With respect to taxation, some essential drivers of Digital Bangladesh, such as mobile phones, computer monitors and printers, are taxed more than deemed appropriate by relevant quarters.

The budget makes one wonder whether the government is a bit unprepared when it comes to Digital Bangladesh. An emergency fund of Tk.100 crore has been allocated with no clear indication of what it will be spent for. Furthermore, the administrative mechanism for realising Digital Bangladesh is still a bit unclear since the points of decision-making and implementation monitoring seem to be scattered across several government entities.

In the budget speech, there is mention of the government working with IT associations for “creating a workplan.” This can be seen as a positive sign to engage the private sector, but it can also indicate lack of adequate preparation within the government. We are anxiously waiting to see which is true.

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