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Bangladesh beyond 50: What got us here will take us there

Date: 9 June, 2022

Writer : Anir Chowdhury
Source : Dhaka Tribune

Reading Time: 18 Minutes

9 June, 2022
Writer : Anir Chowdhury
Source : Dhaka Tribune
· Reading Time: 18 Minutes

Bangladesh beyond 50: What got us here will take us there

Bangladesh beyond 50: What got us here will take us there

“First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win.” 

These were the words of conviction of Mahatma Gandhi, and they tell the story of Bangladesh. The Bangladesh of 50 years ago in 1971, the Bangladesh of 2021, and the Bangladesh of the future.

More specifically, this reflection is an analogy to the process of innovation. The process of innovation that throughout history has not been readily accepted. So ambitious, so out of reach appears the target that the first reaction is often no reaction at all, followed by ridicule, with the innovator chastised for their ludicrous propositions and receiving little to no support, and often, facing significant pushbacks and barriers.

It was this process of innovation, of reaching that tipping point, and creating that avalanche effect, that was pivotal to Bangladesh’s mission of independence in 1971 under the leadership of the Father of the Nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. The same process of innovation has been reapplied to the mission of Digital Bangladesh, 50 years later, in 2021 under the guidance of his daughter, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

How fitting then it must be said, that as the father dared to dream of an independent, prosperous, and equitable nation and devoted his life to shaping that vision, his daughter dared to dream of surmounting all obstacles to inspire collective belief in that vision and making that a reality, and this time using modern tools of technology.

Bangladesh’s story in 2021, dubbed as an “economic success story” by the Economic Times, is already a remarkable non-achievement of Kissinger’s basket case. The Economist recognized that its “economic growth exceeded 7% for four years in a row, outpacing not just Pakistan and India, but even China.”

Bangladesh left naysayers in disbelief, some in shock, when it forged past India in GDP per capita income in late 2020 and reached over $2200 as of May 2021, and had the highest growth of 5% in 2020, a period when South Asia experienced a negative growth of 6%.

The innovative spirit of Bangladesh and its people, seeded by Bangabandhu, and nurtured by his daughter, makes the country’s story focus on a very specific mission of becoming a poverty-free, high-income, equitable, and prosperous nation by 2041. In order for Bangladesh to be successful in fulfilling this future mission, it is this process of innovation that will continue to be the primary driver.

What truly is innovation? Innovation is not just the“Eureka moment” that Archimedes experienced. It is a process. The process has three integral components. It is difficult, if not impossible, to create impact without these. The components are goal-setting, experimentation, and scaling up.

Innovation must include goal-setting

This goal-setting must be to the point where it resembles an unshakeable faith. There is no compromise allowed on this goal. There is nothing accidental about this either. It is deliberate, steadfast, and unwavering.

In the case of Mission Independence 1971, Bangabandhu always believed in and fought for Bangladesh’s freedom from old and new colonial oppression; built upon principles and values of freedom and self-determination, and won through the resilience and bravery of the Bangladeshi people.

In his historic speech in the 29th session of the UN General Assembly on 25th September, 1974, he recounted to world leaders the value of setting goals with conviction that made countries like Bangladesh independent: “Millions of freedom fighters of Asia, Africa and Latin America had to sacrifice their lives in order to achieve the right to self-control … The struggle hasn’t ended in failure. Great victory has been achieved in Algeria, Vietnam, Bangladesh, and Guinea-Bissau. It is proved by the victory that history is in favour of the people and the final victory of justice is inevitable.”

Set a goal to be a free country. Create belief in the masses. Meet the goal.

For Mission Digital Bangladesh 2021, the ambitious goal set was to become a knowledge-based, middle-income country by the 50th anniversary of the nation’s independence. Sheikh Hasina proudly proclaimed in her UN General Assembly speech on 26th September, 2009: “My government has already embarked on a Digital Bangladesh journey by implementing its Vision 2021 election manifesto. Our goal is to transform Bangladesh into Sonar Bangla or Golden Bengal as envisioned by Bangabandhu.”

Set a goal to be a middle-income country by leveraging technology. Create belief in the masses. Meet the goal.

Over the last 12 years, the boldness of this vision embodied by her dynamic leadership, not to mention having the political will to execute that vision, permeated to different tiers of government and society, and galvanized widespread collaboration and unprecedented innovation to fast track the country’s rate of development.

High-growth and yet inclusive, self-dependent and yet collaborative, respectful of heritage and yet opportunistic in its use of new technologies, the country is poised to graduate from a Least Developed Country (LDC) status but, more importantly, by human development indicators, has already achieved a level of development commonly predicted for countries with twice its per capita income.

Innovation must allow experimentation, setbacks, and course-correction

The process of innovation is steeped with uncertainty, ambiguity, risks, and setbacks that warrant an appetite for experimentation and perseverance.

As Thomas Edison famously said to the 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.”

In our remembrance of 1971 and Bangladesh’s independence, we must not forget the events of 1952, when the Bengali Language Movement reached its climax. Or, the elections in 1954 when the Awami League-led United Front won a landslide victory against the ruling party; or, the student movement of 1962 to protest the “anti-poor” education policy spontaneously giving rise to a people’s movement; or, the 6-point movement of 1966 for autonomy led by Bangabandhu. We must also remember the Agartala Conspiracy Case against Bangabandhu and the subsequent mass uprising in 1969, and the general elections of December 1970.

These were all seminal events, which were steps often not achieving expected outcomes immediately, but all the while chipping away at the oppressive establishment, building momentum, and galvanizing the collective struggle for independence. As a result, we persevered under the guidance and leadership of Bangabandhu, and our course took shape to fulfill the eventual mission of independence and liberation.

For Digital Bangladesh, it was also a series of events that paved the way for its current state. To this effect, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina must be lauded for her patience, encouraging each ministry and department to start getting their feet wet in terms of digitizing their services to reduce time (T), cost (C) and the number of visits (V) — or “TCV” for short; a term that has become a byword for innovation in the Bangladesh government — required of citizens to access them.

The ‘Quick Wins’ — easily achievable small innovation initiatives — created confidence within the government about possibilities of reducing citizens’ hassle by lowering TCV.

There were over 2,500 such innovation initiatives between 2009 and 2017. Many of them did not see the light of day in terms of full implementation. Many failed in fact. But each one of them left critical lessons of what worked and what did not.

While there were many setbacks along the way, the lessons have been important to persist and steadily work on creating a culture of citizen-centric innovation that features a space for taking risks and experimenting. Our Prime Minister’s repeated assurance that “Failure was OK” was picked up by leaders in our cabinet and civil service in their expression and action.

This culture of innovation resulted in opening up Union Parishads to micro-entrepreneurs, thereby creating Union Digital Centres, leasing public optical fibre to private sector to ensure fibre to the rural areas for high-speed internet connectivity to the underserved, and developing quick rental power plants to meet the country’s aggressive electricity needs in the short term, all contributing significantly to the country’s bold march towards its middle-income status in 2021.

Each of these experiments met with many setbacks along the way in terms of severe criticisms, dried-up funding, policy blockades, and sometimes even pauses for indefinite periods of time. But in each case, a dedicated group of people found ways to keep pushing and enlarge the supportive coalition of actors because they saw the ultimate goal and helped others see it.

In 2021, we see this culture in every ministry and every department within the government, exploring ways to increase agricultural productivity, reimagine our education system so it equips the leaders of tomorrow with 21st century skills, ensure quality healthcare for all, deal with the rapidly changing nature of work, address the disastrous impact of climate change, and combating disinformation in a world increasingly influenced by it.

Innovation must be scalable

Too often, we see innovation at the periphery. Flashy ideas that have been unable to scale up and reach the masses. But what good are such ideas, if they cannot eventually reach the millions of people they are meant to benefit?

Innovations, without the ability to scale, become meaningless.

For Mission Independence 1971, the scaling up was the gradual building of momentum since the 1950s, the numerous skirmishes, setbacks, and experiences that culminated in the War of Liberation. Echoing Gandhi once again, the steps along the way were scoffed at, and many within the country itself did not believe it was possible to achieve freedom.

The oppressive Pakistani forces tried everything to stop this momentum, even employing despicable tactics such as Operation Searchlight to cripple Bangladesh by eliminating our intellectuals and thought leaders. However, nothing could stop Bangladesh’s independence. As Bangabandhu said, “final victory of justice is inevitable.”

With Mission Digital Bangladesh 2021, the scaling up was going from being ridiculed about going digital, to pushing back against an archaic, bureaucratic system infested with vested interests, and eventually creating a modern, knowledge-based economy and a digital country that has saved its citizens tens of billions of dollars and billions of workdays in terms of massive reductions in TCV required to access government services alone.

Take the Digital Centres, which started life as a Quick Wins initiative. They went from being purely an experiment in 100 unions in 2009 to numbering over 4,500 by 2014 — that is, one in every union of Bangladesh — overcoming severe funding crises and administrative hurdles along the way, taking nearly 150 services to citizens’ doorsteps. Today, over 280 types of services are delivered to 5 to 6 million underserved citizens from these Digital Centres.

Another remarkable example of scaleup is the Teacher’s Portal that started with just 23 teachers 10 years ago and now boasts more than 600,000 teachers, helping one another improve their teaching skills and designing better lessons through this online, peer-to-peer, social platform.

While many innovation initiatives do not scale up, the ones that do change the world for the better. It is important to recognize that the scale up would not have happened without the experimentation (Quick Wins); and the experimentation would not have happened without the goal-setting (Digital Bangladesh Vision 2021).

Looking to the future

2021 was the watershed year to achieve the Digital Bangladesh Mission, and we are well on our way. Economically, we have become a middle-income country, are poised for LDC graduation in the next few years, and are planning to be a poster-child nation of Sustainable Development Goals achievement.

Ultimately, Bangladesh’s loftiest mission is to be achieved 20 years later, as it seeks to become a poverty-free, high-income nation by 2041, on its path to realizing the “Shonar Bangla” of Bangabandhu’s dreams.

At this point, we must ask ourselves, standing at 50, what must Bangladesh achieve by 70?

Given how radically the twin effects of technology and climate change are transforming society, the global economy, and our planet at unprecedented speed, at a policy level, it has to be about developing the capacity for anticipatory governance; and at an implementation level, evolving into a government that is integrated, adaptive, and anticipatory.

Like most countries around the world, Bangladesh started digitizing based around the traditional, often archaic organizational structure of government rather than the needs of the people.

It means a family looking to move to a new house, someone recovering from an illness, an entrepreneur looking to start a company, or even a citizen needing a passport, has to deal separately with many government agencies, albeit through their respective digital services.

How does it make sense that, as new parents, you have to go to a registration centre to do your baby’s birth registration when the state already knows all the information about your baby because the country’s reasonably well-developed antenatal care (ANC) system ensured that? Because birth registration is the role of the Local Government Division and ANC that of the Health Ministry.

It is clear that the government needs to gradually — and perhaps aggressively — move away from direct service delivery and rather prioritize its reorganization around a vision of “government as a platform” — shared standards and datasets, enabled by open source technology, that promises radically better services for the citizens — when they need them, where they need them, and how they need them.

The transformation has already started with the launching of “MyGov” which brings hundreds of services from many ministries to establish the Government as One Platform, where the citizens do not have to enter the same information again and again — artificial intelligence anticipates their needs. Like the case of new parents who will automatically get a birth certificate for their baby after childbirth without visiting, or even contacting, a registration centre.

Today, complex systems and problems have become the norm rather than the exception and a reactive approach to setting policy is proving increasingly ineffective. Millions had already flooded to the capital city of Dhaka before the government had adopted a national urban strategy; Uber had been in full-fledged operation in Bangladesh even before the necessary regulations were in place.

Bangladesh as a nation needs to expand the broad-based capacity to actively explore possibilities, experiment, and continuously learn as part of a broader, inclusive governance system.

So, looking to the future, to reach the goal of emerging onto the global stage as an innovative, poverty-free, developed country, and because we don’t know the precise path to take, we must continue to draw inspiration from our great War of Liberation and continue to believe in ourselves — our resilience, our ambition, our talent — and persevere with the process of experimentation and learning, and feeding that back into the process and scaling the ones that are successful.

Setbacks continue to be in our way, with none more significant than the current coronavirus pandemic that has been devastating every nation, including our own. And yet, using the process of innovation, we continue to defy expectations. 

From creating national telehealth service overnight using thousands of “Uber-doctors” serving millions; to “Whatsapp-ing” bureaucracy by making state-level policy decisions on WhatsApp groups without meeting agendas, meetings with head-table protocols, and meeting minutes that take weeks to sign; to repurposing “Policy Legos” — digital and mental building blocks that we have carefully nurtured over the last 12 years since the declaration of Digital Bangladesh; to expand upon our existing social safety net programs and cover millions of the “new poor.”

These are just a handful of mentions of the far grander scale at which the process of inclusive innovation practiced over the years promises to yield as we build forward better and together, leaving no one behind.

Anir Chowdhury is a US tech entrepreneur turned Bangladeshi government entrepreneur serving as the Policy Advisor of a2i in ICT Division and Cabinet Division supported by UNDP. This piece has been republished from the Dhaka Tribune Archives and was first published in 2021. 

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