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Scaling public sector innovations in the Global South

Date: 11 November, 2022

Writer : Ishtiaque Hussain
Source : Apolitical

Reading Time: 7 Minutes

11 November, 2022
Writer : Ishtiaque Hussain
Source : Apolitical
· Reading Time: 7 Minutes

Scaling public sector innovations in the Global South

Scaling public sector innovations in the Global South

Char Kukri Mukri is located in Bhola, the southernmost district of Bangladesh. ‘Char’ means ‘riverine island’ in Bengali and several rivers flow through this beautiful but poverty-stricken subdistrict, which is the poorest in Bangladesh. Its 150,000 plus inhabitants live on just 25 square kilometres of low-lying land and at high tide, extensive portions are under water. Much of the shore is mud flats. Born in a thumbprint of a country with a population of over 160 million, they have settled there because they have nowhere else to go.

As a result, the chronically poor people of Char Kukri Mukri find themselves on the frontlines of the struggle against climate change, battling river erosion on a daily basis, and living constantly under the threat of losing their homes and crops. Disconnected from the mainland, they also find themselves excluded from basic public services, banking, and commerce. During the monsoon season it is often not safe for people to travel to the mainland to access essential services, besides the journey taking several hours.

a2i, the flagship digital transformation programme of the Bangladesh Government with support from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), set out to transform the way public services are delivered to these communities. Housed within the Prime Minister’s Office, and in collaboration with the Cabinet Office and all line ministries, they’ve set up one-stop shops popularly known as ‘Digital Centres’ in all of the nearly 5,000 union councils (the lowest administrative tier in Bangladesh), including Char Kukri Mukri. In fact, the Digital Centres were jointly launched by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, and former Prime Minister of New Zealand Helen Clark from Char Kukri Mukri itself.

There is now effectively a start-up in every village in Bangladesh. Micro-entrepreneurs, a woman and a man for each Digital Centre, typically high-school graduates from the local community, assist citizens to access digital government services. Since they do not receive a salary from the government, they charge a small fee for each service. The services themselves come from multiple ministries and agencies such as land, passports, education, and social welfare, among several others. The Digital Centre Entrepreneurs also bring in private sector services such as mobile money and agent banking that have market demand in their location. As a result, citizens from even the remotest parts of the country can now access their government allowances, full-service banking facilities from a bank of their choosing, and make payments for a wide array of government services, all digitally.

Designed from the bottom-up, Digital Bangladesh has always been about delivering solutions that would help the masses, those without internet, those without smart devices, and help bridge that digital divide.

All this was not achieved in a single day. Neither was the road to success without any obstacles. The Digital Centres were launched two years before 3G was officially launched in the country. So, imagine thousands of centres with 2G modems, many of them hanging from treetops to get a signal from mobile phone towers far away. Also imagine around a thousand of the 4,500 plus Digital Centres without electricity because they were in off-grid areas like Char Kukri Mukri. So solar panels had to be quickly procured to power them.

The concept of the Digital Centres and the scale up of the model across Bangladesh disrupted all the norms traditionally associated with government and bureaucracy. From decentralising the work, to bypassing the established hierarchy, empowering local administrators, convincing two prime ministers to launch the initiative to garner the political capital, and publicity crucial to its success; it took a small but dedicated team that had the weight of the Prime Minister’s Office behind it, and serendipity.

Whether it’s providing assistance to help people secure social safety net payments, apply for passports, engage in e-commerce, or make the most of mobile money, the Digital Centres have transformed the way people, especially the poor living in remote rural areas, look at and access services. And the numbers speak for themselves:

9,000 plus micro-entrepreneurs have delivered over 700 million services to over 60 million Bangladeshis since 2010.
Aggregated, citizens of Bangladesh have saved over $16 billion, nearly 12 billion workdays, and 7.5 billion visits to government offices in the last decade due to the more efficient delivery of public services alone.

All this means that the broader socio-economic conditions of these remote communities are being developed. People can access vital services when they need them, quickly, reliably, and sustainably, enhancing their resilience to shocks, and enabling them to take advantage of opportunities to improve their lives.

On 12 December 2021, the Digital Bangladesh Day, we stood together, the people, the government, private sector, civil society, academia, and celebrated with great pride our shared achievements of Digital Bangladesh in the golden jubilee of our nation’s independence.

Designed from the bottom-up, Digital Bangladesh has always been about delivering solutions that would help the masses, those without internet, those without smart devices, and help bridge that digital divide. However, our celebration brings to surface the recognition that the digital divide undoubtedly still exists and threatens to widen in the future.

Our focus now shifts to responding to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s clarion call of building an equitable, high-income, ‘Innovative Bangladesh’ by 2041. That will require an uncompromising and relentless focus on ensuring Digital Equity enabled by:

Deep empathy for the marginalised: a government that is ubiquitous and yet invisible, proactive to prioritise the needs of the marginalised above all else.

Civil servants as entrepreneurs: a government run by governors who are driven not by profits but the pursuit of public service excellence, and motivated by public purpose.

Collective intelligence: a government and society that co-innovate new solutions to old problems and new problems.

Opportunities for all to innovate: a society that prepares its youth to voice out with conviction: “I am the solution.”

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