Historically, BRAC’s low tech but innovative solutions are what have made it so successful. But now, the organization is looking at technology as something that can fundamentally change its delivery model by enhancing both efficiency and impact. With the rapid spread of mobile phone and broadband technology, we have to make sure that we are taking maximum advantage of available technology and are constantly on the lookout for new ideas, best practices and inspiration. With this foundation in mind, the Social Innovation Lab organized “Innovation Forum 2.0 – Digital BRAC?” on October 15 2012 to learn about significant strides made by the Government of Bangladesh (GoB) in incorporating technology in public service delivery from the brains behind it all, Anir Chowdhury.
The session started with a presentation (available on the intranet) by Anir bhai on what the UNDP and the GoB are trying to achieve with the Access to Information (A2I) program. The objective of the project is to increase transparency, improve governance, and reduce the time, difficulty and costs of obtaining public services. And it is attempting to do that by strengthening existing e-services and launching new, integrated, inter-operable e-government applications. Sensitizing government officials, training service providers and expanding digital literacy among the general public are also integral parts of the effort. The program has already managed to establish ‘information and service centers’ (UISCs) at the union level, ‘one-stop service centers’ in all the 64 district commissioner offices, created ‘e-toththokosh’ which is meant to be a Bengali repository for knowledge and information, and has ongoing projects addressing education, and financial inclusion.
Anir bhai is a brilliant and exceptional person in many ways. He spent many years in the US studying and then starting up and managing software companies. But then he decided to return and work in Bangladesh. While his endeavors to pioneer technology for development in the country started with the private sector by founding initiatives such as Dnet, perhaps his biggest contribution so far has been to introduce a whole new philosophy and way of doing things in the public sector with his work with the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). Experimenting on a small scale, closely monitoring, evaluating and improving design and making self-sustainability a cornerstone of every project from the outset have been nothing less than revolutionary. Being transparent, open to communication and exchanges of ideas are also hallmarks of the A2I program.
And the fruits of these efforts are out there for all to see. The UISCs are all manned by people from the community and have to generate a surplus to remain open. Ministers, secretaries, right down to ‘thana nirbahi officers’ (TNOs) – grassroots level government administrators – all write and communicate with each other on a Bengali blog. All this in a country where subsidies rule and there are strict (and unnecessary) protocols that define who is allowed to write to whom and letters can take months to get delivered from the sender to the receiver – forget about the reply.
How BRAC and other development organizations can complement the government’s efforts was a key part of having Anir bhai over. A2I is working hard to get the government to rethink its strategy from focusing on constructing computer labs and teaching kids how to operate computers, to setting up multimedia classrooms in which both teachers and students work together to take maximum advantage of the web as a platform for knowledge sharing and help each other develop effective and fun materials for meaningful learning. BRAC with its training division, e-learning materials development unit, and ‘gonokendros’ (BRAC Education Programme’s community-libraries) can contribute towards greater capacity building, content development, and even physical spaces for people to come together and use technology to learn, connect and inspire! 20,000 secondary schools will soon have such multimedia classrooms and encouragingly, 22 teachers, who are working with A2I to develop the model, are already demanding that they be taught how to surf the web to learn/gather information and PowerPoint so that they can develop their own slides to teach students. Access to YouTube has been blocked in Bangladesh for a couple of months now and so many of the resources that these teachers were using are now inaccessible. But BRAC Education Program proudly announced its computer aided learning (CAL) materials –which are freely available on line at http://e-education.brac.net/ – which A2I and schools, teachers and students across the country can benefit from.
Financial inclusion is another big area. A2I has already setup an ‘innovation fund’ and is developing a platform to catalyze ‘e-commerce’. Anir bhai thinks BRAC can use its experience, expertise and extensive microfinance network to develop disaster/crop insurance products for vulnerable populations.
Freelancing has boomed in Bangladesh recently. Only last month the country overtook the Philippines to rank third globally for freelance, online software/application/web content development. All this has happened without public, private, or, NGO support and over 40% of the activity happens outside of Dhaka with unreliable and slow internet connections! A2I is planning a massive training program to boost this industry.
Raising awareness, bringing about behavioral change and capacity building are generally going to play a critical role in how much ICT4D is able to achieve in Bangladesh and both A2I and BRAC will eagerly explore the possibility of joining forces to work on these fronts.