Digitisation helped Bangladesh ride out the pandemic: Joy

Sajeeb Wazed Joy, Bangladesh government's advisor on Information and Communication Technology has recently written about the effects of Bangladesh's digitisation in dealing with the impacts of Covid-19.

Bangladesh government's plan to digitise different sectors of the country has provided some answers to the disruptions created by Covid-19, wrote the ICT advisor in an opinion piece published in The Washington Times yesterday.

The write-up is as followed:

The Covid-19 pandemic disrupted labor markets around the world and continues to do so today. The short-term consequences were rapid and acute. Millions of people were furloughed or fired, and millions more began working from home. The long-term repercussions are still being debated, but one thing is certain: the demand for labor and the way we work has changed forever.

Many industries and governments are struggling to adapt. But in Bangladesh, a government plan to modernize and digitize its economy, education sector, and health care has provided some answers.

The Digital Bangladesh initiative, which started to be implemented 2009, quickly increased internet access and paved the way for multifaceted economic development. In short order, Digital Bangladesh replaced slow, paper-based government services with easy-to-use internet and smartphone-based programs.

The plan worked. The government created a network of more than 8,500 Digital Centers that provided online services from cradle to grave. In 2008, those services were all but inaccessible; only 800,000 people in Bangladesh had access to the internet. Now, Bangladesh boasts more than 120,000,000 internet users. The internet covers 98% of the country.

In addition, Bangladesh equipped millions with the tools necessary to succeed in the digital world. For example, the government built 86,000 "digital classrooms" and trained 1.5 million students in information and communications technology (ICT). As a result, information technology exports have soared from about $25 million in 2008 to $2 billion in 2021.

Digital Bangladesh provided answers to many of the labor and economic questions posed by the pandemic. When many around the world asked, "How do I earn a living when workplace has been closed to in-person gatherings?" Bangladeshis were able to go to their home computers and take advantage of remote work and freelance opportunities.

Indeed, freelancing is booming in Bangladesh. The country is the world's second-largest supplier of online freelancers. According to a survey conducted by the Centre for Policy Dialogue, 50,000 Facebook-based entrepreneurs live in Bangladesh. With about 43 million Facebook accounts in Bangladesh, the platform provides business opportunities on a broad scale. It also proved to be a resilient employment model during the pandemic as work shifted away from an in-person office environment.

Freelance jobs include computer programming, web design, tax preparation, search engine optimization, and marketing. Asia has become the number-one region for providing outsourcing services to the rest of the world.

The business processing outsourcing (BPO) sector in Bangladesh has flourished since Digital Bangladesh was unveiled. The BPO sector is growing at roughly 24 percent a year. In 2008, the sector recorded roughly $4 million in revenue. Today, the sector rakes in $68 million a year. Better still, it employs more than 45,000 individuals.

The Bangladesh government is working hard to craft policies that support the information technology industry. It recently started issuing freelancer identification cards to approximately 650,000 self-employed professionals in Bangladesh. The IDs permit freelancers to enjoy benefits previously known only to those who held salaried jobs. As a result, freelancers can get credit cards and bank loans to advance their entrepreneurial efforts. Other alluring incentives, especially a significant tax exemption, sweeten the pot.

Bangladesh's first geostationary communication satellite, Bangabandhu-1, has accelerated digital work. The satellite, which was launched in 2018, extends Bangladesh's internet coverage to its remotest regions, allowing even rural Bangladeshis to receive telemedicine support, e-learning, and e-banking.

Bangladesh's youthful population (nearly 65% are under the age of 25) is well-positioned to take advantage of Digital Bangladesh and the new types of employment it affords. Bangladesh retooled its educational system and now graduates 500,000 digital workers annually.

The fruit borne by Digital Bangladesh ripened at just the right time to address the economic ravages of Covid-19. As the world was still trying to figure out what the new workplace looked like, Bangladesh provided a model because of its rapid digitization and the transition to remote work that it enabled.