Paper tiger by Simon Couper

Paper tiger  by Simon Couper

Bangladesh claims to be home to the world’s longest unbroken sandy beach – the 125 kilometre stretch of Cox’s Bazaar on the Bay of Bengal.

This might chafe sea-loving folk in Australia, where our wealth of surf and sand has given us a proprietorial take on coastal recreation.

But before we start bristling, there are some other comparisons to consider.

In the list of least developed countries in the world, Bangladesh rates consistently in the top five. Its GDP per head of population is just under US$430, according to the Economist, compared to US$37,000 down under.

The yawning chasm between the two nations is digital as well as economic, as is evident in the role that information and communications technology (ICT) plays in the day-to-day running of the state.

In 2008, the United Nations ranked most of the countries in the world for E-Government Readiness using measures of human capacity, infrastructure and access to information and knowledge. Australia came in at number eight, while Bangladesh ranked 142.

Australia has benefited from a successful adoption of digital information systems in its government, which has flow-on consequences for growth and innovation in the commercial sector.

Bangladesh, on the other hand, is still straddled with the Victorian-era bureaucracy it inherited from its British colonial masters.

Ahmed Imran has seen this first hand from his very experience while working as an ICT manager and administrator in the Bangladeshi army He knows all too well the entrenched attitudes preventing ICT adoption within the government sectors.

He recalls visiting a land records management office in Bangladesh during a trip to his home country last year. Every inch of space was occupied by stacks of paper up to several metres high. These mouldering towers consisted of single-page records going back for decades.

“This room exceeded its capacity in 2002,” Imran says. “It’s a big record room. There is no systematic indexing, no organised way of keeping the record, whereas these are very important land record documents. The retrieval of one can take anywhere from a week up to three months.”

The researcher cites this metropolis of records as a typical scene in government offices. Officials don’t yet have a good alternative to the paper, but can’t get rid of the older stacks for legal reasons, so resort to ever more creative storage places.

“Everyday the papers are adding up,” he says. “Because you’re always publishing new papers, but you don’t have a strategy of how to deal with them. This problem is continuing. It has not changed”

Imran argues that this antiquated information system has negative consequences for the entire Bangladeshi economy, as it pins back efficiency and is increasingly incompatible with global information systems of 21st century.

Unless change occurs in the way that the bureaucracy carries out its tasks, he says, the nation’s growth will remain shackled as its stacks of official papers grow large enough to blanket Cox’s Bazaar many times over.

To combat this, Imran is exploring barriers to ICT take up in the public sectors of world’s least developed countries taking Bangladesh as case study and to formulate a strategic model to overcome this, for his PhD research.

In 2008, based on Imran’s research, the National Centre for Information Systems Research at the ANU College of Business and Economics secured the competitive AusAID Public Sector Linkages Program (PSLP) fund to implement the project ‘eGovernment capacity building through knowledge transfer and best practice development in Bangladesh’.

The project should foster effective eGovernment in Bangladesh, focusing on the capacity building of government officials through practically developed learning tools and a handbook, in addition to a five-year strategic guideline.

The task ahead of him is daunting, even though there is plenty of general support and a will for change on the world stage.

There is international agreement that ICT will be an essential part of alleviating poverty in the world’s poorest countries.

Yet efforts to close the digital divide have had poor results. This is partly because ICT innovations in developed countries tend to grow exponentially, while the comparatively small adoption in developing countries means that growth is flatlining. Kofi Annan might have described the cause for this persistent disparity when he said “our efforts must be based on the real needs of those we are seeking to help. They must be fully and genuinely involved.”

Imran believes it is crucial that ICT development is culturally specific. Too much of the focus has been on a one-size-fits-all, techno-centric approach, he says.

Attempts to apply the kinds of ICT adoption theories that work in developed countries are doomed to failure elsewhere, Imran says. Instead, we need to understand the barriers specific to each case. Accordingly, Imran’s PhD attempt to develop a new theory and model for least developed countries.

His PhD supervisor and colleague on the AusAID project, Professor Shirley Gregor, says that Imran’s work to develop a new approach for ICT adoption in the context of developing countries is very important.

She says there is a perception in the developing world that some of the larger international agencies, such as the World Bank, tend to push a one-size-fits-all model for ICT.

Despite its relatively small economy, it appears that poverty is not a significant hurdle preventing ICT take up in Bangladesh. Imran says that there is adequate money to roll out the technology and infrastructure required for intra-government information systems.

Nor is lack of political will a barrier. There have been a number of expressions of support for ICT development from the nation’s leaders over the last decade, including the establishment of a national IT (Information Technology) taskforce.

“It’s the not the infrastructure, it’s not the political leadership – it is the knowledge where the problem lies,” Imran says. “Knowledge and attitude are highly correlated. When you develop your knowledge base, automatically mindset and attitude change too.”

Imran’s research is exploring various strategies to improve information systems in Bangladesh to overcome the entrenched attitudinal barriers to ICT adoption.

He says ICT is not considered as a strategic tool in many developing countries including Bangladesh.

There is also a fear that digital systems will undermine established bureaucratic hierarchies, taking power away from officials and making many more people out of job .

“One government official said: ‘People come to me because I have the file here. If I give away everything then nobody will come to me and I will be redundant.’ He feels threatened and powerless.

“But in reality for ICT implementation there were no jobs lost in Australia. ICT automation leads to a lot of new opportunities. Once productivity increases you create new opportunities, new jobs for further employment.”

Rather than developing an education program about the benefits of digital information systems for the general population, Imran and his colleagues are working with mid-level managers and decision makers in the public service. He says it’s more efficient to start tackling the problem by improving communications in government departments, as this will have flow-on effects for the private sector and the general populace.

The AusAID funding supports the development of resources for awareness raising, including a five-year education strategy, a concise handbook on information systems planning, and a two-day training module that can be delivered at the departmental level.

The resources will draw on the know-how of Australian experts in business planning and ICT, but are being created in close consultation with Bangladeshi officials through workshops in Bangladesh and Australia.

Gregor says that Imran’s background in the Bangladeshi public sector has been very important for the ongoing success of the project.

“Thought it’s a comparatively small project compared to other initiatives, such as those run by the World Bank, it’s helped by the fact that it’s so targeted because of Ahmed’s background knowledge.”

She says that the project has the potential to be rolled out in other developing countries, with interest already being shown from agencies in Vietnam and Sri Lanka.

At the end of such a task, no-one could begrudge Imran a quiet holiday somewhere on Cox’s Bazaar, the Bay of Bengal glittering in front, and behind him a country taking small steps towards reaching its information potential.

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