Digital Literacy and Access to Public Services in Bangladesh

In the 21st century, digital skills are becoming increasingly important in all aspects of human life, learning, earning, and merely navigating the increasingly digitizing world. Inequality in digital capabilities, between rich and poor, men and women, rural and urban citizens, to name a few, has become a major concern worldwide because it is exacerbating the existing socioeconomic inequalities. Like the rest of the world, digital products and services are spreading fast in Bangladesh. With the vision of Digital Bangladesh, the government is also taking different initiatives, digitizing crucial government services, for example. But can the citizens of Bangladesh take advantage of digital products and services and use digital government services effectively? To answer these questions, we conducted a nationwide survey of digital literacy in rural Bangladesh with 6,500 households. Our study reveals that even though most rural households have basic access to digital technology, the general skill level is extremely low, with which rural Bangladeshi citizens are unlikely to make good use of the potentials of digital technology and more likely to face challenges in using services, including crucial public services, offered online.   

Researchers: Mehnaz Rabbani; Maria Matin; Iffat Zahan; Md. Saiful Islam, Semab Rahman

Timeline: 2019–2020

Status: Completed

Contact: Semab Rahman


Working paper: Digital Literacy of Rural Households in Bangladesh

Working paper: Understanding the First and Second Digital Divides in Rural Bangladesh

Policy brief: Digital Literacy in Rural Bangladesh: Survey 2019

Policy brief: High Impact but Low Consumption of Public E-services Relevant to Financial Inclusion in Rural Bangladesh: Findings from the Field 

Policy brief: Transforming Customer Experiences in Public Services (Mobile Banking, Agent Banking, and SSN Allowance Payment): What Have We Learned?

Policy brief: Towards a Digitalized Bangladesh: How Prepared are Today’s Youth?

Policy brief: Understanding the Digital Gender Divide in Rural Bangladesh: How Wide It Is and Why

Blog: The 30 Percent Left Out of COVID-19 Big Data Analytics


Digital technology is an inexorable force of our time, transforming societies around the world. Digital technology offers infinite possibilities for improving human wellbeing but also threatens to deprive those who cannot use it. It all depends on how it is deployed and used. In Bangladesh, like the rest of the developing world, digital technology has reached the public mainly through mobile phone and mobile internet and has opened the possibilities for digitized services, businesses and information exchange. However, whether the people of our country can use these digital technologies to their advantage depends obviously on their access to devices (e.g. mobile) and connectivity (e.g. internet) and more importantly on their skills in using the digital technology available to them. Without adequate access and skills, citizens may be unable to access many essential services and to enjoy the benefit offered by digitization. Moreover, the digital divide—inequality in access to technology and digital skills—is likely to result in inequitable access to and inefficiencies in the myriad of digital services available. Consequently, digitization may not only create new forms of marginalization but also increase existing inequalities.

To assess the digital literacy among the rural citizens of Bangladesh with a special focus on their capacity to access public services offered digitally, BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD) initiated the Digital Literacy and Access to Public Services research study in 2019. In this study, digital literacy has been measured both in terms of access to technology and digital skills. To our knowledge, the digital literacy of the rural population in a developing country like Bangladesh has not yet been systematically studied. We designed appropriate literacy measures and conducted the first-ever nationwide, comprehensive survey in rural Bangladesh


The objective of this research is to a) explore the current state of digital literacy in rural Bangladesh, b) investigate the determinants of digital literacy, and c) develop the first-ever digital literacy index (DLI) for Bangladesh, which we named DLit_BIGD 1.0. In meeting such objectives, this report will shed light on the following research questions:

  1. What is the state of digital literacy in a rural setting with poor access and exposure?
  2. Is there any geographical heterogeneity in key indicators and variables?
  3. Is there any gender gap in key indicators and variables?
  4. How are demographic factors (e.g. education, age, occupation, income level, etc.) related to digital literacy?


This survey is the first of its kind to be conducted in rural Bangladesh covering both access to technology and digital skills. It is a cross-sectional (snapshot) survey involving 6,500 households (HHs) across rural Bangladesh. The survey is nationally representative at the divisional level. The survey followed several innovative approaches as follows:

  • Mini FGD and the most digitally able person (MDAP) in the household

To holistically measure the digital literacy of an entire household, the survey interviews took the form of a mini focus group discussion (FGD), in which all HH members were present. The HH members selected the most digitally able person (MDAP) in the HH, who answered all questions related to digital literacy. This method also allowed any member to provide input on the services they are familiar with.

  • Hands-on tests

Internet Hands-on tests were included to assess the ability of the digitally competent members of the household, a practical technique that, to the best of our knowledge, has not been used in a rural Bangladesh setting before.

Test 1: Internet browsing ability test The enumerators held out their tablets to show the homepage of the Bangladesh Department of Immigration and Passport and the respondents were tested on their ability to browse the website and find information on i) the passport application form, ii) the passport fees, and iii) the hotline number for the passport office.

Test 2: Visual icon identification ability This test aimed to assess whether the respondents could identify some common visual icons. Five picture icons were shown which depicted hotline numbers of five useful government services. The respondents were asked to look at the picture and tell what information it provided. For both tests, the surveyor recorded whether a respondent was able to complete each task and how long it took to complete it

Findings and Recommendations

About 96% of the rural households use a mobile phone, while the majority of them (59%) do not have access to a smartphone. Only eight percent of households possess computer operating skills and computer ownership is even lower (2.4%). Forty-six percent of households are aware of the internet, 37% have internet connectivity.

Under the communication skills domain, it is found that 68% respondents can read/write mobile SMS, 10% can check/send emails, 15% can make video calls, 41% participate in the social media and 28% can make comments on social media.  In terms of information skill, 46% passed at least one out of five visual literacy tests—identifying icons of important government hotline numbers—and only 13% passed at least one out of three digital activity tests—finding simple information on the open Bangla website of the passport authority. Besides, those who managed to pass these tests, took 2-3 minutes for each test, which should be a matter of a few seconds for anyone with basic internet skills.

Problem-solving and productive digital skills—for example, paying bills via mobile, earning, and online training—are close to nonexistent among rural households.

All the above findings indicate that even though the majority of the rural households have basic access and skills to digital technology, the overwhelming majority of them do not have the ability for taking advantage of the available digital technology and being able to navigate smoothly in the increasingly digitized world.

Compared to those used in developed country settings, only the basic indicators of access and skills have been used to construct the DLI in this study. For example, in the case of digital access, we have used indicators such as basic access to the phone, computer and networks, not, for example, types of apps used and internet speed. In the case of digital skills, we measured basic indicators such as the ability to send and receive SMS/email and basic information searching ability (e.g., finding a piece of information from a website). So, we need to be cautious about interpreting the DLI scores. For example, a perfect DLI score of a household indicates the presence of only the basic literacy measures. It is possible that a household with the perfect DLI score has a higher level of literacy than what has been measured in this study, but only two out of 6,500 households have a DLI Score of one (1). This indicates the overall low level of digital literacy in rural Bangladesh.

Additionally, 50% of the households have a DLI score of 0.25 and below, which tells us that most rural households in Bangladesh are not really prepared for the digital age that we are entering.