The Digitalization Conference Comes to a Close: What Have We Learned?

Photo: Distinguished panel of the closing session of the conference

After thirteen illuminating and thought-provoking sessions attended by over 150 people, in person or virtually, the three-day international conference organized by BIGD, titled Digitalization and New Frontiers of Service Delivery: Opportunities and Challenges, came to a successful end yesterday with the session, Summary and Panel Discussion: Knowledge Agenda for Shaping a More Inclusive and Transformative Digitalization Future.

Moderated by Mr Anir Chowdhury, Policy Advisor, a2i, Government of Bangladesh, the panel included distinguished persons from industry, academia, and government: Dr Stefan Dercon, Professor of Economic Policy, Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford; Dr Mushtaq H. Khan, Professor of Economics, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London; Mr Mohammad Humayun Kabir, Joint Secretary, Cabinet Division, Government of Bangladesh; Dr Khandoker Azizul Islam, Additional Secretary, Planning and Development Wing, ICT Division, Government of Bangladesh; Mr Asif Saleh, Executive Director, BRAC Bangladesh; Dr Nabeel Mohammed, Associate Professor, North South University; and Dr Imran Matin, Executive Director, BIGD.

Mr Zeeshan Abedin, Program Manager, BIGD, presented the conference synopsis, which was followed by an engaging discussion among the discussants.

Mr Chowdhury reminded the audience that the pandemic has accelerated the generation and consumption of knowledge on digitalization, throughout the world and in Bangladesh. A lot of experiments took place in health and social safety net programs in Bangladesh during COVID-19 and were studied by researchers. But he posed the question of how to ensure that the learnings are carried forward to make improvements in these systems. He shared his experience that developing stakeholder-specific knowledge products could be useful, for example, short explanatory videos for policymakers.

Dr Khan highlighted that digitalization is a transition that the entire world is experiencing today and that it is important to remember that the developing world is going through multiple other transitions, developmental and governance transitions, for example. In this context, he drew attention to the fact that Bangladesh has strong horizontal networks, meaning often people solve problems (accessing certain government services, for example) through their informal horizontal network since formal systems often do not function well. If the power of these networks is not considered in digitalization, at least in the early stages, people (particularly the marginalized) may have greater trouble accessing services. For example, if the formal digital error-correction mechanism in birth registration does not function properly for some reason while not allowing the intervention of horizontal networks, ordinary people may face greater trouble in accessing the service.

Adding to that, Dr Dercon said that digitalization can open up opportunities not just by increasing the efficiency of existing services but also by improving design in certain segments of the economy, leading to growth and development. He acknowledged that the digitalization of public services will require the weighing of trade-offs, such as the possibility of losing the existing error-correction mechanisms in society. But this is also a design issue: how do we design digital solutions in a way that maximizes inclusion and reduces possible errors, and thus, the need for error correction?

Mr Saleh stressed that digitalization is necessary for scale and efficiency but we must be flexible and creative in ensuring last-mile delivery of services to the marginal people. He gave several examples. To urgently support a large number of ultra-poor beneficiaries during the pandemic, BRAC had to depend on digital cash transfers. Most ultra-poor beneficiaries did not have a mobile and a bKash account, so BRAC used the accounts of the closest relative/neighbour for the transfer. He cited the example of the Surokkha digital portal that has allowed a large number of digitally capable people to register and be vaccinated, and the public-private partnership with NGOs and private companies to mass-vaccinate people without registration.

Dr Mohammed opined that, in his experience, the biggest challenge for the government is the unwillingness to experiment and accept failures when designing new systems, that is, being driven by the success of outcomes rather than that of learnings, particularly in the context of the fourth industrial revolution.

Mr Kabir said that the people of Bangladesh are adaptive people, which was evident from the high uptake and acceptance of the vaccine during COVID-19. He said that academic research, as well as market forces, can guide the government to design effective interventions.

The government’s long-term vision of establishing eGovernment—from cities to villages—is highly aligned with the global opportunities and challenges of today, as well as the Sustainable Development Goals, stated Dr Islam.

Thanking the panel, Dr Matin said that the primary objective of the conference was to understand the current digitalization scenario in Bangladesh: a reality check. He stressed that the foundational concerns in social science are integral to digitalization as well, for example, the issue of inclusion, power, and politics. He also mentioned that though the conference has extensively discussed the issue of service delivery, digitalization’s impact on economic transformation and skill development is another critical discourse that needs to be focused on. He pointed out that there is a real opportunity for the informal sector to flourish by taking advantage of digital technologies and services. He concluded with the remark that research and knowledge on digitalization must be defragmented, for example, the technical experts who develop digital solutions must work with social scientists who can contribute their knowledge on how these solutions could be more inclusive.

Eradul Kabir is a Program Associate at the BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD).