Author’s Note: On 5 November, I presented a paper at the annual IFRRO International Conference, part of the IFRRO World Congress 2019, in Edinburgh, Scotland. This post is based on my presentation.

Many exciting numbers define Bangladesh. Its GDP has grown by 188% over the last decade. From 40% in 2005, its poverty level has come down to 21.8% in 2018. Bangladesh is doing fantastically against many global indices in terms of inclusive development and business environment, for example. On the other hand, some numbers associated with Bangladesh are not as encouraging. The country remains one of the most climate-vulnerable regions. And its global peace rank has slid down lately, apparently due to the Rohingya refugee crisis that began in August, 2017.

Nevertheless, Bangladesh’s development story over the past decade can be called a journey with a vision, where information and communication technology (ICT) has played a crucial role.

Dhaka, Bangladesh: the parliament

Digitalizing Bangladesh: Vision and Reality

Before the 2008 general election, the political party Bangladesh Awami League proposed a concept called the ‘Vision 2021’ in its election manifesto. As the party assumed power in 2009, the vision was translated into a perspective plan for 2010−2021. Both the vision and the plan envisaged Bangladesh becoming a middle-income country by 2021 – the year the nation will celebrate 50 years of independence. It was further realized that ICT-based economic development would be a crucial aspect of attaining that vision. That insight led into the idea of a ‘Digital Bangladesh’ and allowed plans, resources and execution to make it real.

Ten years on, Bangladesh’s digitalization has now evolved through numerous avenues. Four paths, however, remain at the core. The first is to prepare the citizens to capitalize on the amazing opportunities the ICT sector has to offer, through many capacity development initiatives. Bangladesh has 16% of the world’s online workers, which ranks it second in the world following India (24%). A report suggests there are about half a million active ICT freelancers, together earning US$ 100 million per year.

Last year, Bangladesh became the 57th country in the world to own a satellite. Connecting its citizens, the second path of digitalization, has resulted in Bangladesh now having 163 million mobile and 98 million internet subscribers. Every day, on average US$ 140 million equivalent transactions take place through mobile banking in this country, which is the ninth largest mobile market in the world.

As a part of digitalizing the government, about 5,900 digital centers have been established at the local government level. Over the last few years, these centers have provided around 500 million services to more than 6 million citizens who otherwise would not have easy access to such information and services. The more than 10,000 entrepreneurs involved in this venture have so far earned more than US$ 41 million.

The final area of progress towards Digital Bangladesh is promotion of ICT industries. Last year, the country’s IT and IT enabled service sector earned US$ 1 billion through 120 companies by exporting services to 35 countries. Bangladesh is building 28 Hi-Tech Parks all over the country and another 36 are planned.

In addition to fulfilling national goals over the last decade (2009−2019), the Digital Bangladesh vision found itself bridging two global development frameworks. The vision has helped conclude the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) (2000−2015) era as well as starting the age of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) (2016−2030).

Tracking development against the SDGs

To define its development, in addition to different global indices, Bangladesh has embraced the SDG Framework from its very onset. Every five years, Bangladesh prepares its Five-Year Plan. The current Seventh Five-Year Plan came into effect on July 1, 2015, before world leaders adopted the SDGs in September 2015. After of 15 years of effort, Bangladesh did very well in meeting the targets outlined under the MDGs. That success gave Bangladesh so much confidence and motivation that the Seventh Five-Year Plan included the draft SDGs, making Bangladesh one of the first adopters of the SDGs, if not the very first one.

There are three complementary ways the government is tracking its progress towards achieving the SDGs. First, early last year, the government developed a comprehensive monitoring and evaluation framework of the SDGs. This document appreciated that although data for 28% of indicators were readily available, and for 25% partially available, a staggering 47% of indicators did not have any data available. Further, government ministries, divisions, departments, and agencies were listed almost exclusively as data sources.

The data gap situation improved last December when Bangladesh published its first progress report on the SDGs. Now, 30% of indicators had readily available data, while 47% had partial data or required analysis of raw data to come up with suitable information for respective indicators. Inclusion of the UN and other international agencies as data providers seemed to help in filling in some data gaps. Nevertheless, 23% of indicators still had no data, thus needing data collection, analysis, and interpretation.

The second tool to follow Bangladesh’s progress is an online platform called the SDG Tracker. As the name suggests, it monitors the progress of all 169 targets against each of 244 indicators. It is an amazing database with great vision. But a visit to many indicator pages in the last week of October showed that baselines for 2015 and targets for 2020, 2025, and 2030 were missing for many SDG indicators. In some cases the reason for the data gap is clear – the indicators are to be measured globally, like those for climate action (SDG 13). But the SDG 15, for example, which deals with forests and biodiversity on the land, many baselines and targets were left blank despite needing country-level data.

Bangladesh did not stop directly following the SDG Framework to define its development. The government has formulated 39 national priority indicators against 17 SDGs. So, the third way to measure Bangladesh’s SDG progress is following these priority indicators. On October 28th of this year, I checked the data sources, baselines, progress made to date, and targets for 2020, 2025, and 2030 for these 39 national indicators, as presented on the SDG Tracker. Despite being nationally-defined crucial indicators, seven did not have any data sources, eight had no baselines, 24 had no data on progress so far made, and 18 had no targets set.

Although data availability seems to be a major challenge, accessibility of data, its relevance, and quality are also big issues. Non-government data sources are currently being largely overlooked. We have seen that data generation and target setting processes are not always well-organized. They also miss following acceptable standards and practices. Stakeholders often face challenges in agreeing upon what data to accept and use to define progress. This potentially leads to misinterpretation and misuse of data.

The SDG coordination body of Bangladesh essentially depends on government ministries and agencies, and, in limited cases, UN and international organizations as its data providers. Given the incomplete data to measure the SDG indicators, defining Bangladesh’s development remains incomplete. Here researchers and research institutes can play a role. Research organizations know how to collect, analyze, and interpret data, and we need that expertise for the SDGs. Unlike the MDGs, the SDGs need qualitative information and analyses as well to measure many targets.

But, engaging research institutes depends on how the government, relevant stakeholders, and the society as a whole perceive research and researchers. At the moment, we see an apparent isolation of the researchers from the wider development conversation. Researchers are often perceived as knowledge creators speaking in a language only understood by their peers. Research, once done, is not necessarily translated into evidence for the decision-makers to act upon. As a result, research often fails to create impact matching its potential.

Putting ‘research’ into development discourse

The recent efforts of the government of Bangladesh to see its development through an ‘SDG lens’ gives scholars an opportunity to put research in the center of development discourse and help the nation to see beyond 2021, 2030, and even 2041 – the year Bangladesh wants to become a high-income country. This gives us an opportunity for a system change, focusing on two interconnected aspects.

First, government agencies and academic institutions need to work together to gather and analyze data to track the country’s progress against the development targets. They also need to establish standards for data generation and presentation, and ensure these are respected. The SDG coordination body of Bangladesh is in a great position to create space for such co-creation of knowledge.

This collaboration would lead into creating opportunities for evidence-informed policy and practice influencing − the second aspect of system change. Frequent interactions between the researchers and the policy-makers to define Bangladesh’s development help both to understand each other’s language and perspective. By contextualizing research within the development landscape and by translating data into evidence, researchers help policy-makers to see the true use of a piece of research and help them to embrace research-backed policy actions for greater impacts.

Bangladesh’s development journey over the last decade has shown how a vision like ‘Digital Bangladesh’ outlines a technology-oriented development path; how data estimates development for a country in economic transition; and how perceptions of development evolves over time, through collective engagement. Harnessing the true potential of research by translating it into evidence can not only farther its impact, but also can help in defining development.

Haseeb Irfanullah

Haseeb Irfanullah

Haseeb Irfanullah is a biologist-turned-development practitioner, and often introduces himself as a research enthusiast. Over the last two decades, Haseeb has worked for different international development organizations, academic institutions, donors, and the Government of Bangladesh in different capacities. Currently, he is an independent consultant on environment, climate change, and research systems.

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