Mobile Phone Technology for Development in Bangladesh
Thursday, August 25, 2011
Tahmima Anam, a Bangladeshi writer in India to promote her latest book, said in a recent interview that Dhaka is a city bursting at the seams but with a surprisingly tangible energy of possibility. This energy-often driven by an overwhelming necessity to act quickly in a country of extreme poverty-has ignited innovation in many areas, development included. Bangladesh’s unique approaches to poverty reduction and inclusive growth have been exhibited most recently by the different ways in which mobile telecommunication is being harnessed by the development sector. While mobile phones have increasingly become ubiquitous in developing countries, Bangladesh has taken the technology’s capabilities a step further. Many new initiatives have leveraged the sheer number of people using mobile phones (76.4 million in Bangladesh), as well as the capabilities of mobile phones to promote inclusivity and access around education, health, banking, among others. Neighboring countries, it turns out, have lagged behind in the effort to leverage mobile phones for development purposes: India, for example, has a significantly higher number of mobile subscribers at over 700 million and tele-density of 67% and would seem to be a place where new technologies could be exploited in many different ways. This, however, is not the case.
An Environment for Innovation
Bangladesh has been able to leverage mobile technology for development for several reasons, largely situational and specific to the country’s context. Given that most of Bangladesh’s population lives on less than US$2 a day, any growth would have to be inclusive. India, on the other hand, has a burgeoning middle-class with many sub-strata driving the direction of growth, and inclusivity faces many obstacles in this environment. Bangladesh has to perforce include the BoP in its growth agenda. Bangladesh also attracts international donors and think tanks due to its extreme poverty and other development challenges. The inflow of development aid has certainly helped, but the influx of international ideation and thinking has really made a difference in launching projects that successfully combat the country’s myriad challenges.
Another reason why Bangladesh was able to leapfrog to mobile-based innovations is timing. Bangladesh was still struggling to get basic infrastructure in place while, simultaneously, the mobile revolution was developing roots and branches in the last decade. As the country was focused on tapping opportunities to pull itself out of poverty, it was able to build from the ground-up a net of optimal development interventions. In contrast, India has in place some of the requisite infrastructure, albeit often inefficient, such as access to English language classes and bank branches. The existence of these systems most likely deters India’s adoption and success of innovative mobile phone-based business models.