“Sufia was seven months old in my womb when my husband, Rafiq, was killed in a tragic road accident,” says Salma, a single mother with a month-old baby living in the rural sub-district of Bhurungamari in Northern Bangladesh. As a domestic helper with a monthly pay equivalent to 13 USD, Salma could barely afford to shelter her and her newborn in a tiny mud-walled room.

Maternity allowance, provided by the government’s social safety net, could provide the crucial financial support that Salma needed. However, applying for this allowance took Salma multiple visits over a few weeks to an office about 20 kilometres away, spending hours in queues and tedious application processes. When the application was finally complete, Salma had spent her entire month’s salary in conveyance fares alone, and in the process, lost her job for missing too many days of work.

Salma’s case is a common scenario across Bangladesh, particularly among marginalised groups such as women, people with disabilities, and the elderly. These groups struggle to access basic government services and much needed social welfare due to a lack of decentralised government services.

Digital centres

Launched in 2010, the Access to Information (a2i) programme by the government of Bangladesh, with support from UNDP, has established more than 5,400 digital centres as one-stop information and service delivery outlets. These digital centres ensure that the underprivileged – regardless of their literacy and ICT literacy – can access information and services vital to their livelihood, with just their fingerprint.

These one-stop service centres are essentially micro-enterprises run by citizen entrepreneurs in tandem with elected local government representatives. They leverage modern technology to provide citizens access to more than 150 public and private services. Public services include land records, birth registration, telemedicine, passport and overseas job application; and private services include mobile financial services, rural e-commerce services, insurance, various types of computer and vocational training, amongst others.

A typical digital centre in the countryside is on average about four kilometres from the citizen’s home. The digital centres stay open after regular office hours and on holidays, unlike regular public service delivery offices. This allows citizens access to public services after work. Digital
centres enable citizens to receive efficient, hassle-free and customised services, which can be accessed in less time, and at lower costs.

Over 10,000 local entrepreneurs manage approximately 5,400 digital centres across Bangladesh, delivering a total of 5.1 million services every month. By November 2017, over 323 million services were provided, which include over 75 million birth registrations, 2.1 million migrant worker registrations, four million mobile-banking services, and 100,000 youth training programmes. Over 3,100 digital centres now have active agent banking service points who have opened bank accounts for over 145,200 citizens.

Vision 2021

Salma, now able to access financial support for her and her daughter, shared with joy, “We were living in a state of uncertainty. But now I can see a bright future ahead of us.”

A study over the last seven years reveals that the time to receive services has been reduced by 85%, cost by 63% and the number of visits by 40%. In monetary terms, the digital centres have saved Bangladeshi citizens more than US$2 billion.

There is a great commitment to developing a citizen-centric and inclusive government. As part of the three-pronged approach that has been adopted in this regard, there have been extensive utilisation of ICTs for decentralising service delivery to elevate Bangladesh to a middle-income country by 2021 – the vision of “Digital Bangladesh”. The digital centres are an essential component of this overall strategy.

A core reason behind the effectiveness of this initiative is the government’s emphasis on providing digital services for all at their door-steps. The Bangladesh government has allocated 1% of the government’s total Annual Development Programme to the Digital Centre initiative. Local resource mobilisation is an important factor which made it more effective in terms of budget and sustainability. Going forward, the digital centre model serves as a springboard for many innovative interventions targeting sustainable growth and human development.

The a2i programme demonstrates the role the public sector plays in facilitating sustainable development through the use of new technologies. Investment in infrastructure and innovation are crucial drivers of economic growth and development, but the public sector must put citizens’ needs at the centre of innovation initiatives. By combining technology with building the capacities of those trusted with service delivery, governments can deliver essential public services effectively and inclusively.

As such, the public sector must endeavour to engage with local communities to bridge the digital divide, and harness technological progress to find lasting solutions to economic challenges.

This article was originally published by UNDP Global Centre for Public Service Excellence in the book ‘Public Service 2030: Making the Sustainable Development Goals happen’.

Image from the a2i Bangladesh Twitter account – CC BY 2.0