DPI for the disadvantaged: Inside Bangladesh’s inclusive Digital Public Infrastructure drive

Oleh Yogesh Hirdaramani

Bangladesh is emerging as a key leader in the digital public infrastructure (DPI) movement globally, but high-speed, affordable internet access remains beyond the means of the country’s poorest. GovInsider speaks to Anir Chowdhury, Policy Advisor of a2i, to learn how the agency bridges the divide.

Bangladesh's 9000 digital centres are one way in which the country ensures the benefits of DPI reach the vulnerable. Image: a2i

This story is part of GovInsider's special report on DPI. Click here to read more of GovInsider's coverage of DPI.

Md Abdur Rahman used to travel for over 30 minutes, cross a river, and then stand in line to pay utility bills through a bank. Now, thanks to a Digital Centre conveniently located in his village that helps villagers access digital services, he can walk over and tap on Bangladesh’s digital payments system, ‘ekPay’, to pay his bills effortlessly.


This is just one story from “Digitalizing Lives: Towards Smart Bangladesh”, a series of vignettes that explore how Bangladesh’s digital public infrastructure (DPI) is changing citizens’ lives today. The publication speaks volumes about how the country perceives digital development – through the eyes of citizens, first and foremost.


Over 9,000 Digital Centres now provide over 300 public and private services, such as birth registration, e-commerce, agent-banking, and passport registrations to 6 to 7 million people every month. Private citizens also have the opportunity to run these kiosks as local entrepreneurs – giving digital services a human face while stimulating the economy.


GovInsider speaks to Anir Chowdhury, Policy Advisor to a2i, to learn more about how the agency is redefining DPI with a focus on inclusion for those without digital services.

Equality through e-Quality


Beginning as one of the poorest countries in the world post-independence, Bangladesh is on track to graduating from its Least Developed Countries (LDC) status to middle income by 2026. The country has seen significant progress in its Human Development Index score and continues to outrank its more developed neighbours, particularly in the realm of health, education, and life expectancy.


But gaps remain. Though the country has seen remarkable growth in Internet penetration – from 3 per cent of the population in 2008 to over 39 per cent by 2021 – more than half the nation continues to lag in digital connectivity. Such digital divides can worsen other inequalities, Anir says.

Bangladesh's unique approach to DPI includes an access layer and a services layer. Image: a2i

This is why the country’s DPI approach is underlined first and foremost by the principles of inclusion – which includes an access layer to ensure even those without digital tools can access critical services. These include avenues like the Digital Centres and their national helpline, ‘333’.


“If you can verify who you are, you can apply for services with that information,” he says. Citizens can currently verify their identity with their National Identity Cards.


“We want to make as much equitable progress as possible within the country. That’s been the founding principle of the Father of the Nation [Sheikh Mujibur Rahman] and the governing principle of the current Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina. It’s very important politically, socially, economically, philosophically, and spiritually.”


Bangladesh aims to achieve universal Internet connectivity by 2041, according to the recent Smart Bangladesh plan, which sets out the country’s roadmap for the next 17 years.


Another unique element of Bangladesh’s DPI approach is its citizen-centricity – citizens only benefit from DPI when DPI leads to improved services. This is why Bangladesh’s DPI has a services layer, says Chowdhury.


The other layers – digital identity, payments, and data exchange – are the “plumbing” of good services.

“Plumbing is absolutely necessary, but you don’t start talking about plumbing. You start talking about water as the service,” he says.


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Policy Legos: Systems that talk to each other


A critical component to this plumbing is systems that can talk to each other – or interoperability. The shift towards DPI has encouraged government employees to think beyond silos and find ways to connect systems, he says.


“People now think whole-of-government,” says Chowdhury. The need to create interoperable systems and deliver integrated services is a key theme in the Smart Bangladesh plan.

Anir Chowdhury, Policy Advisor of a2i. Image: Anir Chowdhury

“The DPI approach means you actually design in a way that you can fit as [Lego building blocks]… You bring together different types of policy Legos – policies, technologies, organisational constructs – and put them together to create new innovations,” he says.


During the Covid-19 pandemic, this collaborative approach was vital towards developing the country’s “National COVID-19 Intelligence Platform”. The dashboard integrated various systems, such as contact tracing, hospital capacity, and equipment availability to guide policymakers in making decisions.


Policymakers could use the platform to identify which districts had a high-infection rate and prioritise where to send critical medical resources such as ventilators.

Driving international change


The country’s approach to DPI is now going global. The South Asian country launched the e-Quality Centre for Inclusive Innovation in 2022 to drive its global “Zero Digital Divide” campaign, which aims to eradicate digital exclusion globally.


Key to these centres will be the transfer of DPI solutions from Bangladesh to other LDCs and developing countries.


Bangladesh has already made four such solutions available via the Digital Public Goods Registry for other countries to adopt, including the ekShop Marketplace, Grievance Redress System (GRS), NISE Skills and Certification, and Doptor Open Data Platform. As of 2022, these solutions have been adopted by countries such as Somalia, Jordan, Turkey, Yemen, and South Sudan.


As part of e-Quality, Bangladesh launched an International ICT Innovation (i3) facility fund to support LDCs in piloting customised digital solutions.


The country has since joined the UNDP’s global ‘50-in-5’ campaign as one of its eleven ‘First Movers’, along with countries like Estonia, Singapore, and Togo, to share about their DPI journey while learning from others.


Bangladesh works closely with Estonia, the Centre for Digital Public Infrastructure, the UNDP Safeguards initiative, and other DPI organisations to continue driving its initiatives, says Chowdhury.


Last year, the team organised the world’s first AI and DPI Summit to explore the role of the two technologies in driving inclusive development.