BANGLADESH: Bangladesh in WSIS: Lies and statistics

The first phase of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) was held in Geneva during December 10-12 with the presence of more than 54 heads of state and government and 83 ministers and vice-ministers from 176 countries, including Bangladesh

The Daily Star
Friday, December 19, 2003

By Abu Saeed Khan

The first phase of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) was held in Geneva during December 10-12 with the presence of more than 54 heads of state and government and 83 ministers and vice-ministers from 176 countries, including Bangladesh.

The leaders, namely from the third world countries, recognised information and communications technology (ICT) as a fundamental development criterion besides food, housing, health and education.

While addressing the Plenary on December 11, Prime Minister Khaleda Zia said, "Our aim is to build an ICT-driven nation comprising a knowledge-based society by the year 2006."

Bangladesh has less than a half telephone for every 100 people and more than 85 percent of its mobile phone users are unable to access the fixed network of state-owned monopoly. Only 30 percent of its 140 million people, comprised of 80 percent urban and 20 percent rural, have access to electricity. Qualitative and quantitative decline in the education system is needless to reiterate.

So, the prime minister's dream "to build an ICT-driven nation comprising a knowledge-based society by the year 2006" requires rapidly synchronised development of telecoms and power infrastructures along with improved education system. It needs a clear vision and consistent political will.

While the three-day Plenary and high-level roundtables were progressing, various agreements were signed. Such accords included a $400,000 grant by the US government for ICT development in low-income countries. Bangladesh took no initiative to get a slice of that deal. The government is also unaware of the billion dollars co-operation agreement between Microsoft and UNDP to bring ICT skills to underserved communities.

Cisco and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) will open internet training centres in developing countries. Hewlett-Packard had agreed to provide low-cost products to overcome the barrier to ICT. Handwritten texts, for example, will be recognised for e-mail transmission. Our ICT ministry has not even persuaded to tap these opportunities for Bangladesh.

ITU will harness 57 internet training centres across 47 countries and multipurpose community telecentres for the delivery of health-related information. It will also supply e-government and e-learning project design and implementation. The World Health Organisation (WHO) is contributing health experts and content for websites and courses. Funds will also be used for electronic applications and other access-widening projects. The Bangladesh government's delegates have no clue about this prospect.

To bring faster, cheaper and more reliable communication to remote, mountainous areas of Bhutan, the Indian government will help deliver e-post services to the Bhutanese Postal Service via a US$ 400,000 satellite network and solar panels power system. Another $40,000 comes from ITU with the remaining $10,000 in in-kind contributions from Bhutan Telecom and Post. Our ICT ministry took no effort to explore such opportunities for Bangladesh.

It is worthwhile to mention that neither our prime minister nor the ICT minister had met any ITU official during the three days in Geneva. The PM prioritised campaigning for Bangladesh in the race of secretary general's position in the OIC. That was her prerogative.

But what our ICT minister and his hoards of officers were doing? They had pretended to conquer the world by dishing out a booklet titled, "ICT in Bangladesh: Vision and Reality". This expensive and colourful publication is packed with misinformation, which is grossly detrimental as well as embarrassing for Bangladesh.

Page 16 of the ICT ministry's publication says the optical fibre network of Bangladesh Railway was built "with assistance from the German government." But the truth is that Norway had provided "untied grant" of Tk.1.25 billion (125 crore) in 1985 to build this first of its kind telecom infrastructure in South Asia.

GEC-Plessey Telecom of UK had commissioned the entire optical fibre network for railway on turnkey basis. Bangladesh government must seek apology for the ICT ministry's ungrateful distortion of Norway's lone financial contribution to this landmark infrastructure project.

The ICT ministry's lack of knowledge about the telecom sector gets further exposed, as page 16 of its booklet says the Railway's network is "the only fibre optics capacity in Bangladesh." The fact is -- however inefficient and corrupt it has been -- the BTTB has succeeded to digitise its entire transmission backbone long time back. So far it had laid almost 1,500 kilometres high-capacity optical fibre networks across the country. Rolling out of further networks is progressing under various projects.

The ICT ministry is also ignorant about the private sector's telecom infrastructure of Bangladesh. In pages 13 and 14, the booklet describes the transmission resources of private mobile operators. But the ministry has not at all mentioned the 250 kilometres long Dhaka-Chittagong and 150 kilometres long Dhaka-Mymensingh digital microwave transmission links of AKTEL.

The ICT ministry's inhibition to recognise the reforms in fixed telephone connection charges is deplorable. The government had slashed 46 percent connection charge in Dhaka and Chittagong in 2002. Such reduction is 57 percent in other districts and divisional headquarters while the charge has been dropped to 73 percent in the rural area. Such micro reforms in the telecom sector to fulfil the universal service obligation remain unrecognised in the booklet.

The ICT ministry is quite vocal about protecting the intellectual property rights. But the ministry itself has pirated various data while incorporating its publication. Bureaucrats of the ICT ministry have demonstrated their height of arrogance by not stating the data sources in its publication. Data acquisition and vehicle requisition are absolutely different businesses.

The ICT ministry has also made itself a laughingstock with obsolete data of "Total revenue in packaged software market" in page 27. It shows the US and global software market status between 1997 and 1999 only. As if nothing had happened in the global software industry during last four years.

The ICT ministry's booklet boasts of a list of countries where Bangladesh, reportedly, exports software. But the ministry is completely mum about earnings from such exports. This booklet has been published to allure the potential ICT investors as well as to appraise the world of the ICT status of Bangladesh. This effort is feared to be counter productive due to its unforgivable inconsistencies. Interested readers may explore it.

However, while concluding her Plenary address in WSIS, the prime minister said, "We need to demonstrate progress before we meet again in Tunis in 2005." If the government continues with the current outfit of its ICT ministry the PM's desired progress, during next two years in ICT, will be inevitably towards the opposite direction. Believe it or not.

The WSIS offered ample opportunities to bring the dream of an inclusive information society one step closer to reality. But the government had miserably failed to recognise those prospects.