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From digital divide to digital dividend
Shahiduzzaman Khan

          BANGLADESH is bracing for a berth in the global software industry. After launching of the submarine cable in the country, hopes abound for a healthy take-off of the local information and communications technology (ICT) market. Analysts say Bangladesh must speed up infrastructure development to tap full potentials of the submarine cable.
There is no denying that India has been successful in establishing itself as a major source of computer software services largely due to the timely contribution from the Non-Resident Indians (NRIs). Through their professional excellence and competence, the NRIs created a positive impact in the international market place. Their patriotism and business acumen induced them to be back 'home', and got them involved in this industry.
The situation in Bangladesh is an undoubtedly different one. Although not properly exploited yet, the country does have quite a few inherent strengths that can be used as the launching pad for making it a potential offshore source of software and data processing services. A substantial number of its educated unemployed youth force, with ability to read and write English, exist in the country. They can be trained in the required skill, particularly in data processing service, within a short time.
Quite a few Bangladeshi skilled professionals have been working abroad. A large number of Bangladeshi students are also studying overseas in computer-related subjects. A wide range of hardware platforms, from mainframe to personal computer (PC), with a large number of Macs, are available in the country. These overseas Bangladeshi professionals and the students can be lured to come back to work in the computer-related fields with reasonable compensation packages.
Yet, hindrances to the growth of software industry are many that need to be addressed first. The user base of computer in Bangladesh is extremely low because of high cost of computers and peripherals. In the absence of any incentive scheme, the exporters do not feel encouraged to explore potential markets. The existing banking procedures are too complicated to induce exporters to bring their export remittances through banking channel.
Course curricula for computer-related education followed in the universities do not fully reflect the requirements of the information technology (IT) industry. The number of graduates in computer-related subjects produced by the universities each year is far less than the actual requirement. A substantial number of such graduates leaves the country for overseas employment.
Private IT training institutions lack the required quality of trainers.
Such institutions do not follow any standard course curricula and examination system. There is no planned scheme to increase computer literacy. Absence of necessary laws protecting the Intellectual Property Rights discourages prospective overseas customers from using Bangladesh as a source of supply. The facility of high speed data (both nationally and internationally) is very limited. Present cost of data communication is very high. High speed video conferencing facility is not available. ISDN telecommunication line with fibre optic backbone does not exist in Bangladesh.
Resource materials on IT, such as books, magazines, software etc., are scanty and scattered. Whatever little hardware, software and communication resources are available, the same cannot be found under 'one roof'.
Bangladesh is not known to be a potential off-shore source of software and data processing services. Information on prospective overseas customers is not available. The use of customised application of software is virtually non-existent and as such, domestic software market has not developed at all. It is not being possible to enter into the export market without having a strong domestic market base.
When India was gradually establishing itself as a reliable source of supply of software services, its government as well as the state governments provided venture capital fund to augment the growth. Private venture capital was also available aplenty there. Of all the agencies, National Association of Software and Service Companies (NASSCOM) in India probably made valuable contribution to taking the industry to where it is today, through continuous dialogues and consultations with relevant government departments and other organisations. Such agencies do exist in Bangladesh but unfortunately they do not shoulder the burden of such huge workloads.
However, Bangladesh can learn from the Indian experience and should adopt measures similar to those in India that helped it achieve the fast rate of growth. The country can mobilise Non-Resident Bangladeshis (NRBs) involved in IT activities abroad. This can be done by arranging meeting/seminars in selected locations (e.g. in the Silicon Valley of California, USA) where the incentives being provided by Bangladesh government may be highlighted.
A dependable information system is essential for the country's efficient management and operation of the public and private sectors. But there is a shortage of locally generated information needed for efficient performance of these sectors. In order to meet this objective, information communications technology (ICT) use in every sector needs to be accelerated in terms of information generation, utilisation and applications. Considering its importance, the government has already declared ICT as the thrust sector.
Over the last few years, many nations have taken advantage of the opportunities afforded by ICT within a policy framework and laid-down guidelines and have preceded with the formulation of a national ICT strategy as a part of the overall national development plan.
Bangladesh intends to use ICT as the key-driving element for socio-economic development. This policy aims at building an ICT-driven nation comprising of knowledge-based society by the year 2006. With this end in view, a country-wide ICT-infrastructure is expected to be developed to ensure access to information on the part of every citizen to facilitate empowerment of people and enhance democratic values and norms for sustainable economic development. If this infrastructure is put in place, its use can be facilitated for human resources development, governance, e-commerce, banking, public utility services and all sorts of on-line ICT-enabled services.
Software industry is one of the essential components of IT industry with global market of US $600 billion last year. It is still largely dependent on human resources and some of the developing countries are taking advantage of this opportunity.
A taskforce on the software export has identified the major problems that are impeding the growth of the related industry in Bangladesh and made recommendations for their solution. There is no strong government agency for promoting growth of IT, particularly human resource development (HRD). As such, there is a need to upgrade the Bangladesh Computer Council (BCC) to the level of a division, to be managed by a group of professionals.
The present size of software industry in Bangladesh is very small. Only 200 organisations and a few individuals have been exporting software and data processing services. However, the total volume of such export is negligible and complete records of such performance are not available.
The country should immediately go for setting up software technology villages with all necessary infrastructure facilities. Course curricula of computer-related studies in the universities, colleges etc., should be redesigned. There is a need for enactment of appropriate laws to protect intellectual property rights of computer software.
Meanwhile, Bangladesh can be tremendously benefited by the experience of Malaysia in developing ICT sector. Malaysia's spectacular advancement in the sector deserves special mention. The prime need for this purpose is to 'turn the digital divide into digital dividend' through cooperation and joint ventures.


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