Quest for IT
During the last two decades, the developed world has seen a revolution in information and communication technologies (ICT). Countries like the United States were quick to leverage their technological advances in ICT to realize phenomenal economic growth. This was made possible due to consistent institutional commitment that drove R&D spending in ICT. On the other hand, in most of the developing world, numerous examples of countries that missed out on such opportunities can be found. These are nations that are severely lagging behind in technological advances in ICT, thus hindering economic growth and Bangladesh is no exception .
The country’s IT sector stands at $350 million out of a $100 billion GDP, which makes its total contribu- tion to the economy less than a single per cent (0.35 per cent to be exact). In the latest E-Government Readiness Survey 2008, conducted by the UN, Bangladesh held the 142nd spot among 192 countries. Although an improvement from its 162nd rank in 2005, it does not reflect the aspirations of a nation that seeks to create a “Digital Bangladesh” in less than a decade.
Bangladesh has made some progress in recent years though. Around 20 years back, the IT industry was nothing more than a few vendors importing and selling hardware products locally. Today, Bangladesh boasts at least 320 officially registered software and IT services companies. Still, a lot needs to be done in order to transform it into an industry that attracts foreign investment. The government has formulated policy documents and ensured concrete steps for the development of the IT sector in the framework of overall national development, but many of these commitments have failed to materialize in the face of numerous political barriers.
However, despite all this, a few areas of the IT sector have been able to perform well. These include VoIP software, biometric software solutions and IT freelancing. Some prominent Bangladeshi IT companies include Reeve Systems, which is among the top ranked VoIP software solutions companies and Tiger IT which is ranked 3rd globally for its biometric software. Recently, US-based IT powerhouse Accenture purchased a 51 per cent stake in a local Bangladeshbased IT services provider named GPIT. The government has been aggressively pursuing ICT policy making in recent years and states the development of Information and Communication Technology infrastructure as one of its top priorities.
In order to create a competitive marketplace for technological investments, the government is working to-
wards developing an effective legal framework that ensures protection of intellectual property. It is also looking to make major updates to its Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) Law in this regard. In addition, the government seeks to enforce tough e-commerce laws that inspire confidence in consumers and promotes electronic trade.
Another area of active interest to the government is that of e-governance which will develop the capability to conduct all necessary public business online. Target public departments in this context include human services, justice and public safety, revenue, education, transport and motor vehicles and postal services. The government plans to provide each of the aforestated ministries with state-of-the-art IT facilities, including necessary hardware, broadband internet connectivity and trained professionals capable of maintaining efficient operation of the system. Compared to other sectors, telecommunication in Bangladesh has been performing relatively well. The telecom network now includes 17 major operators with connectivity across the country. Bangladesh now has fiber-optic links in all major cities thanks to the Bangladesh Submarine Cable Company Limited (BSCCL) that was established in July 2008.
The government also seeks to revive its software development indus- try, which currently operates on a very small scale. According to government statistics, there are currently just over a hundred reputable software companies in Bangladesh that are involved in export of software products to a global clientele. The government aims for substantial growth in the software industry and seeks to enter joint ventures with foreign software companies. The Bangladesh Export Promotion Bureau recently set up a Business Promotion Office in California’s Silicon Valley. Government regulations have also been relaxed in recent years to stir growth in the technology industry. This includes complete exemption from customs duties and value added taxes (VAT) on certain hardware and software products.
In the long run, the stated goal of the Bangladesh ICT Ministry is to take concrete steps in order to attract foreign investment. A few notable projects include the 232 acres Kaliakoir Hi-Tech Park, Jessore Software Technology Park (JSTP) - with an estimated investment of BDT 480 million - and Bangladesh Business Innovation and Incubation Center (BIIC) in Dhaka to encourage small IT business and hitech startups.
Despite government pledges in the past, most of the technology initiatives in Bangladesh have failed due to an ineffective implementation strategy, lack of regulation and rampant corruption in government institutions. International technology transfer has been a major hindrance to the development of a vibrant IT industry, which operates mostly in isolation and lacks access to international technological shelves. Experience in other Asian countries (most notably Korea and Malaysia) has shown that political commitment, state patronization and pragmatic policy-making is vital to technological attainment. Unfortunately, Bangladesh lacks in all three areas. Lack of effective planning has led to the collapse of numerous projects in the past that looked promising on paper. A thorough examination of Bangladesh’s technology needs and capacity assessment is required in order to propose practical projects suitable for the local technological climate.
The government also seeks to revive its software development industry which currently operates on a very small scale. According to government statistics, there are currently just over a hundred reputable software companies in Bangladesh that are involved in export of software products to a global clientele.