Quest for IT

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Haseeb Ah­san

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...

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