IT can be Bangladesh's Super Highway to
Muhammad Yunus, Grameen Bank
Key-note Address Delivered at the
Tech-Transfer 2000 -- North America Conference
Held in Atlantic City, U.S.A. on April 28-30, 2000
IT can be Bangladesh's Super Highway to Prosperity
Size of Bangladesh economy is very small.
Size of the population of the country is very big. In the past nobody in
the world noticed us because of the tiny economy. We do not show up in the
world map because we do not feature as a serious market for buying or
All these can change now. Bangladesh can
become a familiar name in the world market if we take advantage of the new
technologies, particularly Information Technology, which are changing the
world dramatically. Stage is already set. In the previous decade the world
has just seen the tip of these changes. Next decade will unfold scenarios
which will redefine the lives of people around the world.
Technologies are all interrelated. If there
is a dramatic change in one technology, immediately impact of it is felt
in many other directions. At this moment Information Technology (IT) is
the most dynamic sector. It is leading the way. Other technologies are
getting reshaped because of fast changes in IT.
IT is helping the rich countries to expand
their economies at a sustained and fast speed. These economies are
assuming features which are so distinct from their previous structures
that it has become necessary to call these economies as "New
Economies". It is obvious that the rich economies are the ones which
are benefitting the most from the IT. Except for some small spill-over
effects here and there, there is very little that IT has offered to the
people in the poor countries. But this does not have to be so in future.
IT eliminates middlemen. It eliminates
middlemen in the value-chain when it comes to production and marketing. IT
eliminates middlemen in the knowledge-chain when it comes to understanding
the economy and the society. In the process it creates not only a New
Economy, but it can also create a New Society.
It is not the big size of the annual
addition to the GDP which characterizes the New Economies. It is not about
the quantum of wealth that people are accumulating by using this
technology. IT's unique contribution comes from one fundamental fact : it
is creating a new relationship among people, and between the producer and
the consumer. In the economic sphere, this new relationship is leading to
significant reduction in cost. Having demonstrated this in unmistakable
terms, IT has set the process in motion to dismantle the old economic
relationships and the institutions which were based on those
relationships. Nobody can escape from this change because the emerging new
relationship means reduction in personnel cost, reduction in processing
and production time, better appreciation of market needs, more options for
producers, more opportunities, and more choices for the consumers and
What happens to the poor economies which
did not show much of a progress in the past half a century ? Two things
can happen :
1.0 In the face of the emergence of New
Economies and their ever increasing strength in the world economy, weak
and small old economies will get further marginalised, making it more
difficult for them to compete in the world economy and survive. IT will
obviously make globalisation fast and unstoppable. Global companies will
dictate the terms for the weak economies.
2.0 Or it be just the opposite. IT will
spread into the sleepy economies so fast that they can longer remain
sleepy. In the interest of the fast expanding economies IT will come to
the shores of the poor economies. If IT can make a full blown entry into a
poor economy it would be difficult for the poor economies to remain poor
and stagnant. If the national leaders are wise, and the people are eager
and energetic IT can be turned into a magic wand. After that anything it
touches, it will turn into gold. Best aspect of IT is that it cannot be
controlled by a single owner or authority. It is an empowering tool which
enhances options and brings all the knowledge at your disposal. When IT
can enter into a poor economy the people will benefit from the wider
choices and new relationships within and with the world at large. This
will no longer limited to traditional uni-directional relationship. IT
stands for multi-dimensional and global relationship. IT does not
recognise borders. It cannot be contained within any kind of borders and
limits. Getting in touch by one person to any other person, from any where
to any where, in almost costless way, is the hall-mark of IT.
Consider the above two options and make
YOUR own choice --- and make that choice come true.
In order to achieve the desirable outcome,
obviously, our leaders have to be wise, our people have to mobilise all
their energy and organisational skills, and we as individuals must feel
strongly committed to make that happen.
If we just lie on our backs under the prosperity-tree for the juicy fruit
of development to fall right into our mouth, we'll need lots of prayers,
lots of luck and a very long wait before we succeed in our mission. To get
to the fruit faster, alternative strategy would be to climb the tall,
difficult tree and get to the fruit.
Which among the Third World countries will
get ahead and transform its economy dramatically to become a global player
will depend on how quickly a country decides to get up and starts making
arduous efforts to the get to the fruit.
IT and the poor
Can IT get to the poor countries and to the
poor people ?
Even if we leave it to the market forces alone it is very likely that IT
will get to the poor countries sooner or later. Whether it will be sooner
or it will later will depend primarily on the mood of the respective
governments in those countries. Governments in poor countries will
generally be inclined to block the entry and spread of IT in their
countries. Except for the blockade created by government policies and its
bureaucracy. I see no problem for IT to come to a poor country. What I
suspect, market mechanism alone cannot ensure fast speed of spread of IT
in the poor countries. Something else is needed. I feel that international
organisations are needed to be created, with a mandate to bring IT to the
poor and the poor countries. I have been advocating for the creation of an
"International Center for Information Technology to End Global
Poverty" to achieve this objective. NGO's, businesses, academic
institutions, UN agencies, foundations, civil society organisations, etc.
can link themselves with each other to find ways and means to bring IT to
the poor and poor countries.
Can IT really get to the poor people ?
Market forces do not take poor people with any seriousness because they
are neither producers nor consumers of any consequence. I have no doubt
that IT can be reached by the poor people, but they would have to be
reached by creating new variety of business organisations which will help
the poor people in engaging in business activities. I have been calling
this type of business enterprises as "social-consciousness driven
enterprises" which may have high profit, low profit, or no profit,
but must have clearly defined social goals.
Many of the Grameen enterprises, such as,
Grameen Bank, Grameen Telecom, Grameen Phone, Grameen Communications,
Grameen Software Ltd, Grameen IT Park, Grameen Securities and Management
Company, Grameen Shakti (Energy), Grameen Uddog (Enterprise), Grameen
Shamogree (Products), Grameen Fund (venture capital fund), Grameen
Agriculture, Grameen Kalyan, Grameen Education etc. falls into this
category. Conventional economic theory ignored the poor because it has
conceptualised the world as a wage-employment-based world. If you are not
a wage-labour you are not in the market. Idea of self-employment never
crossed the minds of economists. If we bring in the self-employment as an
option for the people to make a living, the poor immediately draws
attention of the market.
IT is the greatest technology the world has ever known to promote
self-employment. Self-employment alone will be a great reason to bring IT
to the poor people.
It is silly to ask the question : "How
can a poor person own a computer to have access to internet ?" This
question can be posed in another way : "How can a poor woman in a
Bangladeshi village own a mobile phone ?" Through Grameen Bank and
Grameen Telecom we have given the answer to this question in a clear loud
voice. Grameen Communications has given the answer to the first question
by creating village internet kiosks.
Remember, Grameen is using the IT designed
for better-off people in rich countries and businesses in those countries.
Grameen do not have the capacity to design appropriate IT devices and
appliances for the poor. If it had, it would have designed completely
different kind of IT devices and appliances which would act as a friend, a
philosopher, a guide, a business consultant, a business executive, a
teacher, an accountant, a doctor and an entertainer for a poor person.
Business with social goals can be much
better than business for making personal gain only, even in strictly
business terms. IT is a sector where it can be demonstrated much more
Someday IT will become part of our lives in
Bangladesh even if we stay lying on our back and wait for the juicy fruit
to drop right into our mouth. But this conference is not about lying on
our back. This is about getting up the tree and get to the fruit NOW .
What prospect does Bangladesh have in
entering into the IT age fast ? I feel very optimistic about Bangladesh
getting to the frontline of IT revolution. To begin with, we have a very
young population. That is a very big help. Younger a person is, quicker is
the speed in getting into IT mode. Half the population of Bangladesh is
under twenty. They are very creative too. With little or no help, some of
these young people are coming up with great success stories in IT.
Bangladesh has led the world in
micro-credit --- a home-grown technology which has been adopted world
over. Micro-credit and IT have one big thing in common, they both empower
individuals. This makes them mutually reinforcing. Bangladesh is the only
country in the world which could take mobile telephone to the poor women
in the villages in a very successful commercial way because of
micro-credit. That has laid the foundation of future inroad of IT services
like e-commerce, e-healthcare, e-literacy, e-education, e-jobs etc to the
villages in general, and to the poor women in particular. With IT we can
put the whole world in the hands of the poor people to rush out of poverty
in their individual creative ways. We already have fibre-optic backbone
running along the railway tracks of our country. If we can quickly connect
it to the fibre-optic submarine cable, almost the whole country will be
fully connected to the world immediately. With this backdrop, I strongly
feel that Bangladesh can be a world-class player in IT very soon.
Support From NRB's
This needs a very strong support from the
non-resident Bangladeshis (NRB's). NRB's can be strategic bridge-head in
bringing IT businesses in Bangladesh. Bangladesh has to prove its worth in
international IT market. NRB's can ease Bangladesh into this market by
helping her with expertise, information, links and, above all,
credibility. Bangladesh does not have to start big, or at the top. It is
always safe and rewarding to work from the bottom and move up. Let us not
expect miracles. If we work hard, miracles will happen at the end.
NRB's can help Bangladesh in designing IT related training programmes and
collaborating in the areas of producing high quality human resources
through right kind of training. Training itself can be an entry point to
international market place by placing trained man-power at the disposal of
NRB's can provide information, ideas and guidance to the IT businesses in
Bangladesh. They can act as representatives of the Bangladesh based
businesses and participate as partners in these businesses.
NRB's can influence government policies in
direct and indirect ways. Many of them are closely linked with the top
policy-makers. Many are respected for their personal achievements abroad.
Many NRB's have influence with the leading Bangladeshi political parties.
They can use their connections and influences to achieve policy changes in
the IT sector. The following policy changes are immediately needed :
i. Telecommunication sector should be
totally opened up for private investment. Every bit of restriction on
private investment should be removed. The sooner the restrictions go, the
better chance we'll have in changing our economy and the quality of life
of our people.
ii. Bangladesh should invite offers from
private investors to connect Bangladesh with the Information Super
Highway. Government should not get involved in owning and managing this
submarine cable. Government should stay out of all telecommunication
iii. T&T Board should soon be converted
into a company and government should hand over the shares to the private
sector --- if we want to get out of the present sad state of affairs in
the telecommunication sector. If we cannot change this situation, forget
about having IT as our launching pad for economic boom.
iv. All restrictions on using national
fibre-optic backbone for IT purposes should be immediately removed.
v. We must open up international
telecommunications for private sector investments.
vi. Bangladesh should have a truly
independent regulatory body outside the control of the government
ministries. Telecom is the highway we must take to build our future. Don't
allow this to be a narrow dirt-road with pot-holes where corrupt officials
are waiting around for their next catch at every step of the way. With
such a road Bangladesh will continue to remain where it is right now. Big
talks will not change the road condition, and hence the condition of the
economy. We must make the telecom a truly superhighway to take us to the
future without any stop-lights or sharp turns. Of course, there should be
traffic police, but not to slow us down, but to help us achieve safe
IT is about speed and efficiency. Any
compromise on any one of them will push us out of the way. We just cannot
afford to compromise.
NRB's Can Inspire IT Activities in
Besides influencing government policies on
IT sector individual NRB's from all disciplines can help in several other
i) Share any information, or any tip you
may get on IT matters with Bangladeshi IT activists. Prepare a list of
such people in Bangladesh and regularly brief them on IT matters. Nothing
special. Just the kind of information that comes to you in the normal
course of your work or interest. Don't expect anything in return. Just
hope that it will be of some use to somebody out there. If you don't want
to correspond to a whole lot of people, you can choose an individual or an
organization who will copy this to many other people in Bangladesh. We in
Grameen will be happy to take this responsibility.
ii) You can think of sparing one-hour a
week to think about something for IT industry in Bangladesh and let that
thought grow as an action or as an idea. When it is properly formulated
you can share it with a contact person in Bangladesh where it will be
shared with other IT activists. We can even print it in our newspapers if
you wish to. Please do let us know what you think will be the right course
of our action. It'll be of tremendous help if you lend your hand in giving
a boost to IT industry in Bangladesh.
I congratulate the sponsors of
Tech-Transfer 2000 for taking this initiative to bring US businesses,
well-wishers of Bangladesh, NRB's and technology activists in Bangladesh
to get together to pool their energy, and strategise for future action. I
am sure great things will come out of this conference, not because we said
profound things, but because we'll be making very important contacts here.
These may change our lives, and may change the lives of the 130 million
people of Bangladesh.
The greatest opportunity ever for
Bangladesh is knocking at our door. Let's not blow it by being slow in
opening the door, or not opening it wide enough. If you blow it, history
will not forgive us.
I wish this conference all the success.