Bangladesh and Estonia. Two countries rarely included in the same sentence. Dhaka has no official representation in Tallinn, Estonia’s capital, and Estonia has none in Dhaka. Bilateral trade is negligible. Yet the two countries have more in common than might first appear to be the case.
“Digital Bangladesh” is a popular term first coined by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in her party’s election manifesto in 2008. The proliferation of the Internet in education, health, governance and daily life has become a goal for Hasina’s government.
In recent years, Bangladesh has achieved tremendous success in several sectors vis-à-vis the use of computers and the Internet. The Internet has reached villages in remote corners of the country and investments have been made to build modern computer labs in each state-run school. Internet-based contests like Internet Utshab promote connectivity among youth. No longer is the Net unknown to Bangladeshis.
Recently, a website was launched in collaboration with UNICEF that will target youth between the ages of 10 and 17 to nurture their journalistic skills. The state minister of information could not hide his elation, “This is a digital Bangladesh.”
Estonia, on the other hand, has long been a laboratory for experimentation with the Internet. Since its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Estonia has improvised a truly audacious plan to turn the country into E-stonia. Unlike Bangladesh, it paved the way for an education system in which Internet use goes hand-in-hand. All Estonian schools were online by the late 1990s. In this tiny Baltic nation, pupils from an early age start learning computer programming. Schools are so advanced that if a student is absent from class, the absentee’s parents can catch up with their missed lessons online. People call such school systems Ekool (E-school).
According to Estonian President Toomas Henrik IIves, these changes in the education system need 15 to 20 years to yield tangible outcomes. His contention has some support, as the first generation of E-stonia has already begun to mentor Internet-based revolutions. The most prominent of these is the Internet-based phone system, Skype. Estonian innovators have also been improvising bold ideas to safeguard the country’s history and tradition. One game maker has developed a game that teaches Estonian primary school children their nation’s history.
It is this harmony of history, education, business and Internet that is producing the benefits in Estonia. And it is here where the discrepancy with Bangladesh lies. Even though the current government has changed the nation’s secondary school syllabus and examination pattern, it has nothing to do with the government’s frequently touted plan to take Bangladesh digital. Bangladesh today cannot find solutions to some of the biggest hurdles to building an Internet-dependent Bangladesh – electricity chief among them. The country is still struggling to offer its computer literate youth suitable jobs. Although it was once thought that Bangladesh was to replace India or China as a leading call center market, progress was halted due to poor policymaking. Bangladesh is among a handful of countries where getting Internet access is costlier than in developed countries. A report by the International Telecommunication Union shows that Bangladesh ranks 113rd out of 161 countries in terms of fixed broadband price, assuming a 1GB data download over a 256 Kbps connection.
With a population more than 100 times that of Estonia, it is a daunting challenge to distribute the Internet equally throughout Bangladesh. Nevertheless, it can be achieved, but it requires political will in concert with sound policy. With the proliferation of the Internet, people tend to become more educated and conscious of their rights. They will exercise online their right to be heard. Recently, a mass movement spearheaded by online activists – formed in response to a verdict handed down for a Bangladesh liberation war criminal – has triggered both hopes and tensions. Meanwhile, the government has in the past blocked Facebook and YouTube and has even restricted upload speeds, without letting people know the proper reasoning. Clearly, the government fears the potential of its netizens.
In a country like Bangladesh, where the traditional political goal is to grab power and hold onto it, it is not unexpected that the government might prefer to exploit the massive potential of the Internet in order to galvanize its power. What will happen if smart, Internet-equipped Bangladeshis demand online voting – a politically taboo issue in Bangladesh – or e-governance to reduce widespread corruption? Imposing ever more draconian restrictions on the Internet would certainly not be in the country’s interest. That’s a lesson Bangladesh could certainly learn from Estonia.