At the start of the twenty-first century, technology began levelling the playing field for entrepreneurs worldwide. Over the next decade, this flattening of the world’s economy continued with further advancements in technology. Today, there are more than 150 discrete technologies that are changing the world around us faster than ever.
As technology rapidly eliminates geographic barriers, it has begun enabling a group of entrepreneurs in Bangladesh to compete globally. At the same time, the challenge of the widening digital divide in the local population remains. The successful adoption of modern technologies can help address this challenge in an effective manner.
Economic inclusion of citizens has seen some success in Bangladesh. The progress in the successful adoption of IT in delivering healthcare services has been recognised by the World Health Organisation. Further, programmes under Access to Information (a2i) are making Bangladesh digitally empowered. The adoption and proliferation of the right kind of technology will help in accelerating inclusion of the people along this digital journey.
The first requirement in this journey is to create a digital identity for every resident of the country. Advancement in technology has made the collection of biometric data of individuals easy; this biometric data can then be used to create digital identities. An identity can be made unique by applying the right kind of technology, popularly known as data deduplication. Subsequently, interfaces can be built for secure verification of that identity through inexpensive processes and tools.
In this regard, India’s programme towards digital identity creation can serve as a good reference point. The Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) started creating unique identification numbers for each Indian resident seven years ago. According to the UIDAI website, it has created unique identification numbers for more than 111 crore individuals. This means enrolment has been happening at an average speed of five individuals per second. The successful roll-out of a programme on such a scale has been significantly dependent on the deployment of the right technology: technology for data collection, technology for data deduplication and technology for identity authentication.
For a country like Bangladesh, the technology will be important for collecting data, particularly for collection of biometric information. Hardware devices have to be easily portable, since data collection will happen in remote areas too. Further, hardware and software have to be robust enough to function in environments that may not always be clean and favourable. Finally, data collection kits need to be inexpensive to ensure their widespread use.
Technology used at the backend will also be very important to keep the collected data secure and yet easily accessible. The complex job of data deduplication can also be managed efficiently using technology. In fact, deduplication is necessary to keep identities unique, thereby preventing benefit leakages.
The real benefit of unique identities becomes evident at the time of identity authentication. Hence, the authentication process needs to be fast and error-free. Again, the choice of the right technology will help in achieving this. Biometric sensors that are portable yet secure, an authentication technique that is lightweight yet reliable, and high-speed internet connectivity are critical success factors for achieving this.
For example, today, a citizen in Bangladesh has to submit a photocopy of his/her National ID (NID) while purchasing a new mobile connection. With an integrated identity authentication process, a retailer should be able to authenticate a customer at the point of sale within a few seconds by using biometric sensors and software. This will make the authentication process efficient and robust.
Bangladesh spends several thousand crores of taka every year in subsidising the cost of chemical fertilisers. In an inclusive environment, the government should be able to distribute this subsidy directly to farmers as per their individual entitlements. This will help the government optimise the subsidy amount and monitor the corresponding output. A similar approach will be effective in distributing food subsidies, cooking gas subsidy and other benefit distribution programmes.
The achievements of subsidised cooking gas retailers in India demonstrate the power of technology-enabled benefits distribution. These cooking gas companies collectively identified more than four crore customers as suspected duplicate beneficiaries using technology. This resulted in rigorous beneficiary verification and duplicate connection termination. It helped the government prevent further leakage of benefits. Through this initiative, the government of India saved several thousand crores of rupees. The money thus saved has helped the government run a separate programme for providing cooking gas connections to poor families free of cost. This accelerates inclusion of more families to use cleaner cooking fuel.
Bangladesh already has some of the basic ingredients required for a successful inclusion programme. Currently, the country has more than 13 crore mobile subscribers. Bangladesh also has an impressive customer base in mobile financial services. Further, the national identity system is capable to capture biometric data while creating an individual’s identity. A robust framework with the right set of technologies to integrate all these components into a reliable, efficient and sustainable benefits delivery and benefits monitoring system will accelerate the digital inclusion of Bangladesh’s population.