"My son did not get the job because they said he lacked the digital skills needed for it," Asma Begum confided to me as we sat outside her house in Gowainghat, Sylhet. Impressed by her use of the term "digital skills" (digital dokkhota), I prodded her into expanding on it. But she only responded with silence, so I turned to her son sitting next to us. "They did not hire me because my English was not up to their standard," he explained.
The ease with which Asma Begum threw around the word "digital" is an example of how the phrase "Digital Bangladesh" has reached all corners of the country. However, her propensity to associate "digital" with anything foreign and unknown showcases a lack of understanding of digitisation by the vast majority of people like her.
Bangladesh has made significant strides in achieving Vision 2021—a set of ICT goals to create a Digital Bangladesh by the 50th anniversary of the country's independence in 2021—and those efforts are being recognised worldwide. Bangladesh was listed as one of the top four countries in terms of "improvement and remarkable growth" in digital economy in the last four years, according to Huawei Global Connectivity Index (GCI) 2019.
While the economy is being digitised, it is imperative to find out the digital savviness of the citizens. After all, getting the full benefits of digitisation depends on how adept the citizens are at using it.
Not all citizens, however, possess an equal level of digital savviness; some are in more disadvantaged positions than others due to their socioeconomic and demographic statuses. In Bangladesh, rural and sub-urban regions lag behind the urban regions in terms of access to and usage of digital technology. For instance, internet speed there is still much slower than that in the urban regions, and its impact has been felt most strongly during the ongoing pandemic. Rural citizens face a double-fork problem where lack of access to both devices (e.g. mobile, computer) and networks (e.g. internet) is limited, which in turn restricts the acquisition of highly demanded skills of using digital technology. Recognising this problem, the BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD) conducted a study between September and November in 2019 to measure the state of digital literacy—understood as a two-dimensional concept combining both digital access and digital skills—in rural Bangladesh. As part of the study, we surveyed 6,500 rural households.
What we found is that although almost every rural household has access to a mobile phone, 60 percent of them do not have access to a smartphone. Since the use of computer and broadband is negligible in villages, as the study found, smartphones are the only way for most people to use the internet and access all the services and information available online. Indeed, the rate of regular internet usage is just about 40 percent, which corresponds to the ownership of smartphones. This means that the majority of rural households are by default still disconnected from the digital world.
It makes sense that a higher level of access to digital devices and internet should create digitally skilled individuals and communities. Ali Hossain, a computer shop owner in Moulvibazar, bears testimony to that. He was very small when his eldest brother brought home a computer. This allowed Hossain to learn enough about using computers to take over his brother's computer shop; by the time he passed SSC, he learned the necessary skills. Indeed, the study finds a strong correlation between digital access and digital skills. But even among those with access, the level of skills needed to use available technology remains low.
Though almost every household has a basic mobile phone, only about two-thirds can read or send SMS—a basic function of a phone. And although 40 percent can use social media, e.g. Facebook, active communication skills are poor: about a quarter can comment on the social media and only about 15 percent can use their phone for video calling.
When asked, about a fifth of the households said they use the internet for functional activities such as reading news, online training, bill payments, and searching information. However, less than five percent actually use them for functional purposes like online earning, online shopping, or bill payments via mobile.
More importantly, with many important public services moving online, it is crucial to know whether the citizens can really use them. In this study, almost 60 percent of the households claimed that they can obtain public service information from the internet. However, when asked to find the passport form, fee and hotline number from the homepage of the Department of Immigration and Passports, where the information is clearly marked in Bangla, only about 13 percent managed to retrieve at least one out of three pieces of information, and it took them 2-3 minutes per information, which should be a matter of seconds for anyone with some digital literacy. It is clear that most rural households are unable to complete the online application process without assistance. As more and more services are moving online, the low level of digital literacy in rural areas means that rural citizens may not only be unable to take the full benefits of digital services but also may even face more difficulty than before.
In the process of measuring rural households' digital literacy, this study also shed light on those who are most likely to be the most digitally able person within a household. Unsurprisingly, it turned out that household members who are younger (15 to 44 years of age) and more educated (SSC and above) are more digitally literate than others. The positive relation between digital ability and education is a critical one, especially now when it is feared that the current pandemic can lead to a massive wave of school drop-outs among children. This will reverse the gains made not only in education but also in the digital ability of the masses. Opening digital centres at the union level by the government has been critical to improving digital access. But in order to reduce the gap in digital ability or skills, one innovative way would be to consider the role of trusted intermediaries. A rural community has a network of human intermediaries. It could be the local grocer, the computer operator, or the NGO Apa, who people turn to for help in using their devices. Perhaps the government can invest in formalising their training through the national technical education board.
The dream of a Digital Bangladesh cannot be achieved by leaving behind our rural citizens. From the BIGD survey, it is clear that vast improvements need to be made to close the gap in digital access and, more importantly, digital skills of our rural citizens to make sure that they, too, can leverage the power of the digital world to better their lives.
Maria Matin is a Research Associate at the BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD).