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Friday, 12 April 2024
Digital Transformation: Bridging the Urban-Rural Divide in Bangladesh

Digital Transformation: Bridging the Urban-Rural Divide in Bangladesh

Dr Matiur Rahman

In the dynamic landscape of Bangladesh, where rapid urbanisation coexists with rural traditions, the advent of digital transformation has emerged as a transformative force reshaping the nation's socio-economic fabric. The digital revolution, characterised by the widespread adoption of information and communication technologies (ICTs), promises to bridge the longstanding urban-rural divide, foster inclusive growth, and empower marginalised communities.

At the heart of Bangladesh's digital transformation lies the proliferation of mobile phones and internet connectivity, which have become ubiquitous tools for communication, commerce, and information access. With over 180 million mobile phone subscribers and increasing internet penetration, even in remote rural areas, the digital landscape of Bangladesh is rapidly evolving. Mobile phones have emerged as powerful agents of change, providing individuals access to many services, from mobile banking and agricultural information to educational resources and healthcare services.

One of the most significant impacts of digital transformation is its role in narrowing the urban-rural divide, traditionally characterised by disparities in access to resources, opportunities, and services. In rural areas, where physical infrastructure is often limited, digital technologies have enabled leapfrogging, allowing communities to bypass traditional barriers and access essential services directly through mobile phones. Farmers can now receive weather updates, market prices, and agricultural advice, empowering them to make informed decisions and improve productivity.

Similarly, digital platforms have revolutionised access to financial services, particularly for the unbanked and underserved populations in rural areas. Mobile banking services, such as bKash and Nagad, have democratised financial inclusion, enabling individuals to send and receive money, pay bills, and conveniently access savings and credit facilities from their mobile phones. This has facilitated economic transactions and fostered a culture of savings and entrepreneurship among rural communities.

Education is another sector where digital transformation is making significant inroads in bridging the urban-rural gap. Through initiatives such as e-learning platforms, digital classrooms, and online educational resources, students in rural areas can now access quality educational materials and interactive learning experiences previously unavailable. The democratisation of education through digital technologies has the potential to level the playing field and empower rural youth with knowledge and skills for the future.

Healthcare delivery is undergoing a digital revolution in Bangladesh, with telemedicine, mobile health (mHealth), and digital health records transforming how healthcare services are accessed and delivered, particularly in rural areas. Telemedicine platforms connect patients in remote areas with healthcare professionals, enabling remote consultations, diagnosis, and treatment. Similarly, mHealth applications provide timely health information, reminders, and guidance, improving preventive care and disease management.

Digital transformation is also reshaping the landscape of entrepreneurship and innovation in Bangladesh, empowering individuals in rural areas to unleash their creative potential and participate in the digital economy. From e-commerce platforms enabling artisans and craftsmen to reach national and international markets to digital marketplaces connecting farmers with buyers, the digital ecosystem fosters a culture of entrepreneurship and economic empowerment at the grassroots level.

However, amidst the promise of digital transformation, challenges persist that threaten to widen rather than bridge the urban-rural divide. The digital divide, characterised by disparities in access to digital infrastructure, internet connectivity, and digital literacy, remains a significant barrier, particularly in remote and marginalised communities. Despite efforts to expand internet coverage and promote digital literacy programs, access to affordable and reliable internet services remains a challenge in many rural areas.

Furthermore, the digital divide is not solely a question of access but inclusivity. Gender disparities in digital access and usage persist, with women in rural areas facing more significant barriers due to socio-cultural norms, limited digital literacy, and unequal access to resources. Bridging the gender digital gap requires targeted interventions that address structural inequalities and empower women with the skills, knowledge, and opportunities to harness the benefits of digital technologies.

Cybersecurity concerns also loom large in the digital transformation era, with rural communities often lacking the awareness and resources to protect themselves from cyber threats. As digital transactions and data sharing become increasingly prevalent, ensuring the security and privacy of individuals' digital identities and financial information is paramount. Strengthening cybersecurity infrastructure and promoting digital literacy are essential to safeguarding rural populations' digital rights and well-being.

Moreover, the sustainability of digital initiatives in rural areas hinges on factors such as infrastructure development, electricity access, and institutional support. Addressing the infrastructural challenges, including power outages, network coverage gaps, and the availability of affordable devices, is crucial for ensuring the long-term viability and impact of digital interventions. Additionally, fostering partnerships between government, private sector, and civil society actors can enhance the scalability and sustainability of digital initiatives, enabling them to reach more underserved communities and address their unique needs.

Digital transformation holds immense potential to bridge the urban-rural divide in Bangladesh, unlocking opportunities for inclusive growth, empowerment, and sustainable development. From improving access to essential services and economic opportunities to fostering innovation and entrepreneurship, digital technologies are reshaping the socio-economic landscape of the nation.

However, realising the full benefits of digital transformation requires concerted efforts to address the underlying barriers and inequalities that threaten to widen the divide. By prioritising digital inclusion, promoting digital literacy, and ensuring equitable access to digital infrastructure and services, Bangladesh can harness the power of technology to build a more inclusive and resilient society where no one is left behind in the digital age.

The writer is a researcher and development worker.

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