Page last updated at 09:29 GMT, Friday, 12 March 2010

Bangladesh takes experts to the village, via internet


Mark Dummett has a webchat with Professor Tofail Ahmed who takes part in link-up consultations with a rural diabetes hospital

By Mark Dummett
BBC News, Bangladesh

The government of Bangladesh has begun work on an ambitious new scheme to tackle poverty with the help of the internet. It plans to improve schools, hospitals, businesses and government services by linking them to the web by 2021.

At the moment, most villages - and even some communities in the capital Dhaka - do not even have access to electricity.

But the rapid spread of mobile phones to even the most remote and impoverished parts of the country in recent years, has shown what is possible.

"This will be a digitised nation depending on information technology, for information, for services, for all kinds of activities that individuals can do," the finance minister, Abdul Muhith, told the BBC.

"This is a simple dream, and is really workable.

"It is the ideal solution for Bangladesh's various problems. I'm sure that by 2021 the largest sector in Bangladesh is going to be information technology, not textiles and garments."

Power cuts


A season of reports from 8-19 March 2010 exploring the extraordinary power of the internet, including:

Digital giants - top thinkers in the business on the future of the web
Mapping the internet - a visual representation of the spread of the web over the last 20 years
Global Voices - the BBC links up with an online community of bloggers around the world

This marks a big change with the past. Previous governments were suspicious of the internet, and imposed high charges on service providers.

Bangladesh is one of the poorest countries in Asia, with a largely rural population, so relatively few people have ever gone online in their lives.

At the moment, the government's plans are still vague and many Bangladeshis are sceptical of ministers' boasts of the impending digital revolution, especially as power cuts are only getting worse. The country's infrastructure is dreadful - gas and water supplies are also drying up - and the bureaucracy is famously corrupt.

But some organisations have already started connecting poor communities to the web, and begun to make a difference to people's lives - which suggests that the government's vision may indeed well work.

Grameenphone Community Information Centre
The sky is the limit for what can be achieved here
Mahbub-el-Elahi Prince, owner of Aral Bazaar Community Information Centre

Aral Bazaar, a three-hour drive from Dhaka, is a typical small Bangladeshi town. Surrounded by paddy fields and banana groves, it is a sleepy place where the men gather to drink tea and the women stay at home to look after the kids.

But in its small row of shops, and sharing room space with a photo studio decorated with pictures of Bollywood actresses, Aral Bazaar now has its very own "Community Information Centre".

It is one of 500 set up by Grameenphone, Bangladesh's largest mobile phone provider, which was founded with the help of Muhammed Yunus, the Nobel Peace laureate and micro-credit pioneer.

"The sky is the limit for what can be achieved here," says Mahbub-el-Elahi Prince, owner of the centre, which is little more than two computers connected to the web.


Faruqe Mia
A consultation on the web, is better than a two-day trip to meet an expert face-to-face

"People can come and communicate with their relatives who live abroad, but most of my customers are farmers who want advice on their crops."

Prince is able to connect them to a Dhaka-based website called E-Krishok (E-farmer).

Faruque Mia, for example, wanted to know what was wrong with his pumpkin plant. He brought two brown leaves and a diseased looking fruit into the centre, where Prince's assistant took digital photos. He submitted these to E-Krishok, where an expert was able to examine them and then send back advice on treatment.

"We used to go to a government-employed agriculture officer for this kind of help, but he works a long way away and it sometimes took two days to get anything from him. The CIC is close to where we live - that's why everyone prefers to come here," he said.

A more dramatic success story is taking place in an anonymous-looking hospital for diabetics in Faridpur, half a day's drive and a river ferry ride from Dhaka.

Many of its patients are too poor to make the journey to the capital to see a consultant, so this hospital simply connects them over the web, using video-conferencing technology.

Two doctors sit with the patient, taking notes and conducting tests if required, while the consultant asks questions. They can all see and hear each other on large TV screens.

"This has brightened the possibility of taking care of the rural population as we would take care of the affluent and urban population," Professor Tofail Ahmed of the Bangladesh Institute of Research and Rehabilitation in Diabetes, Endocrine and Metabolic Disorders (BIRDEM), said. "It saves money, it saves time. It reduces all sorts of obstacles."

According Zarina Begum, a patient with severely swollen limbs and face, she is now getting treatment that she would never have dreamed of receiving before.

"In my village we don't have any good doctors. But fortunately I've been able to come here and see the Dhaka doctors anyway. My condition is now improving," she said.

Bangladesh has been slow to benefit from the internet, but it is trying hard to make up for lost time.

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