Since their announcement in 2015, the United Nation’s Goals for Sustainable Development (SDGs) have eclipsed the global development narrative. Bangladesh’s achievements to this end have been heralded, with our Honourable Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina receiving the UN’s SDG Progress Award in 2021. In coalescence with Bangladesh’s unstoppable economic journey, she also unveiled her vision for the next stage of our development late last year; Smart Bangladesh. In this connection, exploring how the vision for Smart Bangladesh can help achieve the SDGs is helpful. Given the Prime Minister’s noble pursuit of eradicating poverty, this article explores how Smart Bangladesh can help realise SDG 1, which deals with that specific goal.
SDG 1 is concerned with ending poverty in all its forms everywhere. By 2030, it seeks to eradicate extreme poverty, reduce the proportion of people living in poverty by at least half, implement nationally appropriate social protection systems, ensure equal access to economic resources, build the resilience of the poor and vulnerable, ensure significant mobilisation of resources from a wide variety of sources, and create sound pro-poor policy frameworks at the national, regional, and international levels. The first two indicators have been identified as National Priority Targets for Bangladesh. Consequently, the poverty and extreme poverty rates have declined from 24.3% and 12.9% to 18.7% and 5.6%, respectively, between 2016 and 2022. Yet, Smart Bangladesh can propel Bangladesh forwards still.
Smart Bangladesh has been defined by four pillars; Smart Citizens, Government, Technology, and Society. On the supply side, integrating Smart Technologies and Smart Government can go a long way towards achieving SDG goal 1, especially with the government’s social protection programmes. Social protection refers to the various support measures the government has in place to provide economic safety to citizens. These include direct assistance (such as the Widow’s Allowance), capacity-building programmes (such as SEIP), food and nutritional security programmes (such as the Open Market Sales), disaster relief, and programmes to build resilience to future shocks.
Economists have noted that the current social protection programmes could be more efficient and effective with better targeting and implementation mechanisms. The National Social Security Strategy acknowledged that an integrated Management Information System would be a crucial lynchpin for implementing this vision. Cues can be taken from Indonesia’s Unified DataBase (UDB) and India’s Aadhar programmes. The UDB has onboarded 350 local governments to retrieve information on potential beneficiaries. As per the writer’s calculation, it has effectively generated data on upwards of 39% of the population. However, it uses National ID cards to register potential recipients of programmes. It is challenging to administer for countries with larger rural populations, as some target groups may need access to the requisite documentation. India’s Aadhar programme finds an eloquent solution to the problem by pairing biometric identification, such as fingerprints and iris scans, with a unique identifier. This is where Smart Government and Smart Technology can play a critical role. Leveraging artificial intelligence and smart technologies would massively retrieve and manage large swathes of data on rural populations.
The first two indicators have been identified as National Priority Targets for Bangladesh. Consequently, the poverty and extreme poverty rates have declined from 24.3% and 12.9% to 18.7% and 5.6%, respectively, between 2016 and 2022. Yet, Smart Bangladesh can propel Bangladesh forwards still.
Beyond the obvious benefits to efficiency in this regard, the programmatic elements of assistance can also be augmented by AI. Given enough data, AI models can predict critical human behaviours and outcomes in response to an economic shock. It would be of particular help when trying to devise programmes for specific situations or groups of people. The AI can then simulate the response when given different types of assistance or when a drastic change in living situation is experienced, allowing for greater depth in the programmes. AI could be used to estimate the impact of an economic event or risk and predict the degree to which a person with a specific set of traits would be benefitted from different programmes. It is, in effect, what policymakers have been trying to do with social protection in the first place. AI can amplify human ingenuity, and together, a tangible impact can be made on the lives of the poorest.
However, equally crucial to eradicating poverty is the demand side. Smart Citizens, in particular, should be identified as the critical hinge for eradicating poverty going forward. Acclimatising citizens towards the effective use of technology will allow the government to provide better services and serve as a crucial mechanism for empowering and uplifting the impoverished population. This has already been seen through fintech services in rural Bangladesh, yet, that is merely scratching the surface. A smarter labour force, equipped with the capacity to leverage technologies successfully, will eventually be able to lift themselves out of poverty rather than relying on government protections. At the same time, they will also be empowered to become job creators rather than job seekers. It is also pertinent to note that smart citizens should be built in every sector; for example, primary sector workers can be upskilled to leverage frontier technologies for precision agriculture (in fact, GoB is already working hard on this as we speak).
A smarter labour force, equipped with the capacity to leverage technologies successfully, will eventually be able to lift themselves out of poverty rather than relying on government protections.
On the other hand, we should not forget three critical points – economic cost minimisation, inclusivity, and sustainability. The first refers to the inevitability that some traditional jobs may be lost as we move towards Smart Bangladesh. Here, effective labour market policy, capacity building, and social protection interventions are required to mitigate the potential negative impacts on the labour force. Inclusivity refers to the fact that we can not leave anyone behind; i.e., a whole-of-society approach should be taken, keeping in mind that there may be a requirement for additional facilities or interventions for last-mile citizens and marginalised communities. Finally, sustainability refers to the fact that Smart Bangladesh should be a self-improving entity, with advancements in technology bettered by further developments down the line. It would allow for more sustainable and robust growth instead of stagnation. Ideally, an overarching policy framework for each sector of the economy would also be established to refine and fine-tune the initiatives undertaken.
Hridoy Shawkat Ali is a research associate at the Research and Policy Integration for Development (RAPID). He can be reached at email@example.com