In a rapidly developing continent, Africa is still being hindered by unequal roll-out of Internet and teaching services. Bangladesh, however may be the ideal role-model for the continent in ridding the ghosts of colonialism which are still propping up these barriers, Anir Chowdhury argues.

The World Bank recently predicted that Africa will experience its first recession in 25 years. This will pose social, economic and political challenges for a continent that has many countries that are on the way to becoming middle income, and some of the world's most promising emerging markets.

Digital transformation can, in Africa as elsewhere, increase the speed of economic growth and societal progress, despite the pandemic. Many African states need a simplified, cost-effective public service delivery programs that can reduce the distance between government and citizens and increase their trust in public institutions. This in turn can increase societal resilience, economic dynamism and political stability.

The UN Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development has estimated that approximately $109 billion would need to be invested in Africa in order to deliver universal, affordable and good-quality internet across the continent. For context, the region's largest internet provider, Vodafone, currently spends a total of $1 billion per year in digital infrastructure.

This matters, because unequal access to connectivity, digital tools and digital skills has been driving a wedge between between societies over the last few decades; something the pandemic has exaggerated. On the flipside, digital access can be a great leveller, for example by digitizing education and increasing access to learning.

Bangladesh provides a relevant case study. Eight years ago, 23 teachers came to a2i, the government's flagship digital transformation program, and told us that teacher training needed to be improved and made more regular..

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Our solution was a social media based, peer-to-peer teachers training platform, with content generated by the teachers themselves. Today, 450,000 teachers are part of the Teachers' Portal, with 332,000 pieces of educational content that can be accessed by anyone with a connected tablet resulting in a significant qualitative change in the teaching methodology. The more prepared teachers started training the less prepared teachers. Across the country without leaving their own locations.

There are significant aid efforts to build schools in Africa; less so to train teachers. A chronic teacher shortage faces the continent, with 19.6 million teachers needing to be hired. One of the biggest obstacles to becoming a teacher is access to training. Large-scale, government-backed peer-to-peer social networks, modelled on the a2i teacher's portal, could work to reduce the barriers to entry for African teachers and improve the quality of education across the continent. This will in turn stimulate the economy and reduce youth unemployment.

Another way to promote digitisation in Africa is to encourage public-private partnerships on the ground to deliver decentralized public services. In Africa, an inability to access simple state services means that millions are left without identity registration, passports, visas or the ability to register land records, creating a blockage for rural development, or introducing such delay that it is synonymous to blocked development.

In Bangladesh, a local public administrator saw similar issues, and created a 'Digital Centre', a one-stop shop that would provide public and private digital services to the local population. He allocated a room in a government municipal building to a local entrepreneur who would administer the service as the last-mile service delivery point on behalf of the government service provider agency.

In the ten years since, nearly 270 services have been added, including private sector services such as banking and e-commerce, and public services like passport applications and exam result collection. There are now nearly 7,000 of these one-stop shops across the country, used by 6 million people each month.  We measure increase in efficiency of public service delivery by measuring decrease in time, cost and the number of visits to receive services. In the last 10 years, citizens in Bangladesh saved 2 billion workdays, 8 billion dollars and 1 billion visits.

Both the continent of Africa and the country of Bangladesh still have the ghosts of colonisation embedded within their civil services, education and skills development administration. They have remained complex, citizen-unfriendly and rigid because that was historically the only way for a few thousand to govern hundreds of millions.

Just as rapid digitisation has helped Bangladesh break down traditional barriers to development by reconfiguring its public services, education and skills development ecosystem and achieve record growth (a sustained +6% for over 10 years and recently over 8%), it can do the same for many economies in Africa. An incredible journey can start from the spark of political will and continue by systematically developing the capacity of civil servants and educators.

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