Enabling E-Services for Rural Community through Union Information and Service Centers (UISCs)

 

K.M.Mahiuddin*
Shah Md. Safiul Hoque **

Abstract: The development of countries globally cannot be achieved without the development of the rural community. In Bangladesh 71.90 percent of total population live in the rural areas (World Bank report 2012). Having this in realization government of the people’s republic of Bangladesh has undertaken a project to transform Bangladesh into a “Digital Bangladesh”. In this connection 4501 information and service centers are already established at Union Parishad which is the bottom layer of the local government administration to connect citizen at grass root level. This study is conducted based on secondary data to see the present status of Community Information Centers (privately venture), particularly Union Information and Service Centers (public-private venture) and their capacity in delivering e-services at the doorstep of the rural community.  Study shows that now people are in advantaged situation in terms of receiving government information, and forms related to education, agriculture, land, and population. Other than these they are also in position to excess commercial services like computer training, document printing, Internet, paying utility bills etc which undoubtedly saving their time, money and empowering them.

Keywords: E-Services, Rural Community, Union Parishad.

Introduction

Information is ultimate resource for the development of a person, institute, society, and country as a whole. Nowadays people recognize information as power and the most important element for empowering people of any group. To generate useful information, it requires effective information systems that can be easily accessible by the people. Information and Communication Technology (ICT) greatly facilitates capturing, processing, storing and smooth flow of information and knowledge offering the socially disadvantaged community exceptional opportunities to achieve their own entitlement. According to United Nations Economic and Social Council, in a development paradigm of the information society, a farmer would have expanded access to information to make decision on the most appropriate crops, farming and processing technique, would be able to check market prices and sell produce on new markets, communicate with other parties regarding irrigation, weather information, crop preservation, environmental monitoring and conservation activities.1 The utilization of ICT creates opportunities in communication between individuals and improves personal and socio-economic status. ICT is rapidly changing the ways of living and interacting with society and institutions of a country while at the same time it is causing people to divide into information-rich and information-poor. Information-poor group is disadvantaged in obtaining and exploiting information due to lack of income, literacy, and access to ICT. Such deprivation of the information-poor group is creating information gap wider. K. T. Dilli argues that the information gap between the source of information and the recipient has been widened.2 On these considerations, both private and public sectors are introducing Community Information Centers (CICs) for acquiring, organizing, and distributing information to the users and to reach benefits of ICT to the have-nots. CICs are the ‘Shared ICT Access Facilities’, having computers, internet and other affiliated ICT equipments, made available for community access at free or affordable prices, mostly in rural societies of the developing countries. This shared-access model allows provision of a wide range of ICT services to more users at lower cost than privately-owned home or office computers which are often out of financial reach for the poor people. CIC approach in many countries has brought a great change in the quality of life and business. Accessing information from rural locations by the people has improved and enriched the quality of life. Following such initiatives the government, NGOs, and a few private organizatins have launched CICs in rural areas in Bangladesh namely: Union Information and Service Center (UISC), Telecenter, Rural Net, Rural e-Center, Gramweb etc. This paper attempts to identify the present status of ICT and ICT access points for rural community in Bangladesh in connection to availability of ICT related services.

E-Governance

Several dimension and factors influence the definition of e-Governance. The word “electronic” in the term e-Governance implies technology driven governance. E-Governance is the application of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) for delivering government services, exchange of information communication transactions, integration of various stand-alone systems and services between Government-to-Citizens (G2C), Government-to-Business(G2B),Government-to-Government( G2G) as well as back office processes and interactions within the entire government frame work. 3

Through the e-Governance, the government services will be made available to the citizens in a convenient, efficient and transparent manner. The three main target groups that can be distinguished in governance concepts are Government, citizens and businesses/interest groups. The essence of E-governance is to reach the beneficiary and ensure that the services intended to reach the desired individual has been met with. There should be an auto-response system to support the essence of E-governance, whereby the Government realizes the efficacy of its governance. An effective e-government system can give hope to a situation in which all interaction with the government can be done through one counter 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, without waiting in lines at government offices. If the government of a least developed or a developing country has a very strong will to decentralize responsibilities and government process and capitalize the maximum strength of ICT, in a short span of time each citizen can then make contact with the government through a website where all forms, legislation, news and other information will be available 24/7. Furthermore electronic governance has the potentials to create technology culture, networked-society, reduce digital gap through intermediary agencies like community information centres, good governance by increasing citizen-government interaction thereby reduce corruption, empower citizens through access to information, rural people access to marketplace, reduce poverty and increase quality of citizen life, and of course has the potentials of increasing employment opportunities, . As a whole is it has greater impact on overall economic development which a crying need of a country like Bangladesh.

ICT in Bangladesh

Realizing the significant role of ICTs for overall development of the nation, Bangladesh has given priority to implementation of ICTs in all governmental agencies. At the same time government is encouraging private sectors to act as partners of it’s initiatives as well. Having in mind the overall development of ICT sector and its beneficiaries the government of Bangladesh has endorsed: National Telecommunication policy in 1998; Bangladesh Telecommunication Act in 2001; Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission in January 2002; National ICT policy in October 2002; ICT Act in 2003; Right to Information Act 2009; and very recently Legalization of Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) telephony. A national project called Access to Information (A2I) is on going in partnership with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).  The project utilizing ICT tools to increase socio-economic development by the year 2021, consists of four pillars: (i) developing human resources for the 21st century, (ii) connecting citizens in ways that is most meaningful, (iii) taking services to citizen’s doorsteps, and (iv) making the private sector and market more productive and competitive through the use of ICTs (Access to Information Programme 2009).4

The country is progressing in terms of ICT penetration especially as per cellular penetration is concerned. Six cellular phone operators have covered 64 districts and over 90% of the population comprises a platform of more than 40 million subscribers. The Bangladesh Telephone and Telegraph Board (BTTB), the government-owned telecom provider, has provided conventional Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) access to all 64 districts and to 465 Upazilas (Sub-districts); Internet Service Provider (ISP) services to all 64- district headquarters and 165 Upazilas; and the Digital Data Network (DDN) access to 41 districts through its own infrastructure. PSTN operators cumulatively have deployed almost 15,000 km optical fiber backbone covering 59 districts. Total 297 upazillas are covered by this fiber network. Due to topographical reason, the Chittagong Hill Tract and a couple of other districts in the Southern part of the country are outside the present fiber optic network infrastructure.5

Considering the ultimate capacity of ICTs, the vision 2021 proposes to mainstream this as a pro poor tool to eradicate poverty, establish good governance, ensure social equity through quality education, healthcare and law enforcement for all, and to prepare the people for adaptation with climate change.6 However the rank of Bangladesh in the ICT Development Index released by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), is not an encouraging toward the vision 2021. Out of 154 countries, rank of Bangladesh is 138, only above Nepal (ITU, 2010). Access to Broadband: Bangladesh has one of the lowest Internet penetration rates in South Asia (4.08%) (BTRC, 2010). Its neighbors, Pakistan, India and Nepal have Internet penetration of 11.1%, 7.2% and 1.4% respectively.7

Nevertheless, the Ministry of Education is working in 128 Upazilla to build ICT infrastructure for facilitating ICT services. Bangladesh Computer Council is providing internet connectivity (through EDGE Modem) to 1200 schools. The PMO is taking initiative to coordinate all these efforts and has targeted to connect all the Unions with broadband internet connectivity and ICT service within 2-3 years.8

As per World Bank, in the context of growing demand of ICTs in everyday life and current government’s Digital Bangladesh agenda, UNESCO has been providing support to GOB and NGOs to adopt ICTs as innovative approach to education. Recognizing the strength of digital media, teaching and learning materials have been developed using ICTs (multimedia CD/DVD, animation and audio/video). Supporting Digital Bangladesh agenda, the government has prepared the Digital Bangladesh Strategies and is progressing preparing a master plan for ICT in Education. UNESCO is providing technical assistance for quality outputs in this process. In 2012, Bangladesh ranked 150th in the E-Government Development Index (EGDI) with the following scores in its sub indices: total index value, i.e., EGDI: 0.2991, of which, online service component: 0.4444; telecommunications index: 0.0641; and, human capital index: 0.3889. Interestingly, when Bangladesh ranked 134th in 2010, the score was as follows: EGDI: 0.3028; online service component: 0.1209; telecommunications index 0.0109; human capital index 0.1710. Thus, it is evident that despite witnessing improvements in the sub-indices, Bangladesh’s rank did not move up the ladder due to the changed methodological approach. In other words, although Bangladesh’s score improved, it was not sufficient compared to other UN member states’ performance.9 Some strategic goals have been articulated in relation to the National ICT policy to improve state performance. They are: a) facilitate quality education for disadvantaged sections of the population by innovative application of ICT technologies b) create stimulating environments for educational excellence c) improve the quality of gender-responsive health care for the rural poor by developing computer-based medical consultation systems and installing them in Upazila hospitals d) generate employment by making ICT literacy available particularly to young men and women in disadvantaged parts of the country e) ensure the effective utilization of resources such as computers, Internet connectivity, and industrial complexes by close monitoring using ICT tools and processes f) improve tele-density to bring most of the population under the ICT umbrella g) activities will include the introduction of e-community centers h) building the infrastructure for high-speed Internet and related support services such as telemedicine should be a major goal i) give appropriate importance to indigenous technology and inspire local technology through appropriate import and export policies j) establish Bangladesh as a business process outsourcing destination k) ensure universal connectivity l) promote new technologies, value added services, content generation and promote/facilitate content service providers m) rationalize the taxation policy for a range of ICT equipment, alongside the pricing and licensing systems for Internet services.10

Bangladesh is moving slowly up in ICT advancement, ranking 113th in the “networked readiness index” this year among 142 countries. In the previous three years, Bangladesh progressed from 130th to 118th to 115th, according to the Global Information Technology Report: Living in a Hyper-connected World, prepared by the World Economic Forum (WEF).

Table: 1 Bangladesh’s Rank in the Global Information Technology

Year

Rank

Score

2012

113

3.20

2011

115

3.19

2010

118

3.01

2009

130

2.70

2008

124

2.64

2007

118

2.55

Source: Living in a Hyper connected World, the World Economic Forum (WEF), (available at: http://archive.thedailystar.net/newDesign/news-details.php?nid=245821 accessed on 5/6/13)

Community Information Centers (CICs) in Bangladesh

The government of Bangladesh has given priority to use ICT tools to further development, strengthen poverty reduction and improve citizen’s quality of life. In this regard, the Digital Bangladesh (DB) vision is developed by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and funded a project called Access to Information (A2I) Programme.

The project utilizing ICT tools to increase socio-economic development by the year 2021, consists of four pillars: (i) developing human resources for the 21st century, (ii) connecting citizens in ways that is most meaningful, (iii) taking services to citizen’s doorsteps, and (iv) making the private sector and market more productive and competitive through the use of ICTs.11

By ‘connecting citizens’ and ‘facilitating pro-poor services at the ‘citizens doorstep’ an innovative and pluralist service delivery model can be developed for rural community especially for the least served group for improving their living. Education, healthcare, agriculture, administration of land and water resources, social safety nets, law enforcement and judiciary and disaster management are a few areas to be given priority in offering e-services at the citizen doorsteps.

ICTs constitute the most transformative innovation of the recent past. ICTs are interesting in the context of the inclusive development debate because of their ability to strengthen connectivity not only of higher-income groups but also of those at the lower income level. Indeed, a variety of ICT-based applications are geared at bringing fundamental changes to disadvantaged groups.12

Having the above in consideration, apart from privately owned 3000 (approximately) Telecenters or CICs, there are more then 4000 Union Information Service Centers in operation mainly to offer services like internet connectivity for the community population, ICT training, agro-based information service, photocopy service, digital photography, printing out government forms, telemedicine, courier service, mobile payment, accessing government and private organizations information.

CIC is provided with one computer, printer, Edge modem and other equipments that might vary from region to region. Each CIC is managed by three CIC operators who operate equipment, provide services to visitors and sometimes conduct a training program for people who are not technology friendly. Out of many services, CICs provide following popular services to the people of rural community: access to government and private sector information through Internet, e-mailing, video phone call, utility bill payment, mobile payment/money transfer, market information, government / private form downloading, job searching and job application and computer training.

In the year 1987, Dhaka Ahsania Mission (DAM) launched the first community-learning center, known as Gonokendra. About 100 Gonokendras are operating in the country. These Gonokendras are providing ICT facilities and also computers for interactive information communication (www.ahsaniamission.org). Many of the CICs developed need-based contents for the telecenters, as such, Ghat, Alokito Gram, Grameen CIC, Amader Gram and YPSA can be mentioned. Organizations like DNet, International Rice Research Institution (IRRI) and Bangladesh Agriculture Research Institute have already developed a huge useful content for the rural community. Some of the telecasters’ operating body with their legal status is shown below:

Table 2: Community Information Centers in Bangladesh

Organization Name of the Center Legal Status
Bangladesh NGO Network for Rural Communications ( BNNRC) Rural Knowledge Center Non Profit
Bangladesh Friendship & Education Society Amader Gram Learning Centre Non Profit
Bangladesh local government and local entrepreneurs Union Information Service Center (UISC) Public-Private Partnership
Dhaka Ahsania Mission Gonokendra: Centre for

Community Development

Non Profit
D Net Pallitatthyakendra

(Rural Information Center)

Non Profit
Digital Equality Center Ghat: Rural ICT Centre Non Profit
Grameen Solutions Grameen Digital Center For – Profit
Grameen Telecom Community Information Center (CIC) Non Profit
Grameen Phone Community Information Centre (GPCIC) Private Telecom

Company

Participatory Research and Action

Network

e-Village Non Profit
UNDP Bangladesh Community Based CeC Int. Dev.

Partner

World Net Global Information Center For Profit
Young People in Social

Action (YPSA)

Youth Community Multimedia

Centre

Non Profit

Source: Authors Compilation.

Grameen Phone (GP), Bangladesh, launched a pilot project titled ‘Community Information Center’ through its nationwide EDGE (Enhanced Data Rates for Global Evolution) to provide Internet access and other communication services to the rural people. Grameen Phone has worked with a number of project partners like Grameen Telecommunication (GTC), SEBA, Noakhali Web, UNDP, UNESCO, UNICEF and others. The pilot project in February 2006, which started with 16 CIC’s, has become a massive operation with over 500 CIC’s running in around 450 Upazilas. At present there is almost 561 CICs operating across Bangladesh. The short-term plan of this initiative is to establish CICs in all the 462 Upazilas. The establishment of the CICs constitutes tremendously challenging tasks in view of the remoteness of the areas. In the long run Grameenphone plans to increase the number of CICs substantially so that every CIC can support the information needs to 4 adjacent villages. It is important that CIC entrepreneur is the CIC business owner. Grameen Phone does not own the CICs. However, Grameen phone does have a responsibility to support their CIC entrepreneur customers. Setting up a support network for the entrepreneurs, using the GPSD (Grameen Phone Service Desk) as the first point of call and providing ongoing training to the entrepreneurs ensure that they are kept up to date with any technological advances that affect the services they provide to their customers.13

Figure: Usage Trends at the CICs

CIC

Source: Strategic Priorities of Digital Bangladesh [draft] – January 2011, Access to Information (A2I) Programme Prime Minister’s Office, Bangladesh Government.

The above Figure shows how CICs are taking e-services and increasing access to ICTs at the doorsteps of grassroots people that save time and hard earned money. Fizaz Ahmed, CIC Entrepreneur, Kapalia Bazar, Jessore mentioned “the services have really improved the lives of the villagers, who previously would have had to travel around 35 kilometres to use the Internet”.14 Therefore, visitors at CICs are increasing at noticeable rate. The Figure  indicates the number of customers visiting each CIC which in fact is steadily increasing as the CICs popularity grows in the local community.

Union Information and Service Centers (UISCs)

Background of UISC: UISC is ICT enabled one-stop service outlet located at 4501 Union Parishads (UP) across the country. UISC emerged from its earlier version known as CeC (Community e- Centre) which is a Public Service Delivery Chanel at union level. In 2007, two Community e-Centres (CeC) were established as pilot under Democratic Government Thematic Trust Fund (DGTTF) of UNDP. In early 2008, CeC has been included as a driver project of UNDP supported Access to Information (a2i) Programme of Prime Minister’s Office. In 2008, Local Government Division (LGD) started 30 CeCs in Union Parishads. In line with that, LGD established UISCs in all Union Parishads of Bangladesh step by step. Each UISC is operated by two local entrepreneurs – one female and one male local youth – who have invested in the centre, and is supervised by the associated Union Parishad which provides space and utilities. Union Parishad, or the Local Govt. Division also bears some initial costs including basic equipments such as a computer, a printer, internet modem and a webcam; the entrepreneurs are free to install additional facilities keeping pace with business growth. Entrepreneurs are self-employed, they are not the paid employees of Bangladesh Government, and they manage their life with their own income and these centers have stimulated thousands of employments in the country.

Objectives of UISC: The key objectives of UISCs are to ensure easy access of common people to government, commercial and social information and services; create ICT infrastructure at all Union Parishads and to increase it’s efficiency through prompt delivery of information and other day to day services. It also provides a supportive environment for creation of local entrepreneurs; ensures free flow of information for empowering rural community; and creates a vibrant, knowledge-based UP.

Partners of UISC: To operate successfully in the long run, public-private partnership is built. Such partnerships are built with Banks (Dutch Bangla Bank, Mercantile Bank, Trust Bank Limited, One Bank Limited, Bikash Ltd, BRAC, life insurance (Jibonbima), telecommunications (Robi, Banglalink), non-govt. organizations (Dhaka Ahsania Mission, Practical Action) government agencies (Cabinet Division, Bangladesh Computer Council), solar energy (Infrastructure Development Company Limited), and Cyber Cafe Owners’ Association of Bangladesh (CCOAB).

UISC and E-Services: The Government of Bangladesh declared a vision of Digital Bangladesh by 2021 to ensure services at peoples’ doorsteps. A total number of 4,501 Union Information and Services Centres (UISCs) have been established in the Union Parishads. All of them are inaugurated simultaneously on 11th November, 2010 by Hon’ble Prime Minister of Bangladesh and UNDP’s administrator & former Prime Minister of New Zealand Ms Helen Clark in order to translate the dream of ‘Digital Bangladesh’ into reality.  UISCs commonly offered three types of services.

Government services:  These are like Online Birth Registration, different types of government forms, government circulars and notices, online university admission, examination results, population census data entry, citizenship certificate.

Information services: These are like Agriculture, health, education, law & human rights, tourism, environment & disaster management, science & technology, industry & commerce and employment. All these livelihood information are provided by National e-Tathyakosh (National e-Content Repository) which has online (www.infokosh.bangladesh.gov.bd) and offline (CD) versions.

Commercial services: These are like m-Banking, life insurance, English learning, computer training, internet browsing, email, printing, scanning, compose, photocopy, laminating, data entry, photography, phone call, flexi load, mobile ring-tone download, video show, video conference, projector rent, passport & visa processing, height & weight measurement, blood pressure measurement.

Various services to students, parents, teachers can attain significant efficiency, gain cost reduction, time savings, and higher level of transparency if ICTs are used in the delivery process of government information and services. Submission of applications for admission and other services, publishing examination results are among very popular e-services for education. Approximately, two million sits for this examination and results were accessible via internet and SMS services. In 2009, the results of SSC, HSC, Dakhil, Alim and similar examinations have been simultaneously published in the web, sent to people via SMS and were also emailed to selected educational institutions. Payment and fees for these services and salary and pension payments to teachers will be made possible through m-payments or online payments.

E-Agriculture is an emerging field where Information and Communication Technologies (Radio, TV, Cell Phone, PDAs, PCs) are playing a vital role in addressing key hindrances to the growth of Agriculture such as mismanagement of inputs, inaccessibility to rural finance, ineffective and inadequate extension service, lack of awareness about agro-processing, and insufficient preparedness for natural calamities, among others. Department of Agricultural Marketing (DAM) of Ministry of Agriculture website (http://www.dam.gov.bd/jsp/index.jsp) is currently piloting web based dissemination of wholesale and retail prices of around 200 commodities from 30 out of 64 districts on the web. The Ministry is working with the private sector for developing alternative supply chain and to promote fair price for farmers and consumers. Existing intermediaries for ICT related micro enterprises and UISCs are to be integrated in the supply chain. E-commerce for farmers will be promoted for direct trading within the country and abroad.

People in rural Bangladesh struggle to jet access to timely and quality medical services but they find either due to the distance of the health care facilities, or due to lack of adequate medical providers. Use of ICT in medical and health education is common in many parts of the world. E-Health consultancy – Telemedicine, particularly mobile phone based solutions are to be launched at a national scale to provide medical information, consultation and services. Patients’ information and queue management protocol will be automated. Telemedicine or tele-health enables patients-providers to exchange information, which leads to an appropriate diagnosis and treatment plan that can then be administered by moderately trained health care staff or even by the patient. Provisions are being created for video conferencing with civil surgeons. The government has plans to provide mini laptops for 18,000 community clinics and to train staff to utilize the tools in appropriate situations. Mobile phone health service for emergency situations is also a project that was launched in May 2009 with an aim to enable qualified government doctors to provide health consultancy. Various ICT channels are in use for raising awareness about potential health hazards and preventive measures.

Concluding remarks

Union Information Service Centers (UISCs) have opened a new window for the rural people in Bangladesh. Effective and efficient uses of ICT can bring the potential to make the rural communities in Bangladesh prosperous and empowered when crucial livelihood information like education, agriculture, health, land, law, etc. are available on time near doorsteps of all citizens. Evidences also suggest that UISCs have also potentials to make non-government and commercial services, such as mobile payment, online banking, life insurance, ICT literacy training, English language learning, photocopy, documents scanning, digital photography etc. These services are ensured to reach citizens doorsteps as well as to development entrepreneurships.  Entrepreneurs are earning BDT 3 crore per month on average and 45 lac people are taking services every month. Capacity of Union Parishad in offering prompt service delivery enhanced close ties established among the LG employees, people’s representatives and citizens. This venture has also contributed towards good relationships among the UISC entrepreneurs and officers of local administration like DC, ADC, UNO through the activities of UISC. It is rather a local knowledge hub which is saving time, energy, and money; reducing digital divide; and making rural community more productive than before. But the following limitations are to be addressed:  limitations of UISCs are include no fixed office hours are maintained, cost of services such as Internet access and printing are high, lack of resources (computers, space, technical people) Lack of regulatory or legal framework  (government offices still do not recognize e-mail  as evidence or proof or has no official value),   lack of availability of government information and services, lack of operator skills in searching information through Internet browsing and provide required services.  As UISCs are still in infant stage, therefore it is facing some crucial challenges. Some of the key challenges are: maintaining uninterrupted electricity, ensuring reasonable speed in using Internet, improving entrepreneurs technical skills to provide expected level of services, having information rich and interactive government websites, and maintaining coordination among the Union Parishad Chairman, UNO and getting adequate support from local administration.

References

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Strategic Priorities of Digital Bangladesh [draft] – January 2011, Access to Information (A2I) Programme Prime Minister’s Office

Strategic Priorities of Digital Bangladesh [draft] – January 2011, Access to Information (A2I) Programme Prime Minister’s Office

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*   Associate Professor, Department of Government and Politics, Jahangirnagar University, Savar, Dhaka.

** PhD Researcher, Department of Government and Politics, Jahangirnagar University, Savar, Dhaka.

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