Digital financial sector saw an unprecedented surge during the Covid-19 pandemic, thanks to the lockdown that nearly ceased all economic activities. Perhaps a blessing in disguise, the surge created a sense of urgency to develop contactless financial services through effective collaboration between the government and the financial institutions. The marginalized population, mostly living in rural Bangladesh, particularly women & poor adults, have significantly benefited from this digital financial transformation that the Bangladesh government has accomplished.
Rural Branchless Banking and Fintech Services were the game changers. Mobile Financial Services (MFS) have lowered the cost of transaction fees and increased the limit of mobile money transactions. The government disbursed TK 1.27 billion as a financial incentive to the affected 2.5 million poor and extremely poor people who suffered financial crisis due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  Each beneficiary received TK5000 directly to their mobile numbers.
Digital Centre, a2i’s (Aspire to Innovate) signature initiative that is supervised directly by the Cabinet Division, has played one of the biggest roles in this digital financial transformation. The one-stop digital solution shop-like centres are located at the most decentralized level of the administration. A big portion of the financial aids during the pandemic were distributed through this centre. Even before the pandemic, Digital Centres were the go-to place for the rural citizens to avail public services that can be done online.
Till now, established 8805+ Digital Centres created the opportunity for 16,500 Digital Centre Entrepreneurs, of which 5,000+ are women – who are well versed with modern tech devices, including laptops, digital cameras, scanners, laser and color printers, projectors, modems, IPS, UPS and Photostat machine. It is a citizen-centric, bottom-up strategy for a one-stop service of reducing time, costs and visits (TCV) for availing public service, citizen information, and e-government web portals by simplifying the service process (SSP).
Along with helping citizens with all digital public services, Digital Centre provides mobile financial services, agent banking, insurance, computer and vocational training. In the last twelve years, Digital Centre provided 680+ million services, saved 1.68 billion work hours by citizens, saved money worth USD 8 billion by the citizen, and earned USD 60 million by 16000+ entrepreneurs.
Digital Centres are not restricted to providing government services only but run under the Private Public Partnership (PPP) modality using the micro-enterprise model. According to research by Copenhagen Consensus & BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD) indicates that- each taka spends behind Digital Centre generates a double return to the society through the social safety net program (SSNP), online birth registration, and exam registration.  Digital Centres are enhancing socio-economic development in terms of better access to information through efficient public service governance and diversification of economic activities. Opaqueness and obstacles of public service have been eliminated, and e-governance & digitalization of service were being ensured in a more transparent, accountable and inclusive manner to the end of the last tier of administration (Union Parishad).
Socially disadvantaged communities are getting computer training, document printing, internet, and paying utility bills through Digital Centres. By the utilization of Information and Communication Technology (ICT), marginally unprivileged people are interacting and getting services of Government to Citizens (G2C), Government to Government (G2G) & Government to Business (G2B), as well as the back process of services at a single access point. Digital Centres have become the hub of agent banking, while setting up a bank branch was not economically feasible. It reached the pro-poor community and made the financial & banking service available to the unbanked rural population by improving their quality of life. Apart from this – Digital Centres flourished potentiality for e-commerce and f-commerce, especially for rural women who have been inspired to turn their craft into a business.
After achieving Vision-2021 of digital Bangladesh, there should not be any place of complacency. To achieve the goal of Vision 2041 (Smart Bangladesh) - eliminate extreme poverty, reach the nation to the Upper Middle-Income Country (UMIC) by 2031, and High-Income Country (HIC) by 2041; we must take the strategic goal and set the milestone of an inclusive plan for development where no one will be left behind & large population will be the asset for the nation.
The writer is a Digital Financial Service Specialist. He can be contacted at [email protected]