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Southern Innovator In Dhaka, Bangladesh: Public Service Innovation Workshop | December 2017

Southern Innovator issues 1 and 5 at the Bangladesh workshop on public service innovation, 9-11 December 2017, and the launch of the South-South Network.

The following blog report does not reflect the views of the UNOSSC or UNDP. 

Dateline: Dhaka, Bangladesh (9-11 December 2017) – From 9-11 December 2017, I participated in the Workshop on Innovations in Service Delivery: The Scope for South-South and Triangular Cooperation held in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Hosted by the a2i (access to information) division of the Bangladesh Prime Minister’s Office, the implementing unit for Digital Bangladesh, it was convened by the Government of Bangladesh and the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation (UNOSSC).

I was asked to do a presentation for the health component of the Workshop on my past experience in public sector digital innovation. This work stretches back to the beginning of the roll out of the Internet in the late 1990s. I chose three projects I have led that had a large and significant impact in the digital public space: the UN Mongolia development web portal I launched and ran for two years (1997-1999), the GOSH Child Health Web Portal I launched and ran for two years (2001-2003) and the Southern Innovator brand I launched for the UNOSSC (2010-2015). 

I also joined a panel discussion as Senior Partner representing the David South Consulting/David South International consultancy at the end of the last day (we have worked with the UNOSSC since 2007 and with UNDP since 1997 – a timeframe which saw the rise of the Internet and the mobile and information technology revolution take the global South by storm). 

As the Workshop invitation letter says, “The digitization of service delivery, user-centric methodologies, and experimentation geared towards improvement in service delivery, and the data revolution may have originated in developed countries but is now of increasing relevance for the developing world. To respond to rapidly rising expectations of the citizens, governments in both developing and developed countries are embracing approaches and tools to adopt more citizen-centric approaches in their service delivery. These practices are establishing a culture of citizen-centric innovation within governments, breaking silos of operations and helping move towards a whole-of-government planning and execution.”

According to the a2i, Bangladesh has the “world’s largest government web portal” comprising over 25,000 government websites for 43,000 government offices (Bangladesh’s population was over 162 million as of 2016 – World Bank). Bangladesh has one of the highest population densities in the world and is considered the 8th most populace country in the world (Wikipedia). In total, these government websites receive 60 million plus hits a month, according to the a2i, from an online population of 79.7 million people, nearly half the population.

A lot is at stake: According to the World Bank (which has been supporting the country since 1972), “Bangladesh has made substantial progress in reducing poverty, supported by sustained economic growth. Based on the international poverty line of $1.90 per person per day, Bangladesh reduced poverty from 44.2 percent in 1991 to 18.5 percent in 2010, and is projected to decrease to 12.9 percent in 2016.

The country achieved the MDG 1 on halving poverty five years ahead of time, with 20.5 million people rising out of poverty during the 1991-2010 period. In parallel, life expectancy, literacy rates and per capita food production have increased significantly.  Progress was underpinned by strong economic growth, with 6 percent plus growth over the decade and reaching to 7.1 percent growth in 2015/2016. Rapid growth enabled Bangladesh to reach the lower middle-income country status in 2014.      

However, sustained growth has rapidly increased the demand for energy, transport and urbanization. Insufficient planning and investment have resulted in increasingly severe infrastructure bottlenecks.”

Arriving in the capital, Dhaka, on the 9th of December, it was clear to see what the World Bank is highlighting: the “severe infrastructure bottlenecks”. Just like other megacities, Dhaka is clogged with traffic and suffers from the air pollution this causes (one of the worst cities for this in Asia). But these are just the visible signs of success if you think about it (as frustrating as that might be), as booming economies combined with rapid urbanisation, if not planned well, tend to lead to traffic congestion and high levels of air pollution. 

The country’s rising living standards since 2000 and impressive gains in the provision of information and mobile technology services and connectivity, reveal a country brimming with potential and capable of getting a handle on its many development challenges. The streets are visibly lined with small and medium enterprises and there are construction projects in various states of completion all around Dhaka. At the airport, glossy posters advertise many real estate developer’s dreams and show-off the heavy construction equipment for sale or lease from China and Russia. 

The population no longer suffers from food crises such as the 1974 famine, which killed 1.5 million people (Christian Science Monitor). According to the UN, Bangladesh cut chronic hunger by half since 2000 and is considered one of the success stories from the past 10 years that the rest of the developing world can look to as they push to eliminate hunger by 2030 as part of the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) (https://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Foreign-Policy/2015/0617/From-famine-to-food-basket-how-Bangladesh-became-a-model-for-reducing-hunger). Clearly, Bangladesh is a country that can get things done when it draws on the power of its population. 

According to Digital Bangladesh, with a deadline of 2021, it has achieved half its goals to get the population online and its economy and government services online. In 2017, the country made US $800 million from exporting ICT (information and communication technologies) products and services. It is currently building 12 hi-tech parks with the ambitious goal to export US $10 billion in ICT services from them by 2030 and make US $5 billion by 2021. 

The streets of Dhaka.

Workshop

Sharing ideas at the Workshop.

Speaking at the Workshop, Anir Chowdhury, Policy Advisor to the Access to Information (a2i) Programme of the Prime Minister’s Office, believes the concept of South-South Cooperation (SSC) is about enlightened self-interest but at present there is no framework for SSC in Bangladesh and most cooperation is ad hoc. If global South countries are not cooperating, then they are just re-inventing the wheel, he added. SSC is about avoiding feeling each country has to make it own their own: SSC can facilitate development leapfrogging and prevent leaving country success to chance. However, there needs to be better ways to communicate Southern solutions.

And Bangladesh has a good story to tell to the global South: To date, Bangladesh’s digital public service delivery has saved the country US $2 billion in cost for government services plus 1 billion man days in time spent trying to carry out tasks using government services, according to the a2i. With this success under their belts, the hope is to market Bangladesh as a world leader in innovation. To go from MDGs poster child to leader of the global South. 

UNOSSC Director and Envoy of the UN Secretary-General on SSC, Jorge Chediek (https://www.unsouthsouth.org/about/unossc-director/), emphasised the need to tell stories of how South-South is changing the world; the pressing need to change the narrative around the global South in order to be able to achieve the 2030 agenda.

It was an honour to be invited to present my three case studies on public sector digital innovation (GOSH Child Health Portal, Southern Innovator Magazine and the UN/UNDP Mongolia Development Portal). All three share the same characteristics: a public demand for digital resources and a need to create high-quality content on limited budgets and to build public confidence in those resources. These projects were also engaging with enormous complexity and needed to find a way to simplify this for online readers.

I was impressed by the level of debate at the Workshop, and how Bangladesh’s digital initiatives are communicated (the excellent use of infographics and simple step-by-step explanations), and the overall excitement and energy around digital and the digital economy in Bangladesh. But, importantly, the foresight to give attention to the coming wave of automation and robotics (the so-called fourth industrial revolution) and how this will affect Bangladesh. 

In the health workshop, we shared two projects for the reverse engineering component: the GOSH Child Health Portal and the magazine Southern Innovator (link to PowerPoint). Using the Reverse Engineering tool (see images below), each project was broken down as to how it worked and also what was its contribution to South-South Cooperation. 

I shared experience from the early days of digital public innovation in the late 1990s. This has included applying digital to crisis recovery, healthcare modernisation in the early 2000s, and the campaign to achieve the MDGs (Millennium Development Goals), as well as during the mobile/information technology and social media revolution in the global South, which took off after 2007. 

Reverse Engineering

GOSH Child Health Portal (2001-2003)

Issues discussed here included the recent online fake news scandals and how important it is for the public sector to offer the antidote to this with quality, factual digital information and resources. The GOSH Child Health Portal was one good example, where it entered the crowded online medical and health information marketplace and succeeded in drawing a large online audience by offering high-quality, peer-reviewed resources, thoroughly fact-checked and proofread and presented using high-quality online design. By the end of the project’s two-year timeframe, it was receiving over 7 million hits a month and was acknowledged as a trusted global source in child health. The content is cited in many books and papers, as well. 

Reverse engineering GOSH Child Health Web Portal, 2001-2003.

Southern Innovator Magazine (2010-2015)

Throughout the Workshop, I heard over and over again about the urgent need for a more cohesive platform for sharing Southern innovations and initiatives. Many complained this was currently very fragmented. While there are many media and development organisations documenting innovations and stories, there is no one-stop shop for countries to go to. 

The Southern Innovator brand (incubated and developed by the UNOSSC) is a good example of what can be achieved with a more cohesive and strategic approach. Southern Innovator, first launched in 2011 by the UNOSSC, was able to leverage its limited resources to reach a large global audience via the web and social media. The brand became established with innovators and five issues were published (from 2011 to 2015). An Action Plan for scaling-up the Southern Innovator brand was also developed with the UNOSSC in 2015 (but awaits funding). 

The original Southern Innovator website (southerninnovator.org, now southerninnovator.com) did fulfil the role of offering a one-stop shop for stories on global South innovation and these stories were widely cited in websites, papers and books on the global South. But the terrain has shifted radically in the global South – and at the UN – since Southern Innovator’s launch in 2011. With the widespread adoption of mobile and digital technologies, the opportunities to communicate innovator solutions have never been better but require a more sophisticated approach to be effective. In fact, we now exist in a world where the solutions already exist to the major problems affecting the global South (and even the funding is available through many sources). The problem is not the lack of solutions, innovators or technologies and business models to resolve problems (both e-newsletter Development Challenges, South-South Solutions and Southern Innovator proved this) but how people can access these resources and in a format that makes sense to them and is available when they are searching for a solution. With modern computing technologies, this is no longer an unsolvable problem. And the people to connect with to do this also already exist in the global South. What is missing is a coherent and cohesive approach. The multiplicity of development actors in this case are hampering effective action by dissecting and scattering resources, leaving end-users confused and poorly communicated with in many cases. As an example, there was a definite need to assist people in understanding how the 17 SDGs can fit into practical actions and a definite psychological need for simplicity: a problem highlighted by former UNDP head Helen Clark back in 2015 (https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2015/jul/07/sustainable-development-goals-will-be-hard-sell-for-united-nations).

For UNDP, with its human development approach and presence in most countries, an opportunity exists to rapidly accelerate development gains and shorten the time it takes to recover when disaster or conflict strikes. Something that came out of the Workshop is the presence of excellent examples of global knowledge sharing already underway for decades around the world. Think of the scientific community in general (working on vast projects such as the CERN facility in Switzerland), or aerospace industries, or the global adoption of the principles of air safety managed by IATA in Montreal, Canada, or sport – all proof countries do successfully share knowledge and adopt common, high standards when they feel it is a priority and necessity. No country wants to be frozen out of flight routes, for example. 

Reverse engineering the Southern Innovator magazine brand, 2010-2015. 

Panel Discussion

At the closing panel discussion, I was asked how to engage more donors to be part of the South-South Network. I said there is a need to get people excited and show why the South-South Network is different; how it is related to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). There needs to be a communications strategy and to establish some ambitious first goals that are original: to show that this is part of a clear trend. International aid and development is a crowded space so there is a need to show how the Network would tackle the challenges of the global South in the 21st century head-on, with a more effective solution. And of course, I championed the existing and successful Southern Innovator brand developed by the UNOSSC since 2010 as, potentially, part of this communications strategy. 

Senior Partner David South is third from the left on the panel. Photo: Yoko Shimura.
Senior Partner David South is centre at back with the South-South Network for Public Service Innovation, Dhaka, Bangladesh, 2017.

Finally

This impressive embracing of e-initiatives and all things digital was visibly missing at the airport. On the way in, long lines and then a confusing scramble to buy a visa created confusion for visitors. As the first impression for visitors, this could be a great place to show-off Bangladesh’s digital capabilities. 

And finally, as the World Bank says, this all about job creation and increased living standards: “The World Bank has identified job creation as the country’s top development priority. Bangladesh needs to create more and better jobs for the 2.1 million youths entering the job market every year. But to do so, Bangladesh will need to remove the barriers to higher growth posed by low access to reliable and affordable power, poor transportation infrastructure, limited availability of serviced land, rapid urbanization and vulnerability to climate change and natural disasters, among others.”

Bangabandhu International Conference Center hosting Digital World 2017 and Dhaka’s Shahjalal International Airport.

Further reading and links: 

South-South in Action: Citizen-friendly Public Service Innovation in Bangladesh

Digital Bangladesh: Digital Service for All

GOSH Child Health Web Portal

UN/UNDP Mongolia Development Portal 

Southern Innovator and Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

ORCID iD: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-5311-1052.

© David South Consulting 2017 

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Featured In New Book Busted: An Illustrated History Of Drug Prohibition In Canada | December 2017

Upon my return from a United Nations workshop in Dhaka, Bangladesh, I was delighted to receive a copy of the new book Busted: An Illustrated History of Drug Prohibition in Canada (Fernwood Publishing, 2017, ISBN 978-1-55266-976-1) by Professor Susan Boyd from the Faculty of Human and Social Development at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada. 

Busted: An Illustrated History of Drug Prohibition in Canada by Susan Boyd (Fernwood Publishing).

It is a beautifully illustrated book and an excellent introduction to Canada’s unique history surrounding drug use and drug prohibition. As the country embarks on a new phase in its relationship to some drugs, the book gives the bigger picture that many Canadians are probably unaware of. Canada had a period of extensive social experimentation in the late 1960s and early 1970s, defying perceptions the country is ‘boring’ and where excitement doesn’t happen.

A feature we did for Toronto’s Watch Magazine in 1994 (in which I was Editor-in-Chief) is on page 124 in the chapter on The Counterculture Movement: The 1960s and 1970s.

“Peace, Order and Good Pot” by Bill White from Toronto’s Watch Magazine in 1994.
Citation in Busted: An Illustrated History of Drug Prohibition in Canada (2017).

© David South Consulting 2017 

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Wild East 17 Years Later | 2000 – 2017

Published in 2000 (ECW Press: Toronto), Wild East: Travels in the New Mongolia is 17 years old. It is also 100 years since the 1917 October Revolution in Russia that began the long experiment of the Soviet Union. Mongolia was the second country after Russia to adopt Communism.

“Engaging…a revealing and often amusing account of her journeys through a beautiful country awakening from a tumultuous era.”

Wild East author and foreign correspondent Jill Lawless.

“One of the top 10 Canadian travel books of 2000.” The Globe and Mail

The world has changed considerably since then; and so has Mongolia. The digital revolution has rolled across the planet, the attacks of 9/11 unleashed a wave of violence and wars, and Mongolia even became the fastest-growing economy in the world a few years ago (2012). But back when this book was researched, Mongolia was just coming out of decades of isolation within the Soviet orbit under Communism, and the country experienced in the 1990s “one of the biggest peacetime economic collapses ever” (Mongolia’s Economic Reforms: Background, Content and Prospects, Richard Pomfret, University of Adelaide, 1994). 

“The years 1998 and 1999 have been volatile ones for Mongolia, with revolving door governments, the assassination of a minister, emerging corruption, a banking scandal, in-fighting within the ruling Democratic Coalition, frequent paralysis within the Parliament, and disputes over the Constitution. Economically, the period was unstable and rife with controversies.” Mongolia in 1998 and 1999: Past, Present, and Future at the New Millennium by Sheldon R. Severinghaus, Asian Survey, Vol. 40, No. 1, A Survey of Asia in 1999 (Jan. – Feb., 2000), pp. 130-139 (Publisher: University of California)

That collapse made for some crazy times, as Wild East shows. 

Wild East was called one of the top 10 Canadian travel books of 2000 by The Globe and Mail. 

Reviews for Wild East: Travels in the New Mongolia by Jill Lawless:

The Globe and Mail

“Engaging…a revealing and often amusing account of her journeys through a beautiful country awakening from a tumultuous era.”

The Georgia Straight, Vancouver

“This readable and reportorial book is the perfect antidote to … those tiresomely difficult, pointlessly dangerous, and essentially fake expedtions undertaken against the advice of local people who know better.”

Toronto Star

“Lawless introduces us to Mongolia’s tabloid press, to teenage mineworkers, sharp-eyed young hustlers, nomads whose only possessions are their livestock, Mongolian wrestlers and Mongolian horse races.”

Mongolian Buryat Civilisation Bookstore

“Wryly funny and wide-spectrum account of Mongolia’s tumultuous rebirthing into the 21st century. Half the population lives in Soviet apartment blocks and watches satellite TV but the other half still eek a living from the exquisite, barren hills while living in nomadic felt tents. Of course, I’d much rather be in the tents… but whatever your preference, you will definitely enjoy Ms. Lawless’ writing. She was editor of an Ulaan Baator newspaper for two years, and she tells it like it is. Very highly recommended.”

Alicia J. Campi in Mongolian Studies

“Jill Lawless’ book is not a scholarly tome per se, yet it is of definite value to the contemporary Mongolian scholar … Lawless’ period is 1997-1999, the heart of the tumultuous and ill-spent years of Democratic Coalition Government… a period of great hopes for democratic flowering and free market enterprise leading the nation to prosperity and progress.” 

Join the conversation about Wild East: Travels in the New Mongolia at goodreads and post reviews: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/773080.Wild_East

Read a story by Jill in The Guardian (9 June 1999): Letter from Mongolia | Herding instinct .

Copies of Wild East: Travels in the New Mongolia by Jill Lawless are still available in various editions and languages.
A promotional poster for Wild East from 2003.

Explore further Jill Lawless’ work here: https://muckrack.com/jilllawless

UK edition (Summersdale Travel: 2002). Front cover images © David South and Liz Lawless.

The New York Post called Wild East: Travels in the New Mongolia “harrowing, hilarious” (April 26, 2016).
New brand sites for Jill Lawless and Wild East on the way for 2021.
“This is a good, fun book about life in Mongolia. … it’s an interesting and often amusing series of stories loosely connected.”

On the difference between Wild East: Travels in the New Mongolia and other travel writing on contemporary Mongolia: 

“Others sent me Jill Lawless’s Wild East: The New Mongolia, a compilation of pieces she wrote when she was editor of Mongolia’s English-language newspaper, the UB Post, during Mongolia’s transition from a socialist people’s republic to young democracy. With the wind shaking the frame of my ger, I lit the stove and read what these and other writers claimed to have found just outside my flapping felt walls.

“By the time veteran journalist Jasper Becker’s Mongolia: Travels in an Untamed Land arrived, I had put aside books written since Mongolia opened up to the West in the early 1990s. Most Western travellers and writers discovered the same sights from the back of a borrowed horse. Only Lawless had investigated the place over time on its own terms. The others, full of pith and vinegar and a standard set of assumptions about what they would find, built books on flights of fancy – golfing across Mongolia, following the path of medieval monks, ‘rediscovering shamanism’ – that were flimsier even than those that had set me in motion. The books were as exciting as museum diorama, papier-mâché models of their ‘medieval’ travels and capitalist fantasies.” Three Years in Mongolia: Trying to be a Travel Writer, Luke Meinzen, Kill Your Darlings, 10 April 2012

“I put Becker away and pulled out Wild East by Jill Lawless. She was heaps better than Becker, which wasn’t hard.” MÖRÖN TO MÖRÖNTwo Men, Two Bikes, One Mongolian Misadventure, Tom Doig, Allen & Unwin, 2013

“In the early 2000s, Canadian journalist Jill Lawless accepted a correspondent position at a news outlet in the remote and isolated foreign capital of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. At that time, Mongolia’s media was newly privatized from beneath Communist oversight, and her role was as much a consultant for how to run a newspaper under freedom of the press, as she was a journalist with the UB Post.

Lawless was in Mongolia during a time of exciting political and cultural transition. Wild East is less of a travel memoir, but rather essays and shorter narratives of creative non-fiction that describe her adventures in reporting. Even so, it provides a compelling narrative into the historical moment when Mongolia dropped its isolation and began to connect to China and Europe on its journey toward modernization.” Three Works of Travel Writing to Ignite Your Imagination (while we patiently wait for the pandemic to run its course), Barefoot Journey with Amanda, 10 Nov 2020.

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ORCID iD: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-5311-1052.

© David South Consulting 2022