Nov 26, 2009
A revolutionary idea is bringing relief to millions of poor Bangladeshis entangled in a multitude of problems. Taking the aid of ICTs, the info-ladies are bringing crucial information to the doorsteps of people.
Barefooted, some even stark naked, the kids follow her as if she were the Pied Piper of Hamelin. As boisterous cheers announce her arrival the women abandon their chores and elders jostle for attention. The men are on their best behaviour, teeming with a welter of anxious faces.
In the impoverished hinterlands of Gaibandha district in northern Bangladesh, a frail young woman on her bike is having a dramatic effect. And Luich Akhter seems to perpetuate her spell with perfection.
In the sweltering post-monsoon heat that transforms the flooded nation into an open-air sauna, the 24-year-old looks immaculate as she negotiates her way through paddy fields, cows and mosquito-breeding ponds on a weekly visit into Panchpeer village.
In a place where women dutifully give birth in dingy huts, the men know of little outside their fields, and the world revolves around the local mosque; the sight of a "modern" woman visitor astride her bike is a spectacle.
The more so as Akhter zaps around with gadgets like a netbook, GSM mobile, blood pressure monitor and pregnancy kit, all deftly packed in her shoulder bag.
"It was a scandal when I started my rounds two years ago with just a mobile phone", says Akhter. Now it is more of a phenomenon. She is treated like a champion by people whose lives she's shaping with once "scary machines".
Akhter belongs to a motley band of "InfoLadies," who are piloting a revolutionary idea - giving millions of Bangladeshis, trapped in a cycle of poverty and natural disaster, access to information on their doorstep to improve their chances in life.
"Ask me about the pest that's infecting your crop, common skin diseases, how to seek help if your husband beats you or even how to stop having children, and I may have a solution," says a confident Akhter.
"An InfoLady's netbook is loaded with content especially compiled and translated in local Bangla language," says Mohammed Forhad Uddin of D.Net, a not-for-profit research organisation that is pioneering access to livelihood information.
"It provides answers and solutions to some of the most common problems faced by people in villages."
In Bangladesh this means nearly three-quarters of the nearly 160 million that live in rural areas. From agriculture to health, sanitation and disaster management, the content follows simple text, pictures and engaging multimedia animations to include all users, many of whom are illiterate.
"I love the cartoon that tells about brushing teeth and hygiene," says 10-year-old Shamshul.
It took a just a brief meeting with an InfoLady for 60-year-old Nahar Hossain to finally identify the pest that destroyed his rice fields year after year. "She matched the picture of my crop with the one on her TV [netbook] and recommended a certain pesticide. I haven't had problems since," says Hossain, who had spent a lot of time and money seeking government help to no avail.
Corruption and prejudice
The success of the InfoLadies is making the failure of the state more noticeable. "We have corruption and political interference in every sector," says Gullal Singha, a state executive officer of Sagatha sub-district. Sagatha is severely affected by soil erosion and is home to the poorest of the poor.
"Even the ultra-poor entitled for food relief are segregated as Bangladesh Nationalist Party poor or Awami League poor," says Aziz Mostafa, an elected representative of a local civic body.
This explains why thousands of Bangladeshis have embraced InfoLadies and their laptops, which are making lives easier and arguably better. "In most cases I'm able to provide an instant solution using my database," says Luich, who is educated to secondary school level. For skin infections, she sends the patient's picture to her organisation's call centre in Dhaka, where experts help with diagnosis and advise hospital referral if required.
"In many places there are no doctors for miles, and fatalities for easily curable diseases are very high. An InfoLady can save lives," says Shahadat Hossain of NGO Udayan Sabolombi Shangstha. Government statistics show Bangladesh has only three doctors per 10,000 people.
The 2009 United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Human Development Report says over 36% of the country's population lives on less than US$1 a day, and almost every second child under five is underweight.
Women are far worse off as they remain at the bottom of the heap in religiously conservative rural societies. According to UNICEF, nearly 90% of women in Bangladesh give birth at home without medical assistance, and half of them never seek any antenatal care.
"The access to information campaign is strategically fronted by women to bridge this divide", says Munira Morshed of Bangladesh Telecentre Network, an umbrella organisation for all telecentre networks in Bangladesh. The tactic has worked well. "Women feel free to discuss their gynaecological problems with me, which they don't even share with their husbands," says Somunu Akter Labony, an InfoLady from Sagatha.
The 20-year-old, herself a mother of one, is aware of religious and social sensitivities and provides confidential contraception advice to women.
Finding a confidante in an InfoLady, victims of domestic violence are also coming forward to seek help, says Akhter. "I inform them about their rights and warn their husbands they could go to jail," she says.
The impact is palpable as every man she rides past in the village nods his head in acknowledgement. "She is a terror - the men are scared of her; even the clerics fear her," says Najma Begum, the Chandipur telecentre manager.
Now the government is waking up to Digital Bangladesh. "We will use the existing telecentre network for delivering information and public services through public-private-partnership," says Mohammed Mahfuzur Rahman, executive director of Bangladesh Computer Council.
This approach for development without perpetual subsidy has found some support. UNDP policy expert and adviser to the Bangladeshi Prime Minister's Office Anir Chowdhury says: "The power of ICT is it can actually generate income. Communities can run it in financially and socially profitable models."
Chowdhury's optimism is not unfounded. The InfoLady and telecentre models are successfully trialling self-sustenance by providing ancillary services. "It cost me 150 Taka [£1.30] in travel and charges to get my blood pressure checked in town," says Mohamed Monir, a Saghatha resident.
"Labony does it at home for five." And Sadnul Hossain is happy to pay 1,000 Taka (£13) for a crash-course in MS Office applications at Sagatha telecentre to improve his job prospects.
"Before I had only seen computers in books," he says.
There is also concern that the profitability of the InfoLady model and her superwoman-style avatar is being hyped as a panacea for all of Bangladesh's ills. Farzana Naim, of Manusher Jonno Foundation, which promotes good governance, insists the state must lead – not just find private partners for NGOs to make access to information a sustainable business. "NGOs have piloted the project, but they are not in a position to replicate this all over the country."
The army of InfoLadies, however, is turning the corner regardless. They are busy telling people how to save their crops or send violent husbands to jail. It's hard work for young women who are new to their own freedom. So are there any problems?
"Just that after 6pm I change my sim as I get calls from angry or besotted men," says Akhter.
"They are scared of me in the daylight, but they all want to marry me after six."