OpenGov Voices: Increasing transparency in Bangladesh with VoteBD and Shorob

Nuruddin Ahmed (Photo courtesy of the author)

Bangladesh has the eighth-largest population of any country in the world, and at approximately 56,000 square miles (smaller than the state of Iowa), is the most densely populated country. It is also one of the poorest countries in the world, and has suffered from poverty, natural disasters and famine. Despite all this, since its electoral democracy was established in 1991, Bangladesh has made — as The Economist puts it — “extraordinary improvements” in major human development indicators. Bangladesh is poorer than India and Pakistan (its GDP per capita is just $1284 dollars), but the Social Progress Index suggests it is doing better than these countries in terms of social and environmental factors. In fact, both BRAC, the world’s largest NGO employer, as well as nobel peace prize recipient and pioneer of microcredit  Grameen Bank are from Bangladesh. These organizations have played a crucial role in reducing poverty in the country.

Despite this progress, corruption is rampant in Bangladesh. Since 1975, the military has been interfering in the country’s politics, and due to the one-sided nature of the last general election, it is now practically an authoritarian country with a democratic facade (see Polity IV’s authority trend of Bangladesh). For example, Bangladesh topped Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index five times in a row, from 2001 to 2005, and since then has been one of the top 15 most corrupt countries. While there is an Anti-Corruption Commission, it has proven to be ineffective and strong patrimonialism is widespread.

A Shorob session in Bangladesh.

To help improve government transparency, Shujan (Citizens for Good Governance), a prominent civil society organization, created VoteBD. This award-winning website collates and publishes information on Bangladeshi politicians and electoral candidates, and was the first of its kind to make voter registration records public and accessible to citizens. VoteBD collects data from the Election Commission and different media sources, then publishes these data along with the organization’s own analyses and reports. Dishonest people get elected in Bangladesh; that is the norm. VoteBD is trying to tackle this by enabling an environment where users can compare candidates and identify those who are honest. Shujan also works on the “demand” side of the problem, creating demand for honest candidates at the local level. Through VoteBD, it also “supplies” the data to citizens, allowing them to make more informed decisions.

Shorob (“vocal” in Bengali) has been working both online and offline for four years to mobilize Bangladeshi youth. This platform arranges writing competitions and workshops for young bloggers and activists, and publishes infographics, ebooks and books among other things. So far, Shorob has reached out to a quarter of a million people.

In 2013, the Shorob Accountability Lab (an offshoot of Shorob which exclusively focuses on accountability) launched the first ever Android version of the Constitution of Bangladesh to inform youths about their rights and duties. Additionally, Shorob developed an Android app to make the Election Commission of Bangladesh’s data more accessible and easier to reuse. They crowdsourced the whole digitization process, mobilizing a group of young people to type all the commission’s PDF files as text. The Shorob team developed an accessible Android application which has data about the electoral candidates of two major cities in a searchable format. Once downloaded, the app does not need an Internet connection and all the data is stored for offline usage anytime, an important feature due to slow Internet speeds in Bangladesh. Shorob plans to develop similar applications in the future.

These initiatives contribute to reduced corruption, increased accountability and a strengthened democracy. Bangladesh is a youthful country, therefore engaging these citizens should be a priority for civil society organizations. With apps, tools and campaigns geared toward kids and teenagers, these organizations are doing exactly that.

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