COVID-19 Recovery:  Myanmar Needs to Move Towards Digital Transformation

COVID-19 Recovery:  Myanmar Needs to Move Towards Digital Transformation
Myanmar people gather for refreshement at a teashop in Yangon many hangout to chat and browse facebook with their mobile phone. Photo: Sai Aung Main/AFP

As the COVID-19 pandemic forced lockdowns across the globe, there has been a dramatic increase in the use of digital technologies in various aspects of human life. Restrictions in mobility, closing of economic activities, social distancing norms, shutting down of education and health services, entertainment and mass gatherings have all led to people moving to digital platforms to stay connected with each other and engage in necessary economic and social activities. Contact tracing applications, e-permits, e-clinics, e-health bulletins, dashboards of data, cloud-based clinical data hosting, sharing and collaboration between public health researchers,  awareness building apps and chatbots have come to play a significant role during this pandemic period.  However, such a transition has not been smooth as many developing countries faced severe forms of digital inequality, especially in rural areas. Cities and young people have adopted to the digital world faster compared to those living in rural areas. ICT infrastructure is also a major constraint. For example in Myanmar over 50 per cent communities do not have access to ICTs. It is in this context, addressing challenges of e-governance, particularly in creating a digital interface between citizen and government. 

It is in this context recently released UN E-Government Survey report assumes importance.  According to the survey, capturing the scope and quality of online services, the status of telecommunication infrastructure and existing human capacity, the ranking of countries is led by Denmark, the Republic of Korea, and Estonia, followed by Finland, Australia, Sweden, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, the United States of America, the Netherlands, Singapore, Iceland, Norway and Japan.  Among the least developed countries, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Cambodia have become leaders in digital government development, advancing from the middle to the high E-Government Development Index (EGDI) group in 2020.

How Myanmar is faring in E-Government?

According to the survey, the E-Government Development Index is measured through three components viz., online services, telecommunication infrastructure and human capital, each of them having identified indicators to assess the progress.  Myanmar stands at 146th rank in the group of 193 countries for which EGDI has been computed with a score of 0.4316. In contrast, Denmark that ranks 1st in EGDI has a score of 0.9758.

Another dimension of the digital transformation of countries is e-participation, which revolves around creating access to information for citizens, and engaging citizens in decision making, administration and service delivery. As part of the overarching e-government system, components of e-participation include online sharing of information of different sectors by government agencies, national portals offering information and online interactions, feedback and reporting systems by the government agencies. On this count, Myanmar fares at the lower rung of the countries in terms of E-Participation Index. It scores 0.2619 of EPI, with168th rank among 193 countries. Improvements in this aspect in the coming years are critical for Myanmar as the country has to accommodate inclusive policies to bridge the digital divide. With Multi-ethnic communities, creating digital access and inclusion of all in public services becomes important for building national reconciliation. Access to information law is one critical step in this direction which has to accommodate the digital dimensions of the access.  

Recent ICT Developments

Myanmar’s Covid-19 Economic Recovery Plan (CERP) also identifies the need for expanding the digital connectivity to support e-commerce, digital mode of service delivery and in giving a big push for e-governance.  This requires investments in ICT infrastructure, building robust e-governance policy architecture on which significant progress has been made during the past few years.  In early 2018, the government has come out with a digital economy strategic road map, with a vision of “enabling digital transformation, digital government, digital trade and innovation to develop a digital economy across all sectors for inclusive and sustainable socio-economic development’

Though there have been improvements in ICT infrastructure in Myanmar, with more than half of the country is not having access to an internet connection. It stands at about 41% in Jan 2020, with almost 90% of it being mobile phone-based internet service.  The country is not covered significantly with high-speed ICT infrastructure for using the internet for business purposes or other social innovations.  A third of the villages are also not connected with the national grid for electricity.  Country’s Digital economy road map aims to increase internet penetration to 50% by 2025.  This acute digital divide is going to exacerbate already existing inequalities in society.  Transition to digital mode of education, health services would deprive people of these essential services. Hence fast-forwarding E-government initiatives and ICT development need to be considered. 

E-Government Roadmap

In recent years, there appear to be improvements in e-governance initiatives over the past few years. Promotion of e-governance, improving digital connectivity, one-stop-shop for public services, electronic data dissemination systems and e-commerce services are part of the government’s ambitious National e-governance strategy. An E-Government steering committee headed by Vice President has identified expertise, investment and coordination as critical ingredients for successful e-government initiatives. National E-ID project, e-government national portal, one-stop-shop, digital access to data and development of statistical data portals are some of the notable features of recent developments in this area. 

From the perspective of businesses, more needs to be done. In a recent Myanmar Economic Monitor June 2020, the World Bank also notes,  “ …developing ICT skills among entrepreneurs, building out electronic-payment systems, expanding digital literacy, retailed licensing and clarifying the legislative and regulatory framework for e-commerce could enable the retail sector to cope with the impacts of social distancing while providing a digital platform to support the development of small and medium enterprises (SMEs)”. 

UN report brings a wakeup call for Myanmar to enhance its ICT infrastructure to advance E-government and Open data policies. Seizing the opportunity of a COVID-19 recovery plan would be an ideal platform for the government to expand digital connectivity and e-government across the country.

Need Open Government Data

Digital transformation also involves creating an open data regime in the country. Government administrative processes and interactions of people with government generate a huge amount of data, and increasingly such data is moving on to online platforms which would enable data analytics informing the policies. Myanmar needs to move in this direction as increasingly sectors like transport, industry (company registration, investment etc), property registration, etc are moving to digital platforms. Access to such data aggregates with adequate privacy safeguards would be the next data revolution that Myanmar is poised to take off in the coming years. Similarly, systems for harnessing big data, geospatial data, real-time data, without compromising privacy, would also be required in the coming years to inform public policy in a significant way.

The current need is also to ensure proactive disclosure of government statistics, databases of information for public use for engaging citizens in the decision making process. Policy think-tanks, civil society agencies, research agencies and universities, advocacy groups need to access data and information from government and other sources in ready to use the form so that they can develop enhanced analytical understanding and provide useful recommendations for the policymaking. The national strategy for the development of statistics identifies the need for improvements and steps regarding unified data portals, sharing of online data periodically, use of social media tools for policy and data dissemination has improved over the period, but still, much of the data is not in formats that are easy to access and for analysis. Use of evidence-based policymaking is still a new engagement for many parts of the government system.  Developing mechanisms of data user feedback through online systems would enable the government to design effective data dissemination as part of e-governance.