Notes from the Field

Using Technology to Track Economic Policy Reforms across Asia

January 11, 2012

Female entrepreneurs in Bangladesh represent a miniscule percentage of business owners (0.05 percent), according to The Asia Foundation’s 2010 firm-level survey results. Issues of concern to women business owners, such as difficulties in accessing information on regulations or obtaining loans for their businesses, are concomitantly raised in a relatively diminished voice. Yet by joining together to form a Women’s Business Forum and working with local public authorities, a group of women entrepreneurs successfully negotiated over the course of several months to improve the terms for accessing credit from a local commercial bank.

Bangladeshi Business Owner

Female entrepreneurs in Bangladesh represent a small percentage of business owners. However, recent Business Forums have provide them with a voice for expressing their challenges and concerns about the business environment. Photo by Geoffrey Hiller.

Although this was a success, in many of Asia’s developing economies, this type of collaboration is difficult due to an absence of a strong, organized private sector and active civil society (whether local business associations, consumer or citizen groups, or farmers’ collectives). As a result, mutual collaboration between the private and public sector is often weak, or in some cases nonexistent. Even when the private sector’s demands for reform are expressed, they may not always be clearly articulated, due to lack of capacity, or acted upon effectively by the government.

Public-Private Dialogues (PPDs), such as the one illustrated above between the Bangladeshi women entrepreneurs and their local bank, help facilitate constructive interaction for reforms  by providing a forum for participants to identify constraints and issues that need to be improved. Issues vary widely, ranging from the quotidian (garbage collection, the need for more street lights, or better parking facilities), to the complex (onerous business licensing regulations, informal fees, improved food safety regulations, or gender-based discrimination). For any given issue, there may be many participants involved across the stakeholder spectrum, various levels of bottlenecks, costs and benefits identified, background information collected, and recommendations suggested. To ensure that actions are taken to achieve concrete, tangible results, working groups are formed to help find solutions to issues. Some will be successful, but some will not due to various technical, political, social, legal, economic, and financial reasons.

As another example, at a recent PPD in Rajshahi, Bangladesh, members of the business community complained that they could not obtain duplicates for their trade license. A trade license is mandatory for all businesses and is normally issued by the local government. Yet there was no provision to replace a trade license with a duplicate when it was lost or damaged; the unfortunate business owner who lost his or her license was left with no alternative but to pay the full fee for a new license to be issued, or else face uncertainty with opening business accounts or taking loans with financial institutions, exporting or importing, and even making tax and VAT payments. This issue was taken up in a PPD, whose participants included representatives from the public sector and the business community. A task force was convened to develop a resolution for this issue and take action. After several months, meetings, and letters, the problem was resolved with the help of the mayor of Rajshahi. Duplicate trade licenses are now attainable using a separate application form and for a significantly smaller fee, saving time and money for many businesses.

For issues raised in PPDs, the twin tasks of keeping track of all the information collected and actions taken and of monitoring progress made toward a resolution are a major challenge. Technology solutions may be the answer. In Asia, where internet penetration is high and mobile phone technology even higher, technology is increasingly a key component of development work, whether it is cell phones that allow farmers to check on market prices for their crops or enable women to report on sexual harassment in their communities, or websites that crowd-source information on corruption, poor public service provision, or disaster relief incidents.

Right now, The Asia Foundation is using this technology to develop a web-based Issue Tracker tool to help participants in public-private dialogues like the one in Rajshahi to more effectively and consistently monitor and track the progress of issues that are brought up in the meetings. The Issue Tracker will be a SMS-enabled, accessible, user-friendly platform for monitoring and documenting the actions taken to resolve these issues and the accumulative progress made toward their resolution. The database will also serve as a repository from which to collect and share experiences and insights, and, more broadly, to draw inferences on patterns and trends.

Working on Public-Private Dialogues at the national level, the World Bank developed its own version of an “issue tracker” based on the software FileMaker Pro 10 that also assists PPD facilitators to manage issues raised by working groups and to follow-up on actions taken to ensure successful outcomes. The Foundation’s online Issue Tracker is tailored to track issues at the local level and designed to complement the national-level Public-Private Dialogue (PPD) Reform Tracking tool. Both tools aim to capture a clear, concise, yet comprehensive database of the myriad issues that arise out of public-private dialogues.

Keeping track of issues in a database will help facilitators report on progress made overall and by particular issue in a systematic way. Over time, the Issue Tracker will allow for easy reporting and statistics on progress made. It will answer questions like: Which issues are most commonly raised in one sector? How long and how many action items does it take on average to resolve issues in another province? Which groups are most active in engaging the public sector for reform? Patterns may be revealed in one province that a facilitator in another province may see, such as the way that a doctor of infectious diseases may pinpoint Lyme disease in a patient who has previously been diagnosed with the flu. That is, as the same issues are brought up in multiple localities, the Issue Tracker can be instrumental in identifying and addressing these cross-cutting issues – linkages – not only at the local level, but at the district, provincial, or national levels. To that end, it will also serve as a source from which the experiences of working groups can be shared and collective actions organized.

Across Asia, technology is making it easier for ever more people to gather and spread information, mobilize support, elicit citizen feedback, and promote government accountability. The Issue Tracker has the potential to help the public and private sectors work together for more rapid and effective reform.

Katherine Loh is a program fellow for The Asia Foundation’s Economic Development Programs. She can be reached at kloh@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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