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In Bangladesh, a New Online Platform to Ensure Parliamentary Accountability

Bangladesh national parliament house. Image from Flickr by Joe Coyle. CC BY-NC 2.0

Although Bangladesh is a populous and formally democratic country, internet penetration remains low and many politicians and legislators do not use social media or other forms of instant communication, making it difficult for common people to reach out to them.

A new platform containing all the information of the members of parliament and different means for communication with them is giving Bangladeshis the option of contacting their local elected representatives, however. Some lawmakers have already begun responding to public queries.

A frequently used phrase in Bangladesh these days is ‘Digital Bangladesh’, which is the idea that IT can be used in administration and governance to ensure transparency, accountability and answerability at all levels of society and state.

Although there is visible progress in terms of Bangladesh's digitization in other areas, many elected MPs and government officials are still not using digital means to make themselves accountable to common citizens.

According to recent news reports, although many of the MPs have Facebook IDs or pages, they are not official, and are mostly run by fans. Only seven Facebook profiles and two Twitter accounts belonging to MPs are verified. Most MPs therefore are not active on popular social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter while many citizens complain that MPs are not reachable via the official contact phone or email provided on the Bangladesh Parliament website.

Blogger Chandra Bindu wrote on Facebook:

অনেক অনেক বছর আগে আমার এমপি সাহেবের সাথে দেখা করতে গিয়েছিলাম। এলাকার সমস্যা নিয়ে। ঢাকার বাসায়। উনি এলাকায় থাকেন না। মানুষও বহিরাগত। ঢাকা ছাড়া পাওয়া কঠিন। সকাল ১০টার দিকে গিয়ে শুনলাম উনি ঘুমাচ্ছেন। বেশ কিছুক্ষণ অপেক্ষা করে দেখা না পেয়েই ফিরলাম।

Some years ago I went to the local MP's house to discuss some issues in our neighborhood. He lives in the capital, nowhere near the electorate. It was already 10 am and I was told that he still was asleep. I waited for some time more but could not meet him.

Blogger Saifur R. Mishu writes:

বলতে দ্বিধা নেই, আমাদের দেশের জনপ্রতিনিধিবৃন্দের অনেকেই নিজেদের জনপ্রতিনিধি কম, রাজা বেশী ভাবতে শুরু করেন সাংসদ নির্বাচিত হবার সাথে সাথে। অথচ হবার কথা ভিন্ন। জনপ্রতিনিধিরা জনগণের নিকট সর্বদা জবাবদিহি করার কথা।

I have to say that many elected members of Parliament of our country think of themselves as kings, rather than representatives. Whereas they should be totally accountable to their electorates.

Screenshot of Amar MP website.

Amar MP

Amar MP (My Member of Parliament), is a volunteer-based, non-profit, non-partisan initiative created by a group of Bangladeshi online activists and spearheaded by expatriate blogger Sushanta Das Gupta.

The over-arching mission is to make MPs aware of their responsibilities and try to ensure their accountability to the electorate.

The platform lets users find out who their representative in their area is and all about the MPs themselves including their publicly filed statement of wealth. They have the option of contacting them via different contact numbers and social media accounts listed on the website.

Moreover, if they fail to contact them through these means, they can also pose questions to MPs directly through the platform.

Users will have to register to the website (they can also register with their Facebook ID) to be able to contact an MP. This will prevent trolling, and any abuse will be filtered by the Amar MP website before reaching the MPs.

The website has been up for a few months now and has already generated a buzz. People are sending questions about the cleanliness of towns, making MPs aware of the infrastructure needs of villages and complaining about local drug problems.

Some MPs have already started answering some of the questions. Abdur Rahman Badi, MP of Cox's Bazar-4 constituency replied to a question by Mohammad Tareq about the drug problem in Teknaf, for instance:

He said:

আপনাকে ধন্যবাদ এই প্রশ্নটি করার জন্য। আপনার জ্ঞাতার্থে আমি জানাতে চাই যে, ইতোমধ্যে টেকনাফ উপজেলায় মাদক ব্যবসায়ীদের তালিকা প্রস্তুত করার নির্দেশ দেওয়া হয়েছে আর তাদের বিরুদ্ধে ব্যবস্থা নেওয়াও শুরু হয়েছে। আশা করছি আগামী ১ বছরের মধ্যে টেকনাফ উপজেলায় মাদক অনেকাংশ নির্মূল হবে।

Thanks for sending this question. I would like to inform you that a list of the known drug dealers is being prepared by the relevant authorities and steps will be taken against them. I hope that we can eradicate the drug problem in this region within the space of the next year.

People are excited about the responses:

For the first time an MP in Bangladesh answered questions from a voter through a video message on YouTube.

Abul Khair Shahjahan wrote on Facebook:

জনগনের যে কত উপকার হচ্ছে তা বলে বুঝানো যাবে না, সাথে সাথে এম পি মহোদয়গন ও এই সাইটের কারনে অনেক সচেতন হওয়ার চেস্টা করছেন, নিজেরা এই সাইটের কারনে সোস্যাল নেটওয়ার্ক এ নিজেদের সম্পৃত্ব করার চেস্টা করছেন।

I cannot imagine how the citizens are not being helped by this. Many MPs are becoming aware of the electorate and active on social media, becoming inspired by this website.

Saber Hossain Chowdhury MP tweeted:

The website has called for applications from volunteers to become ambassadors of constituencies who will liaise with the relevant MPs regarding queries submitted through the platform. Many MPs are vetting the ambassadors designated for their electorates.

A commenter, Sisyphus, talked about potential training for MPs on social media use:

এম্পিরা যাতে টুইটার, ফেসবুক বা ই-মেইল ব্যবহার করতে পারে সে ব্যাপারেও প্রশিক্ষণ দরকার। আমার মনে হয়, সকল এম্পির জন্য সামাজিক যোগাযোগ মাধ্যমের প্রশিক্ষণ হওয়া দরকার, যাতে করে এধরণের প্লাটফরর্ম ব্যবহারে তারা অভ্যস্ত হন এবং জড়তা কাটাতে পারেন।

I think MPs should be trained on how to use Facebook, Twitter or even email. Every MP should do it, so that they become comfortable using these media and become prolific.

Following its trial run, the website will be formally launched in March. Its Facebook page has more than 36k followers and helps users deal with any problems they encounter using the website.

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