Keep it simple by chris cork

Every so often I come across an idea put into practice that is so blindingly obvious that I kick myself for not having had it first. So this week, Dear Reader, we go to Bangladesh and meet the ‘info-ladies’. Firstly, I have to admit it was not in this newspaper that I spotted this, but no matter because this is about the idea itself as much as the story.

The Bangladeshi ‘info-ladies’ do any number of useful things. They own and ride their own bicycles for one, and carry a laptop in the luggage basket for another. They cycle out – yes, women on bicycles, doing a job of work, earning an honest living – to remote villages and set up shop. Essentially they are a mobile internet cafe without the sleaze.

They connect rural women to working-away husbands via Skype, allow schoolchildren access to social media and let ordinary people use e-government services in ways they never could before. They can write complaints, fill in forms and generally engage in the IT revolution, all courtesy of the ‘info-ladies’.

Typically the woman with the bike and the lappy comes from a rural middle-class family, is a graduate and hitherto jobless. They get a three-month training course, which includes some very basic health care. They can test blood-sugar levels and take blood pressure for instance; and get a business start-up loan interest-free to buy the basics – laptop, printer, bike – from the Bangladesh Central Bank, and then it is up to them to make the business pay. The service they offer is not free, their customers pay to talk to far-off relatives or chat on Facebook, and the loan has to be repaid.

This is not charity, a freebie or a handout. Independence is encouraged and fostered; women are empowered and enter a workplace niche that before the ‘info-ladies’ never existed.

Now wouldn’t that be a good idea in Pakistan, I thought. It would, given that our internet services now have virtually blanket coverage across the country, even in the most remote areas. It would, and need not be aimed at graduate young women (or even older women, why not) but could be a job opportunity for matriculates and taught as a new subject in the women’s vocational colleges that dot the country. None of this is rocket science and all of it is possible. There are even thousands of women who have recently been gifted a laptop from which pool our very own ‘info-ladies’ might be recruited. But this is Pakistan.

This is the Pakistan where a mother and father burned their daughter to death with acid last week because she was believed to have spoken to a boy. That has government ministers offering head-money to anybody who would kill the maker of an obscure blasphemous film-clip. Where teenage girls get shot for advocating female education.

The ‘info-lady’ concept is wonderful in its simplicity. By 2016 Bangladesh hopes to have 16,000 of them and there is no reason to think that goal will not be achieved. Having that number of women working in rural communities really does make the ‘info-lady’ a game changer; it institutionalises knowledge and information transfer across the literacy and poverty divide and grows netizens in the villages.

My natural scepticism aside, could it be doable here in Pakistan where seeing a woman ride a bicycle beyond her early teens is a rare sight indeed? Would the men of Pakistan be able to cope? I suspect they would not, which is one of the reasons why Bangladesh is not failing as a state whilst we hover eternally close to the abyss.

The writer is a British social worker settled in Pakistan. Email:


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