State minister, 22 others go abroad within three and a half months of announcing no foreign trips

The state minister for posts, telecommunications and information technology Zunaid Ahmed Palak has been with the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Division for three straight terms and on the first of his office of the twelfth parliament, he made several notable announcements. This included no foreign trips from the ICT Division in the first six months of the year. Yet, a total of 23 people including the state minister himself went abroad within three and a half months of the announcement.

Zunaid Ahmed was in charge of the ICT Division during the tenth and the eleventh parliaments, and he was also given the responsibility of the posts, telecommunications ministry during the twelfth parliaments.

The 14th of January was the first day of the office of the incumbent government and Zunaid Ahmed exchanged views with officials and employees of the ICT Division on the day when he gave a set of instructions.

At that meeting, Zunaid Ahmed said, “We want to bring some changes from the very first day; where austerity will be the main goal. We want to prevent the waste of our time, merit and money, and for this, I will request the secretary that no official or employee from the ICT Division goes on a foreign tour until 30 June.”

“We must increase our export earnings; all outbound spending must reduce to save foreign currency, and the first step is I will not go abroad for the next six months and the secretary will not go either. None of the ICT Division will also go; no trip for training, study tours and anything else.”

Yet, 15 government orders have been issued so far since the announcement of the state minister where a total of 23 people from the ICT Division and its various agencies and projects took foreign trips at various times excluding a certain official who went abroad on deputation.

Replying to a query about taking foreign trips, Zunaid Ahmed told Prothom Alo that, at the instruction of the prime minister he went to Thailand with the entourage of prime minister to attend the 80th session of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP).

Regarding foreign trips of others, he said officials took foreign trips that were related to annual development and projects, as well as where project implementation costs would increase unless the foreign trip takes place. He, however, discouraged foreign trips.

Before going to Thailand with the prime minister’s entourage that left Dhaka on 24 April, Zunaid Ahmed visited Singapore on 16-18 April to attend the Oracle Cloud World Tour and the Enhancing Digital Government and Economy (EDGE) Project of the Bangladesh Computer Council (BCC) bore the expense of Singapore tour.

During the announcement, the state minister said the ICT secretary too would take no foreign trip, but the secretary, Md Shamsul Arefin visited the US on 4-7 March to attend the World Bank Group’s Global Digital Summit in Washington DC. Anir Chowdhury, policy advisor Aspire to Innovate (a2i) programme, accompanied him during the trip, and the World Bank Group bore the expanses.

The visits

Zunaid Ahmed, Md Mamunur Rashid Bhuiyan, project director of the a2i programme, Anir Chowdhury, policy advisor of a2i, Md Mushfiqur Rahman, personal secretary to the state minister, HM Asad-Uz-Zaman, strategy and innovation specialist, a2i, and AMB Adnan Faisal, communication and outreach consultant, a2i, attended the UNESCAP session. The ICT Division bore the expanses of the state minister while the a2i bore the costs of the other five.

Though the state minster declared there would be no foreign training, government orders on foreign trips show two assistant directors of the National Cyber Security Agency, Md Manirul and Uttara Shatadru Prachi Designation will visit Japan from 19 May to 1 June to attend training on Capacity Development on Cyber Security, and Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) will bear all expenses.

Bangladesh Hi-Tech Park Authority managing director GSM Jafarullah, deputy director Mohammad Atiqul Islam and assistant director Shahriar Al Hasan went to Japan on 24-26 April to participate in Japan IT Week Spring, the Hi-Tech authority bore their expenses.

National Cyber Security Agency director general Abu Sayed Md Kamruzzaman, BCC director Md Abu Sayed and ICT Division deputy secretary Md Zillur Rahman attended the Digital and Intelligent APAC Congress 2024 in Thailand on 29-30 April. Huawei bore the trip costs.

ICT Division joint secretary Md Ataur Rahman Khan and Md. Mozibor Rahman took part in the Exclusive Nexus Executive Event in Dubai, UAE on 809 March. Nexus Executive Forum bore the trip expenses.

ICT Division deputy secretary Mohammed Yousuf joined the Informal Drafting Group meeting for the development of a draft ministerial declaration in Kazakhstan on 7 March and the USESCAP provided the trip expenses.

BCC executive director Ranajit Kumar and director Md Golam Sarwar travelled to Japan from 25 February to 1 March to attend the JICA’s Visit Programme to the National Institute of Informatics. JICA bore the trip costs.

ICT Division ATM Ziaul Islam participated in the First UNDP-IsDB's Digital Stewards' Community Gathering Cum Workshop in Maldives on 26-28 February. UNDP provided the expanses.

Hi-Tech authority’s Bangladesh Bharat Digital Service and Employment Training (BDSET) Center project director Amirul Islam joined the Digital Transformation workshop in Thailand on 20-22 February and private firm AZ Technology provided the costs.

BCC associate (CA) Md Abdur Rauf was also scheduled to join the training on the Digital Transformation Course in South Korea from 24 April-3 May. The National IT Industry Promotion Agency will bear the expanses.

Govt orders to suspend foreign trips for austerity

Back in May 2022, the government issued a circular suspending all types of foreign tours by civil servants to reduce the pressure on the country's foreign currency reserve unless there is an emergency. Later in September of that year, a decision was taken to allow foreign trips on a limited scale aimed at capacity development upon the approval of the respective authorities.

Another instruction was issued in November 2022 suspending foreign trips of all government officials working under its operational and development budget. The government also issued a circular on 31 May 2023 suspending first-class air travel at government expenses.

These instructions are yet to be lifted.

State minister Zunaid Ahmed himself directed to halt of all foreign tours of the ICT Division to save foreign currency. He, however, did not mention private sector financing for travelling abroad. Since his instructions, the government orders on foreign trips have been in favour of 23 people within three and a half months, and 15 of them were financed by private firms and foreign organisations while the remaining ones were funded by ICT Division and its other agencies.

Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) executive director Iftekharuzzaman the government has spoken about cost cutting during the economic crisis and people expect when the government and its ministers give any instruction that will be followed, but if that deviates it set a negative example not only for the ministers but also for the government.

Why the instructions of the state minister for ICT were not followed and whether all trips were necessary should be scrutinised, he observed.

This report appeared in the print and online editions of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Hasanul Banna