Aurora Magazine

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Published in Mar-Apr 2019

Arresting a dangerous divide

Pakistan needs to equip its population with digital skills or risk being left behind.

The world is currently witnessing the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’, characterised by new technologies that are fusing the physical, digital and biological worlds, impacting all disciplines, economies and industries. It should come as no surprise then, that the Prime Minister has recently met the founders and CEOs of both local and international tech giants such as Microsoft, Zong and Telenor to discuss digitisation and technology transfer in the country.

Pakistan’s IT industry reached the benchmark figure of one billion dollar worth of exports in FY 2017-18 and is on course to surpass last fiscal year’s figure, having crossed $540 million in the first six months. Furthermore, according to the Pakistan Software Houses Association of IT and ITES (P@SHA), this figure does not include the income generated by freelancers, making the industry even more lucrative given that Pakistan is ranked as the fourth most popular country for freelancing in the Online Labour Index published in 2017. Nevertheless, despite this consistent growth, there is cause for concern. According to the State Bank of Pakistan, only 30% of the total exports came from computer software houses, while the rest came from low value-added services, such as call centres. Put into perspective, only 56 out of 3,228 IT companies generated exports of over two million dollars.

This places huge emphasis on information communication technology (ICT) skills to lead innovation. However, the danger here is the creation of a ‘digital divide’ that may drive the economic disparity between people who are digitally literate and those who are not to unforeseen levels.

In Pakistan, there is a massive youth bulge that needs to be absorbed into what is becoming an increasingly digitised world economy. Currently, it is estimated that unique internet users account for only a quarter of Pakistan’s population; a population concentrated in the major urban regions. The Government of Pakistan in its Vision 2025 plan has acknowledged the importance of the knowledge revolution and aims to “improve Pakistan’s score on the World Bank Institute’s Knowledge Economy Index from 2.2 to 4.0 and increase internet penetration to over 50%.”


In my experience, the two main reasons for people not using the internet is either their inability to use it or the fact that they do not see any value in doing so. A GSMA study finds that approximately 40% of mobile phone owners had difficulty understanding how to use their handset.


So why is it that we are lagging so far behind?

The first thing that may come to mind is infrastructure. However, thanks to mobile internet that is no longer the issue. According to GSMA Intelligence, by 2016, 75% of Pakistan had 3G coverage and as of now, most urban centres have blanket 4G coverage. Recently, Telenor even launched 4.5G. The next obvious barrier could be rates yet, according to the World Economic Forum, Pakistan has the world’s most affordable internet services.

In my experience, the two main reasons for people not using the internet is either their inability to use it or the fact that they do not see any value in doing so. A GSMA study finds that approximately 40% of mobile phone owners had difficulty understanding how to use their handset.

A common misconception about digital illiteracy is the notion that it involves learning about complex technologies when in reality, it simply means having basic ICT skills. For example, the hired help at my house uses applications like Facebook and WhatsApp to scroll for videos and pictures because they do not know how to use the other functions these platforms offer. Moreover, even drivers for ride-hailing services need to be guided to one’s location via a phone call since they do not know how to navigate using location pins on Google Maps.

The first step to resolving this is largely symbolic; we need to recognise that the classic definition of literacy is no longer enough. Given the current dynamics, the definition of literacy should include the ability to read and write, as well as the ability to use digital technologies (such as computers). The members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development follow this definition and it is no surprise that the top economies of the world correlate strongly with high-technology adoption rates.

Literacy rates and technology adoption go hand in hand. According to the latest Pakistan Economic Survey, the literacy rate in the country stands at 58%. Similarly, the Annual Status of Education Report 2018 states that 56% of Class 5 students could read a Class 2 level story in Urdu/Sindhi/Pashto and 52% of Class 5 students could read sentences of Class 2 level English. Clearly, without a strong language base, it becomes very difficult to use technology interfaces and it is imperative that teaching systems should increase ICT use in primary and secondary education. Perhaps English and Urdu should be taught from a perspective of a ‘Technology Language’ instead of focusing on just grammar and vocabulary. This would also promote the creation of localised content. In addition, complex concepts can be instilled at an early age through interactive toys that teach the concept of sequencing used in programming languages.


Technology incubators have sprung up, public systems have begun digitising their processes and recently, the KP government announced a digital policy for the next five years. However, the impact of these initiatives needs to trickle down to the larger population, mainly due to their inability to use these services.


In parallel, there is a dire need for a ‘skills anticipation’ department which helps build a labour force with relevant skill sets for various industries and advises educational institutions on how to improve the professional development and employment prospects of students. Many European countries have such programmes and the European Commission estimates that 90% of current jobs require basic digital skills.

In all fairness, both the previous and current governments have done some work to address the problem by trying to develop conducive ecosystems focused on digital commerce, lifestyle and citizenship. Technology incubators have sprung up, public systems have begun digitising their processes and recently, the KP government announced a digital policy for the next five years. However, the impact of these initiatives needs to trickle down to the larger population, mainly due to their inability to use these services. Digiskills.pk is a platform launched by Ignite and the Ministry of Information and Technology last year; the objective is to provide young people with relevant freelancing skills. Their first batch of freelancers are estimated to earn an average of $29 a day. Yet, of the 16,000 students who enrolled in the first batch, it is estimated that only 14% are leveraging these skills for financial gain.

Pakistan stands at a major crossroads and equipping the majority of the population with digital skills will be crucial to further economic development.

Ans Khurram is an insights professional working in the telecommunication industry in Pakistan. anskhurram@gmail.com