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Can Tania Aidrus develop a digital Pakistan mindset?

Published in Jan-Feb 2020

Nabeel Qadeer, CEO, InfiniT Global Labs, ponders the challenges ahead.

South Korea leads the world (along with Denmark and Australia) in providing government services and information through the internet (e-Government Development Index 2018). The e-Government Master Plan 2020 and the resulting Tax Administration Division are cases to learn from. However, this did not happen overnight. It was a journey that spanned decades.

Efforts to digitise started as long ago as the late 1960s by using computers for statistical purposes in public offices. This then translated into advanced ‘informatisation’ policies in the 1980s. Fast forward to the late 1990s and early 2000s and you see the introduction of internet-based civil services and the passing of the ‘e-Government Roadmap’, based on a vision of realising the ‘World’s Best Open E-Government’. The roadmap is divided into four areas, 10 agendas and 31 tasks and managed through 45 detailed subtasks. It sets specific targets, including taking online public services such as home tax services to 85%, attaining a Top 10 ranking in the world for business support competitiveness, reducing visits for civil service applicants to three per year and raising the utilisation rate of e-Government programmes to 60%. This has been South Korea’s journey towards achieving high EGDI and becoming a model of good governance backed by ICT and digitisation.

Pakistan recently launched its Digital Pakistan initiative, an effort aimed at giving a holistic and collective cover to the government’s multi-dimensional objectives, such as job creation, ending corruption and supporting and promoting the economy.

Largely based on the objectives of the National Digital Policy 2018, Digital Pakistan has five core pillars: Access & Connectivity, Digital Infrastructure, e-Government, Digital Skills, Training & Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Although the specific measures and subtasks vary, to understand the importance of adopting digitisation, it is essential to both understand and manage each pillar in context of the other.

Here is an example. The number of cellular subscribers stands at 163 million, with a corresponding rise in the number of 3G/4G users to 73 million and a 34.72% penetration rate, while the number of broadband subscribers has increased to 75 million with a penetration rate of 35.69%. Although the numbers are increasing, the question remains about the effective utilisation of the internet, especially in rural and semi-urban areas. To realise Access & Connectivity (pillar 1) and making access to internet a basic right, it has to be underpinned by a mass awareness campaign about the positive impact of technology and how to use it.

Similarly, to realise Digital Skills, Training & Innovation and Entrepreneurship (pillars 4 and 5) and enable Pakistanis across the board to fully benefit from e-Governance initiatives and the digitisation of other sectors, it is essential that these efforts run parallel to public awareness and inclusiveness. For example, following Bangladesh’s launch of its Access to Information (a2i) Programme in 2010, 5,400 data centres were set up as one-stop information and service delivery outlets. These are run by 10,000 local entrepreneurs, provide access to more than 150 public and private services and are within an average range of four kilometres from people’s homes. In addition, more than 3,000 digital centres act as active banking service providers and have opened bank accounts for over 145,000 citizens.

In a similar manner, efforts to enhance access to the internet and connectivity have to be aligned with cross-sector objectives. In Pakistan’s case, where only 21% of the adult population is financially included, internet access can be used to loop in an additional 100 million people into the main financial system using m-banking and m-wallets. Only once they have access to financial services can they then truly benefit from the digitisation of services and make a contribution towards a cashless Pakistan, as envisaged by pillar 2. Reference can be made to Kenya’s M-Pesa, which revolutionised the country’s financial services and now has more than 25 million users in Kenya alone and services in more than 10 countries. Similar to Bangladesh’s a2i programme, M-Pesa has created more than 288,000 jobs in 10 years. M-Services are already functional in Pakistan and the government, through Digital Pakistan, has the space to facilitate stakeholders in terms of the regulatory framework so that the existing portfolio of services increases and caters to more dimensions than just money transfers.

Financial regulation is directly linked to the Federation. However, subsequent to the 18th Constitutional Amendment, autonomy has been split between the Federal and the Provincial governments. Digital Pakistan was initiated by the Federal Government with the support of the Prime Minister’s Office, therefore its smooth execution will require strong inter-provincial coordination and a willingness to make it work across government departments and the civil service. Here, we can look to the strategies adopted by Australia, Denmark and Estonia for multi-level ownership of their digitisation policies. An apt question to ask is: What will it take for people to view Digital Pakistan as an opportunity?

In terms of Digital Skills, Training & Innovation and Entrepreneurship, policy efforts have been put in place in the last decade aimed at promoting entrepreneurship and the acquisition of digital skills. These include a 15-year tax holiday (extended) for the IT industry, retention of 35% of earnings in foreign exchange accounts by software exporters, the establishment of IT universities and departments, government backed initiatives such as Plan9, eRozgaar and DigiSkills and the promotion of micro-entrepreneurship through microfinance. However, will Digital Pakistan simply build further on these initiatives or will it go a step further and lead these initiatives in the next phase?

For the entrepreneurship ecosystem to strengthen and produce impactful results, expansion has to be vertical. The next natural progression is corporate innovation that brings industries and start-ups closer together. As large corporations seek to become more competitive, the trend has been towards investment in research and innovation. In Pakistan’s context, on a macro-level, there has been improvement in the business environment (on the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index, Pakistan jumped 28 places to 108 in a year). With the economy reviving, large corporations and SMEs need to innovate in order to regain market share and to begin this process, they will need to display openness in terms of moving away from a traditional way of working and incorporate start-ups in the processes.

The success of Digital Pakistan will depend on a number of factors. Firstly, how well it manages inclusiveness, stakeholder ownership and participation and its ability to create an inter-connected yet empowering multilevel environment, including the public and private sectors. Secondly, how well it will be able to engage citizens and facilitate and equip them to become active economic contributors. Thirdly, how well it executes inter-dependent objectives such as the alleviation of poverty, job creation and the curbing of corruption.

Tania Aidrus, the lead for the Digital Pakistan, certainly has the technical knowledge, competence and a strong desire to position Pakistan on the world map as a socially and economically strong country. However, much will also depend on how well the stakeholders collaborate to make this happen and the extent to which Pakistanis are ready to embrace the benefits of digitisation.

The challenge is not one of policy formulation and planning, but of moulding the mindset for a Digital Pakistan.

Nabeel Qadeer is CEO, InfinIT Global Labs, Co-Founder, Innovation District 92 and host/content producer of Idea Croron Ka.