Aurora Magazine

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Democratising the Power to Earn

Published in Mar-Apr 2022

In today’s online world, learning and earning no longer need be the privilege of the few, argues Nabeel Qadeer.

Pakistan is a youth- intensive nation. The youth bulge is a double-edged sword, bringing with it both opportunity and responsibility. Although the ideas, energy and optimism may all be on the horizon, we still need aggressive systems committed to helping our young people complete the full circle. Out of Pakistan’s population of 227 million, 64% are under the age of 30 and almost 50% are women. However, given that women are not yet effectively engaged in generating economic activity and factoring in the percentage of out-of-school children and the people who have not received university level education, the situation calls for a complete overhaul.

However, education alone is not the answer to this crisis. Take university graduates as an example. Although many may be found to be ‘economically active’, they may not necessarily be engaged in their area of study. Then there is the fact that industry is increasingly finding academia to be out of step with emerging trends. This is not a ‘Pakistan’ problem; it is a ‘world’ problem. Today, freelancing has pivoted from a means of earning pocket money to a necessary life skill. 

Pakistan has the fastest emerging freelance community in the world. It is also among the few countries where the average earnings of women are higher than men in the freelance market. These two statistics highlight an important shift that is yet to be fully realised. Women not only perform better in school but are natural multitaskers. Pair this with their social and cultural responsibility of bearing and nurturing children, and it becomes clear that the freelance model suits them the best. As freelancers, the most common hurdles women face are eliminated – commuting and leaving their children unattended with unreliable help.

The World Bank (2021) recognises learning digital skills as a necessity to thrive in the 21st century – at par with acquiring technical, socio-emotional and cognitive skills. However, learning digital skills cannot be considered as an alternative to formal education, but rather as a tool for career advancement. Schools play an integral part in developing a child’s social, critical thinking and cognitive skills and access to school level education remains a basic human right.

However, given this rapidly changing world, schools need to rethink their curriculums, universities need to collaborate with industry and professionals need to see teaching as a duty. According to the Pakistan Engineering Council (2019), 50,000 engineers were found to be unemployed. This is a troubling number, but it is also an opportunity. These are educated individuals with an above average calibre to adapt to new technologies. Investing in their future and upgrading their skills can contribute momentously to our economy. (For example, acquiring skills for emerging technologies including cyber security is likely to make engineers more hireable). 

The Imran Khan led PTI Government initiated much needed programmes, such as Kamyab Jawan and Kamyab Pakistan to drive entrepreneurship and sustainable incomes for families. Kamyab Jawan has so far successfully disbursed more than Rs 36 billion in interest-free loans and generated more than 50,000 jobs. The programme offers training in the latest technologies free of cost. Kamyab Pakistan, on the other hand, is designed to equip one member of a family in skills training and providing them with an interest free loan. Such programmes and their initiatives such as the National Youth Council are a vote of confidence in the emerging successes of our youth. 

In response to the accelerated digitisation of economies, the World Economic Forum launched the Essential Digital Infrastructure and Services Network (EDISON) Alliance. The aim of this alliance is to prioritise digital inclusion in order to facilitate industries and governments in terms of access to trained HR with a heightened sense of digital responsibility. 

To put this in the context of our economy, where a sizeable proportion of our workforce is made up of young people which relies heavily on vocational and technical training to earn a living, the corporate and the government sectors need to leverage this opportunity by introducing programmes that encourage male and female participation and invest whole-heartedly in life-long education. One way of doing so is by establishing computer labs within corporations. This will provide employees with the opportunity to acquire digital skills while earning, thereby no longer making ‘learning’ a substitute or trade-off to earning. In return, corporations will acquire a pool of highly skilled HR. Another major part of the economy is supported by Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs). If these are steered towards digital advancement, this will turn out to be a massive area for accelerated economic growth. An example is the Singapore SMEs Go Digital Programme that exemplifies the potential of digital technologies in identifying new opportunities. 

Pakistanis were pushed out of their comfort zone when it came to adapting to technology during the Covid-19 smart lockdowns. In 2021, there were about 184 million cellular connections – a 9.5% increase from 2020. There have been 14 million new broadband connections in 2021 alone. In 2021, Pakistan received $350 million worth of investments from local and foreign investors in pre-seed and seed stage start-ups aimed at building technology to revolutionise traditional businesses; this includes local shops, mom and pop stores and wholesale markets. As one group focuses on building effective marketplaces that can disrupt and make businesses transparent, other areas of possibilities open up through e-commerce.

E-commerce and its related services have been around in the local space for a few years and Pakistani freelancers have received top-rate reviews from international partners, and now with Amazon adding Pakistan to its sellers’ list, the game has been opened up wide. Given that such businesses are completely online, teams have the flexibility of working remotely. Couple this with cross-platform marketing, advertising, social media, design services, inventory management, delivery and logistics, and you have an entire ecosystem to effectively run an online business. Even physical stores that rely on a good market location are moving towards e-commerce. This too will require a team that can manage online operations as well as look after the daily workings of the store. 

Freelancing and e-commerce are a breakthrough revelation for our economy, especially now when it has become increasingly evident that households cannot prosper with just one breadwinner. For the economic uplift of our communities, women, men and youngsters alike need to actively contribute. This not only builds self-esteem; it also inculcates a sense of responsibility. The West has benefitted vastly from the idea of earning from a young age. They encourage their children to learn how to earn, take responsibility for themselves, and manage their finances by pushing them to set up small businesses from a very young age – ‘the lemonade stand’, being the best known example of this. Sadly, in Pakistan, our parenting style often means that our children are rather discouraged from indulging in ‘such activities’. This is what you call a systemic problem. 

An average young person in Pakistan earns to survive. The problem is that they are either deprived of an education and forced to eke out a living or they are forced to focus only on their education as a means of acquiring a comfortable professional life. Whereas one approach is devoid of all kinds of privileges, the other is an overdose of comfort. Furthermore, all arguments used as ‘plausible reasons’ as to why women and children should not be financially independent are null and void today. Freelancing, e-commerce and using the internet to contribute economically require no commute and are relatively safe. 

Pakistan is ready to plunge into the world of learning and earning online. We have the HR and the will to do more. We are surrounded by opportunity and the desire to strengthen ourselves. Financial independence and the ability to dream go hand in hand. With the right direction and self-belief, our options are infinite.

Nabeel Qadeer (PMP, SCPC) is Executive Director, Infinite Scaleup and CEO, DirAction.