Situationer: The ‘Digital Pakistan’ challenge

Updated January 03, 2020

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The government has delayed the launch date of e-commerce policy. It is unclear whether the policy will be introduced at all. — AFP/File
The government has delayed the launch date of e-commerce policy. It is unclear whether the policy will be introduced at all. — AFP/File

It is 2020, and the government has a new resolution — the provision of ‘Roti, Kapra, Makan and Internet’.

Prime Minister Imran Khan has launched a ‘Digital Pakistan vision’ that aims to enhance connectivity, improve digital infrastructure, investment in digital skills and literacy, and promote innovation and entrepreneurship.

While the project generated a lot of excitement, it gave rise to questions about relevance and implementation of the existing national digital policy.

In 2018, the country approved its first ‘Digital Pakistan policy’. The ambitious policy contains several incentives aimed to bolster investment by the IT companies and to build infrastructure and institutional frameworks required to run a digital ecosystem.

Tania Aidrus, a senior Google executive who quit her position to lead the initiative, said the digital policy 2018 would be revisited.

“In order to have a clear vision on national level, we need to adapt, change and augment policy. We have laid out our priority areas but we will revisit the digital policy to align it with current digital developments,” she said in an exclusive conversation with Dawn.

Too many cooks?

Besides an existing policy, with the new initiative, there is concern of overlapping functions in leading the country towards digitalisation.

The Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunications (MoITT) is the enabling arm of the government for planning and directing efforts to initiate IT programmes.

Then there is the National IT Board (NITB) — a department of the MoITT mandated to undertake e-government initiatives at federal ministries, divisions and departments — which, too, is committed to ‘Digital Transformation’.

“The Digital Pakistan project will operate from the PM Office and set the direction. A combination of private and public stakeholders, including the IT ministry and NITB, must work together and be aligned for execution and matters related to policy,” said Ms Aidrus.

Adding to the list of stakeholders, is a 17-member task force on IT and telecommunications appointed by the PM to advise policy changes and develop strategic plans to strengthen the technology ecosystem.

“We are in touch with a few members of the task force. We are open to contributions from the task force and others to help set the targets,” she conceded.

‘Not ready for PayPal’

Refuting media reports regarding her claim to bring PayPal and cryptocurrency to Pakistan, Ms Aidrus said she had made no such promise.

“Global firms, including Facebook and Google, have a defined mechanism that decides requirements to enter a country. They are incredibly cautious as they should be,” she said.

“The aim is to offer comfort, legal framework, security, and policy before expecting these companies to work in Pakistan,” Ms Aidrus said. “The global platforms need to be protected and we are not in a position to give them that assurance yet.”

However, she added, the country should not be fixated on PayPal but first understand these pain points and introduce local solutions where possible.

The NITB, for instance, is working to establish the country’s first e-commerce export platform similar to Alibaba.

According to NITB’s chief executive officer Shabahat Ali Shah, a sub-component of the platform is to establish Pakistan’s own international payment gateway.

The payment gateway will be pre-integrated with PayPal, Visa card, MasterCard and Alipay that can be connected to local banks and microfinance companies.

“This means we don’t need to chase international companies to come to Pakistan. With the payment gateway, any person with a bank account in Pakistan and a smartphone will be able to sell his/her products and receive payments from anywhere in the world,” he told Dawn.

E-commerce, data protection

There are efforts to introduce local e-systems, but there is lacklustre progress in terms of launching an e-commerce and data protection policy.

The government has delayed the launch date of e-commerce policy. It is unclear whether the policy will be introduced at all.

“The platform is the direct implementation of the e-commerce policy approved by the cabinet. The SBP [State Bank] and FBR [Federal Board of Revenue] are providing guidance on regulatory policies,” Mr Shah said. The MoITT is working to crystallise the data protection policy as well, he added.

According to Mr Shah, the launch is expected in two to three months as they are working on compliance metrics provided by the SBP and FBR before it could be configured.

Published in Dawn, January 3rd, 2020