Technology vs policy

20 Sep 2020


The writer is a Fulbright Scholar and has a doctorate. He teaches economics and public policy at Habib University, Karachi.
The writer is a Fulbright Scholar and has a doctorate. He teaches economics and public policy at Habib University, Karachi.

IT was only last year in December when Prime Minister Imran Khan inaugurated the Digital Pakistan initiative amid fanfare. In a series of tweets, he invited leading technology firms from around the world to assist Pakistan with technological innovation. His focus on technology was not misplaced. Experts agree that technological innovation is the predominant factor underlying social and economic change. Economists point out that 80 per cent of income difference between rich and poor countries is attributable to technology.

However, technology can never be a substitute for priorities, leadership and effective policies. We should not pin too much hope on technology as it is a complex phenomenon with some nations failing to improve their socioeconomic indicators despite allocating massive funds for technological innovation.

Many have questioned the transformative powers of technology. Even when the Industrial Revolution was truly underway, leading economists like Thomas Malthus and David Ricardo did not believe that technology could improve the human condition. Recently, Robert Gordon has warned against putting too much hope in technology. In The Rise and Fall of American Growth, he concludes that economic growth cannot go on forever as the rate of technological innovation has been declining since 1970.

Also, the introduction of new technology is often a disruptive—and violent—process. In The Technology Trap, Carl Benedict Frey rightly points out that many technologies result in job losses, or are “labour-replacing”. Such labour-replacing technologies give rise to violent countervailing forces spearheaded by those who lose their livelihoods. For instance, where the Industrial Revolution has now become synonymous with the introduction of new technologies in economic production, the publication of the Communist Manifesto was also a product of that era. At times, the opposition to new technologies became so violent that it took 12,000 British soldiers to quell the Luddite uprisings of 1811-1816. Lest we forget, some years ago, Pakistani taxi drivers staged violent protests against app-based cab services citing jobs and income losses.

When it comes to education, technology is not an equaliser.

Educational institutions in Pakistan have been highlighted as the ideal destination for technological interventions by the champions of technology who argue that it can provide efficient solutions to problems such as shortage of teachers and schools. The government would not need to build any new schools as students would be able to access the best teachers online while ‘attending school’ from home. Most importantly perhaps, technology can take education to the doorstep of the almost 23 million children in Pakistan, who are not in school. It is easier said than done.

In order to obtain a decent return on investment for new technologies, a minimum level of basic technical infrastructure is required. Data from Pakistan Social & Living Standards Measurement/ Household Integrated Economic Survey, 2018-19, reveals a shocking picture. Most households (89.47pc) use mobile phones for accessing the internet, thereby lacking reliable and affordable internet access — 7.4pc of households have Wi-Fi. Additionally, only 7pc of households have a computer, while only 1.59pc have a tablet. Given such lack of technical infrastructure, how can we rely on technology for solutions? On the contrary, evidence shows that bringing online teaching to students’ homes, actually amplifies inequality. Not all students can afford internet or have dedicated learning spaces at home. So, when it comes to education, technology is not the great equaliser it is touted to be.

Some people will point out that there is simply not enough money for providing internet and laptop/ tablets. Lack of money is not a viable justification for 23m out-of-school children in Pakistan. In The Child and State in India, Myron Weiner systematically showed that leading nations — England, Germany, Austria, the US and Japan — prioritised educating children and implemented effective policies to achieve that goal even when per capita income was low, poverty was widespread, and parents would have employed their children had they been permitted to do so. Weiner underscored the beliefs of Indian elites, who thought it was fine to employ poor children, as the key reason behind millions of children not attending school.

Technology is a complex and disruptive force. Blindly pushing technology will not result in better education outcomes. The government needs to prioritise school enrolment, lead a sea change in our beliefs and implement effective policies. One way to do this is to start finding innovative ways to ensure the provision of reliable and affordable internet as well as laptop/ tablet for all school-age children in Pakistan.

The writer is a Fulbright Scholar and has a doctorate. He teaches economics and public policy at Habib University, Karachi.

Published in Dawn, September 20th, 2020