At the end of May, Prime Minister Imran Khan inaugurated the Ehsaas Saving Wallets initiative in Islamabad, a programme that will bring women into the financial inclusion net by allowing female beneficiaries the use of digital wallets for savings and cash withdrawals.
“As the pool of bank accounts increases, poverty decreases,” said the prime minister. “And when you bring women into the financial system, they are able to save money, start businesses and control their own lives.”
Given that only 18 percent of women in Pakistan are account holders, this initiative aims to widen the financial net for women. However, access to mobile money wallets requires access to mobile and internet services. Increasing the number of digital wallets for women may, therefore, prove to be a Herculean task, considering that Pakistan suffers from a 38 percent gender gap in mobile phone ownership (the highest in South Asia) and a 49 percent gender gap in internet usage.
The problem doesn’t end there. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) Inclusive Internet Index, Pakistan has consistently ranked last for internet inclusivity in South Asia, and has been in the bottom three places for all of Asia over the past four years.
Enter Covid-19. While the pandemic has had a devastating effect on societies and economies, it has provided an unexpected jumpstart to digital Pakistan that deserves highlighting. Both in Pakistan and across the globe, digital solutions for communication, learning, health, finance and other services prevented large-scale transmission of the virus, while enabling connectivity during periods of mass lockdowns. Notable examples in education include the large-scale transfer of students to online communication platforms, such as Zoom, and tele-school initiatives, such as Taleem Ghar and TeleTaleem.
Pakistan’s digital response to the pandemic has laid bare the spectrum of issues that prevent digital connectivity in the country. How can the country move towards a more connected and inclusive digital space?
However, the pandemic has also made it evident that these digital solutions are only possible for a select few. Covid-19 has exposed several fundamental flaws in our social and economic systems that illustrate how the resources and skills needed to survive such emergencies are far from equally distributed. In particular, Pakistan’s digital response to the pandemic has laid bare the spectrum of issues that prevent digital connectivity in the country.
Digital access remains heavily reliant on income levels, geographic locations and gender, of which the latter is starkly evident in the digital space. Furthermore, issues of inefficient services, high costs and low digital uptake in the public sector have only widened the digital divide and continue to restrict the move towards a digital economy.
The people of this country deserve an inclusive, efficient and innovative digital Pakistan. This requires a three-part strategy.
DIGITAL ACCESS AS A FUNDAMENTAL RIGHT
The first step is to declare digital access a fundamental right. Access to the internet and digital engagement should be addressed as any other basic necessities, and must bridge the urban-rural, gender and class divides. Crucial to providing digital access is investment in digital literacy, which can expand horizons and opportunities for users. And telecommunications must be established as an essential service in future disaster planning, in order to ensure connectivity. Doing so will encourage improved regulation, better tax policies and faster digital uptake.
These measures will require an ecosystem effort that involves both the public and private sectors. For this to occur, all government policies, programmes and interventions should be weaved with a digital focus and aligned with clearly defined targets for rapid digital adoption.
The ongoing policy processes around local manufacturing of smartphones, cloud infrastructure, cyber security, data protection, content regulation and broadband services should all be carefully deliberated with all the stakeholders and connected to wider economic goals, ensuring that going digital is a national priority. Such policy developments may then be synergised as part of the Digital Pakistan Policy 2021, which will lay the groundwork for a digital economy.
Secondly, Pakistan must set a precedent for users digitally by transforming the government itself. This can happen by migrating public services to digital channels and digitising internal government systems. As individuals and businesses, citizens interact with the government in multiple ways. The government also serves as a major employer. Digitalising the public sector can provide opportunities for the private sector to work on large projects and engage local customers.
It will also improve the government’s understanding of technology and can have a positive impact on future decisions about information and communications technology (ICT). Most importantly, digitised government services can become an entry point for millions of citizens, simultaneously improving upon the citizens’ trust and the government systems.
The public sector must also be open to partnering with young entrepreneurs and encourage private sector participation. With over 60 percent of the population under 30, young people must be equipped with the necessary digital skills through the help of updated curricula and the encouragement of innovative talent at universities and technical and vocational education and training (TVET) institutes. Furthermore, government-led incubators and technology initiatives, such as the National Incubation Centre, need to trickle down to smaller cities in order to ensure equal space for nurturing innovation.
Innovative ideas can only go so far if they cannot grow. Pakistan must attract domestic and international venture capital funds in order to generate opportunities for start-ups to receive investment. Facilitating investors to come in and start-ups to operate and grow can fuel the economy’s growth. In order to attract investment, however, the government must first stop arbitrary bans on internet websites or services.
INVOLVE THE PRIVATE SECTOR
Lastly, a digital economy is a multi-pronged approach that also requires input from the private sector, whose responsibility is to enrich and develop Pakistan’s digital ecosystems. International players must commit to Pakistan’s market by establishing local presence and investing in the public. Larger companies that have already built confidence among Pakistani consumers also have space to invest in social causes, such as digital access for women. The private sector also has the capacity to provide resources and support the government in initiatives related to ed-tech, fintech, e-commerce and public health interventions.
This approach must not exclude local players, who can contribute to the growth of Pakistan’s digital and tech ecosystem by providing financial opportunities to start-ups and small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and enable the success of government-driven initiatives such as Raast (Pakistan’s first instant-payment system that enables end-to-end digital payments among individuals, businesses and the government).
Start-ups, investors and other companies should also prioritise responsible and sustainable business practices to establish trust with both the government and their consumers. This includes protecting consumer data and prioritising cybersecurity — as data usage grows, so does the need for data protection. There is also room for the corporate sector to invest in social finance, which can create social and economic benefits in the long term.
Technology is not a substitute for the systematic reforms needed for the world to recover from Covid-19. However, it has changed the rules of the game and, accordingly, deserves public attention. There is a crucial opportunity at hand to improve social and economic resilience, at a large scale, by creating a digital Pakistan that is truly for all. We must not let it go to waste.
The writer is a policy analyst at Tabadlab
Published in Dawn, EOS, June 6th, 2021