Digital growth

Published April 25, 2024

TECHNOLOGY divides us. According to a new UNDP report on Pakistan, titled Doing Digital for Development — Access, Adopt, Anticipate, Accelerate, noticeable differences in human development can be seen between those districts that have embraced digital transformation compared to those that have lagged behind.

The report, which underscores the importance of equitable and safe access to technology as an important means of improving human lives, places Pakistan in the category of countries where digital development can thus far be described as ‘moderate’ at best.

Over half the country still has no access to the internet, and its women remain grossly underserved. Of the women who do have access to digital technologies, 83.5pc say their phone ownership is policed by their spouses or parents. Meanwhile, digital development among the richest 20pc of its population is 15 times greater than in its poorest quintile. Clearly, digital access has become a marker of privilege in Pakistan.

This needs to be urgently addressed. Pakistan is already among the lowest-ranked countries in the UNDP’s Human Development and Gender Inequality indices. It would appear that sound digital development policies alone can greatly strengthen its present dismal standing in these areas. It is encouraging, in this context, to note that Planning Minister Ahsan Iqbal has described access to digital resources and modern technologies as a fundamental human necessity, just like electricity, healthcare or education.

One hopes that this belief is more commonplace at the policy level than it presently seems to be. Democratising digital development will catalyse a rapid, if not immediate, improvement in human development indicators for the underserved segments of the Pakistani citizenry. All that is needed is some creative rethinking about how they can be better integrated into the overall digital development scheme, especially in terms of ease of internet access. The government may, for example, consider an internet subsidy for underdeveloped districts.

With policy debates on what Pakistan needs to re-emerge from its economic slump repeatedly hitting the resource-constraint wall, perhaps it is time our policymakers started giving more weightage to the role accelerated digital development can play in turning things around quickly and sustainably.

Apart from erasing distortions in intra-district human development, increased adoption of modern technologies will also help improve national productivity. Consider that next door in India, even roadside hawkers have adopted digital payment systems simply because they ease commerce for both buyers and sellers in myriad different ways.

There is no reason why the ordinary people of Pakistan will not embrace similar digital-driven improvements in their everyday lives, especially if they are also backed enthusiastically by the government under a comprehensive digital development policy. The existing infrastructure may need improvements over time, but for now, a concerted push in the right direction is a good place to start.

Published in Dawn, April 25th, 2024

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