In late May, Prime Minister Imran Khan launched the Ehsaas savings wallet program in Islamabad, which will attract women to join the inclusive financial network by allowing beneficiaries to use digital wallets to save and withdraw cash.
“Bank accounts are increasing and poverty is decreasing,” the prime minister said and, “when you let women enter the financial system, they can save money, start a business and take control of their lives.”
Since only 18% of women in Pakistan are account holders, the plan aims to expand women’s financial networks. However, access to mobile money wallets requires access to mobile services and the Internet. Therefore, considering Pakistan’s mobile phone ownership, the gender gap is 38% (the highest in South Asia) and the gender gap in Internet use is 49%, so increasing the number of female digital wallets may prove to be a daunting task.
The problem does not stop there. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) ) Inclusive Internet Index, Pakistan has been ranked last in terms of Internet inclusiveness in South Asia, and ranked third last in Asia in the past four years.
Although the pandemic has had a devastating impact on society and the economy, it has provided an unexpected impetus to Digital Pakistan and deserves to be emphasized. In Pakistan and around the world, digital solutions for communications, learning, health, finance, and other services have prevented the large-scale spread of the virus while enabling connectivity during large-scale power outages.
Notable examples in the education field include large-scale transfers of students to online communication platforms such as Zoom and distance school programs such as Taleem Ghar and TeleTaleem.
Pakistan’s digital response to the pandemic has exposed a series of problems that prevent digitalization. How can the country move towards a more interconnected and inclusive digital space? However, the pandemic has also made it clear that these digital solutions only apply to a small number of people.
Covid-19 has exposed several basic flaws in our social and economic systems, which show that the resources and skills needed to survive such emergencies are far from being evenly distributed. In particular, Pakistan’s digital response to the pandemic has exposed a series of problems that hinder the country’s digital connections.
Digital access is still highly dependent on income level, geographic location, and gender, and the latter is obvious in the digital space. In addition, the problems of low service efficiency, high cost, and low digital acceptance in the public sector will only widen the digital divide and continue to restrict the development of the digital economy.
The people of this country should have an inclusive, efficient, and innovative digital Pakistan. This requires a three-part strategy.
Digital Access Is A Basic Right
The first step is to declare digital access as a basic right. Internet access and digital participation must be addressed like any other basic need, and the gap between urban and rural areas, gender, and class must be bridged.
The core of providing digital access is an investment in digital literacy, which can broaden users’ horizons and opportunities. And telecommunications must be a basic service in future disaster planning to ensure connectivity.
Doing so will encourage better regulation, better tax policies, and faster digital adoption. These measures will require ecosystem efforts involving the public and private sectors. To this end, all government policies, programs, and interventions must focus on digitalization and be consistent with the clear goal of rapid digitalization.
Broadband regulation and services must be carefully reviewed with all stakeholders and linked to broader economic goals to ensure that digitalization becomes a national priority. These policy developments can then be coordinated as part of the Digital Pakistan Policy in 2021, which will lay the foundation for the digital economy.
Secondly, Pakistan must set a digital precedent for users by reforming the government itself. This happens when public services are migrated to digital channels and digitized internal government systems. As individuals and businesses, citizens interact with the government in many ways.
The government is also the main employer. Digitalization of the public sector can provide the private sector with opportunities to participate in large-scale projects and attract local customers; it will also improve government understanding of technology and may have a positive impact on future information and communication technology (ICT) decisions.
Most importantly, digital government services can become an entry point for millions of citizens, while enhancing the trust of citizens and government systems. The public sector must also be open to working with young entrepreneurs and encouraging private sector participation.
The population under the age of 30 accounts for more than 60%. Young people must master the necessary digital skills through the latest courses and the training of innovative talents in universities and technical and vocational education and training (TVET) institutes. In addition, government-led technology programs and incubators, such as the National Incubation Center, need to cover smaller cities to ensure that there is a fair space to promote innovation.
Innovative ideas can only go further if they cannot grow. Pakistan should attract domestic and foreign venture capital funds to create opportunities for start-ups to obtain investment. Facilitating the entry of investors and the establishment of new companies can promote economic growth.
However, to attract investment, the government must first stop arbitrary bans on websites or Internet services.
Participation Of The Private Sector
Finally, the digital economy is a multi-pronged approach that also requires the participation of the private sector.
The responsibility of the private sector is to develop Pakistan’s digital ecosystem. International participants must participate in the Pakistani market by establishing a local presence and investing in the public.
Large companies that have established trust among Pakistani consumers also have room to invest in social causes, such as digital visits for women. The private sector also has the capacity to provide resources and support the government in initiatives related to educational technology, financial technology, e-commerce, and public health interventions.
This approach should not exclude local participants who can contribute to technological development and Pakistan’s financial system. The technology ecosystem provides financial opportunities for start-ups and small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and promotes the success of government-driven initiatives, such as Raast (Pakistan’s first instant payment system that supports end-to-end digital payments between individuals and businesses).
Investors and other companies must also prioritize responsible and sustainable business practices to build trust with the government and its consumers. This includes protecting consumer data and prioritizing network security because data protection is used, so data protection is needed. There is also room for the corporate sector to invest in social finance, which can produce long-term social and economic benefits.
Technology cannot replace the systemic reforms needed to make the world recover from Covid-19. However, it has changed the rules of the game and therefore deserves public attention. By creating a digital Pakistan that truly fits everyone, is a key opportunity to increase social and economic resilience on a large scale. We cannot let it go to waste.