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IT REVOLUTION & THE DIGITAL DIVIDE
Dr. Ijaz H. Khawaja

 

The 21st century has brought science and technology, especially information technology, to the forefront of the advancement.  An incredibly vast amount of wealth is being created in the world market by industry, services and agriculture. Unprecedented opportunities have been created for all nations.  The developing nations can also benefit from this opportunity provided they adopt right policies and implement them.  Globalization brings forth its own inequalities, both internal and external.  The information revolution makes it possible for all to industrialse and develop quickly.  With Governments providing a thrust without trying to control, the deprived sections of the society can also become part of this economic activity. 

2.         Its’ almost 35 years since the computers first came to Pakistan when certain banks PIA and WAPDA installed computers at their head offices.  During 1970’s and early 80’s import of computers was banned and one could not import a computer without the special import license of the Ministry of Commerce.  The restriction was eased in mid 80’s when the import of computer was put on free list.  The import duties were also reduced and subsequently removed.  In the 90’s the market was flooded with low cost user friendly PC’s that did not require rigid operating environments.  This resulted in sharp increase in the number of computers imported and installed.  As a result of the government’s liberal policies, this increase became exponential both in the government as well as private sector.  In March last year, the government decided to set up the IT & Telecom Division to provide a focal point for IT at federal level and Prof. Dr. Atta ur Rehman was appointed the Minister for Science & Technology.  Since then as we all know tremendous development activity has taken place in the IT Sector in Pakistan. 

3.         Tracing the history of human development through ages, first we had the time when all development was agriculture based.  The important inputs for development were land and labor.  The major emphasis then was on increased production of food and other agricultural crops to achieve prosperity.  The economy was totally agriculture based.  Next we had the age when the industrial development became important.  The inputs required were money (capital), manpower (both management and labor) and machinery & equipment.  The focus was on higher production, and productivity, reduced cost and better quality control.  And now we are passing through the information revolution which has been brought about by developments in information and communication technology.  The major input required for being part of this revolution is manpower, possessing requisite skills and expertise.  This has provided an opportunity to developing countries to move on the fast track for economic development and catch up with developed countries employing IT as the tool to achieve this objective. 

4.         The greatest emphasis in the National IT Policy approved by the Government is thus on human resource development including formal education at school, college and university level as well as professional training programmes in technical institutes.  Together with a sharp increase in number of IT graduates, measures are also being taken to improve the quality of output through establishment of national testing agency and accreditation council.  Other focus areas are infrastructure development, setting up software parks, measures for development of IT industry, universal access to Internet, use of IT in government and e-commerce and legislative and regulatory measures.  The IT policy was finalized after intensive brain storming, discussions and a general consensus between IT professionals and users, academia and industry from all over Pakistan.  The measures taken already include substantial financial allocation for IT in the budget, drastic reduction in the cost of bandwidth, universal Internet access, training programme for data entry, medical transcription personnel and government employees, incentives and tax holiday for software export and a plan of action for e=government.  Most activities concerning manpower, software development and IT services shall be in the private sector while the government will ensure enabling environment and act as facilitator. 

5.         There are an estimated 300 million users of Internet worldwide currently and the number of Web Pages are in access of 2 billion.  The figure has been multiplied several thousand times during the last few years and is expected to further rise exponentially in the future.  In Pakistan, the number of Web users presently are estimated to be no more than 1.5 million.  In order to provide universal access to Internet, the Internet facility has been extended to over 425 cities, towns and villages compared to only 29 about a year ago.  This covers a large segment of population of Pakistan.  As a result the number of Internet users has risen very sharply.  The Government has also drastically reduced the rates of bandwidth to as low as US $3000 per mega bit per month which is the lowest in this part of the world.  This is meant to provide the much-needed boost to IT and software industry and lead to increased foreign exchange earning through export of software and I.T. services.              

6.         With all the positive development during the past year at government level the major emphasis is still on the supply side.  The focus on human resource development, the increased production of trained manpower in appropriate skills, the establishment of software parks, reduction in the cost of connectivity, the universal internet access, the tariff reduction on imports of hardware/software, the 15 years tax holiday and fiscal incentives for I.T. industry, training institutions and software/IT services exporters are the measures aimed at facilitating the development of I.T. industry and providing it a framework for growth under a friendly environment.  The plan for e-commerce and cyber laws will further ensure an enabling framework to our I.T. industry to develop and grow rapidly. 

7.         The two issues that require more government attention as these have not received due emphasis are the demand side of the I.T. industry and the digital divide which is further aggravating the wide gulf between have and have nots in our society.  First few words on the demand side of I.T.  The government have set up incubators in Singapore, Sydney and San Francisco for the software companies.  The Singapore incubator, after its initial success is now lying unutilized.  The San Francisco facility is still not fully functional after six months in spite of government announcements regarding this.  The ITCN at Karachi was a big show and a number of MOUs were also signed on the occasion however, it is not known how much of these MOUs have resulted in real investments or actual business.  The government’s own mega projects like electronic government and Virtual University have yet to take off. 

8.         The recent recession in the U.S. in the IT & Telecom sector has also aggravated the situation.  Several companies have laid off their I.T. staff, the demand of I.T. professionals have been significantly reduced and orders have been cancelled.  This calls for a very aggressive marketing approach for an upcoming industry like Pakistan.  Simply improving the supply side and hoping that business will pick up shall not work.  There is need first of all to shed the image of a decadent society and project Pakistan as a vibrant modern technology conscious nation.  Then we have to establish credibility for stable long-term policies, an investor friendly regime, a disciplined educated workforce and an efficient infrastructure.  We also need to focus on skills such as project management, quality control and financial discipline which are very important for service delivery in the international market. 

9.         The issue of digital divide is even more serious.  No matter how we develop the socio-economic imbalance remains a major challenge.  According to a study conducted by International Data Corporation in Nov. 2000, the top ten (10) information economies represent 80% of the global ICT market while the bottom ten (10) represent collective share of less than 1%.  The gap between nations that can and those that cannot afford technology investment, known as the digital divide, is a reality.  The top ten countries spending on ICT per capita are Switzerland, Japan, U.S., Denmark, Singapore, Sweden, Norway, Netherlands, U.K. and Australia.  However, countries like China and Brazil make the ‘divide’ look like an opportunity.  China’s share of ICT spending has increased more than any other country during the 90’s.  The extent of the digital divide is also illustrated by the fact that while 70 per cent of EU labour force is engaged in technology intensive work, while more than half of world’s population have yet to place a telephone call. 

10.            Although computer usage and Internet access are growing spectacularly in many parts of the world yet today little more than 5% of world’s population are internet users and about 88% of these are in the industrialized countries.  The U.S. and Canada alone account for 57% whereas Africa and Middle East together account for only 1%.  It is estimated that over 75% of all internet information is produced in English.  Nearly all the world’s ICT is produced by approx. 15% of the population in the developed countries while half of world’s population has no access to electricity, telephone and other infrastructure. 

11.       The digital divide does not exist only between societies but also within societies.  The internet usage is much more common among younger rather than older people, men rather than women, urban rather than rural dwellers and people with higher level of income and education.  Even in USA, the typical Internet user is a 36 years old college educated high income urban Caucasian.  In developing countries less than 5% computers are attached to the internet and the digital divide is still wider.  Another important factor determining the extent of internet usage is the cost and availability of telecommunication facilities.  Only countries in East Asia appear to be keeping up with developed countries in the diffusion of technological progress. 

12.            According to ILO’s World Employment Report 2001, as the ICT grows in many parts of the world, so does the gap between the digital haves and have nots.  The ability of the ICT to reduce poverty and spur development will be determined by its impact on employment.  The ICT can have a far reaching impact on the quality of life of marginalized segments of population by providing more responsive and transparent governance as well as improving the reach and delivery of health, education and other social services.  In the industrialized world the impact of ICT on economies is already becoming apparent but in the rest of the world knowledge production, distribution and use requires more than mere access to new technologies.  In any new development paradigm countries could seriously risk losing out, in the short and medium term, to countries that are more adept in handling new ICTs. 

13.       There is a consensus that to realize the full potential of ICT countries must develop software capacity.  The software industry in India which grew at an annual rate of over 50% during the last decade has created thousands of jobs and brings in US $4 billion in foreign exchange.  But countries with relatively modest software skills find it difficult to catch up in terms of capital outlays, labor, skills and the importance of technology changes, organization and management in software production.  Literacy and education also play crucial role in the emerging digital era. Two third of world illiterates are girls and women.  While ICT offers hopes for accelerating development and poverty reduction, it also raises the specter of further widening the gender as well as the digital divide.           

14.       A number of measures have been announced in Pakistan to provide access to information technology to the deprived section of the population.  Since the total number of PCs and the number of Internet connections is rather low, these measures are aimed to let the poorer section of society take advantage of the Internet and I.T.  However, many of the measures announced still wait for implementation.  For example, Internet Kiosks have been  set up at airports but have not been established so far at gas/petrol stations, railway stations and post offices.  The scholarship schemes for students of I.T. started last year have not been extended nor the supply of low cost computers to the schools has so far been done.  The cost of using Internet at Cyber Cafes is still beyond reach of most people.  The provision of free connectivity for universities has only been done at few locations.  The cost of I.T. training at most institutes continues to remain prohibiting high. 

15.       Thus the facilities provided have mainly benefited the elite and the fruits of I.T. revolution are still not available to vast majority of people.  It is hoped that measures will be taken and such programmes will be implemented on urgent basis to correct this imbalance which is further widening the gap between our highly educated urban elite and the less fortunate sections of the society particularly those living in rural areas with no or little infrastructure facilities.  If left unchecked, this could increase the tensions among various sections of the society and alienate the masses from our programme of economic development and growth through promotion and usage of information technology.

 

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