MSc Social Policy and Development Alum Maryam Naqvi considers the gaps between policy and implementation in Pakistan’s plans for mass digitalisation.
Pakistan is a country where the literacy rate has remained stagnant at almost 60% for the last seven years and the educational gender divide between men and women has never really diminished. Yet it is the same country where ideas to transition towards innovative digital solutions emerge and are even quite often included in policymaking. Though there is merit in the idea of digitalisation, it is not practical to implement, at so many levels. Introducing and providing equal access to affordable, accessible and reliable digital services to everyone in the country would solve all sorts of inequalities, but it has not been well conceptualised.
It has been persistently problematic that policies in Pakistan are often made more from a theoretical lens than from an implementational one. It is easy to state that Information and Communication Technology (ICT) policies will be gender inclusive, women’s digital illiteracy will be addressed and their access to digital services ensured, minorities, persons with disabilities (PWDs) and those who identify as transgender will have an equitable access to all the high-quality digital services. However, implementing this on the ground is stunted by multiple structural inequalities in Pakistan which are not only difficult to address, but are difficult to comprehend. For instance, a government policy claiming to ensure that all women and girls can access ICT and reduce gender inequality will be ineffectual if it does not recognise that giving women access to digital services will not result in them all benefitting equally from them.
There is widespread digital illiteracy found among women in Pakistan, and to address this the problem of general illiteracy among women needs to be resolved. To do this, girls’ education should be prioritised – not only enrolment in schools but retention and an effort to reduce dropouts. Another factor is the online harassment women face which puts them off using digital services. This should be considered and addressed by policy programmes that aim to increase digital inclusion for women. The newly envisaged Government’s ‘Digital Pakistan Policy 2021’ aims to foster the fast-paced delivery of the latest digital services to improve the socio-economic wellbeing. What it fails to consider is that many remote areas in Pakistan are still deprived of basic ICT infrastructure and there is often a complete absence of signal. Therefore, it is essential to first establish a proper connectivity infrastructure in those areas before the policy programme can provide everyone equal access to more advanced digital services.
The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI)’s government is keen to bring in electoral reforms in Pakistan and one of these is to replace the paper ballot system with that of the Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs). However, while EVMs have their own benefits of easing the vote counting process, providing transparency and promoting free and fair elections, on the other hand, they carry the risk of being easily hacked. Therefore, it is difficult to establish public trust in them as a replacement for paper ballot voting. This lack of public trust not only stems from a fear of elections being rigged, but primarily from the distrust in the new technology, which many voters find difficult to understand and are unable to use.
The government and the policymakers in Pakistan should consider that introducing digitalisation in the matters of governance, electoral process, health, education, commerce, agriculture and justice has the potential to significantly improve lives, however, it is a great challenge to make these digital changes fully accessible to the general public. Lack of confidence and difficulty to understand and utilise e-services provided by the government pose a critical problem for any democracy, especially where there is a high risk of conflict. Making a move towards digitalisation to resolve socio-political inequalities should be backed by an informed, broad public debate before these e-services can be rolled out. There must be full disclosure of information about these issues. Technology does offer much promise, but first there are many obstacles which need to be considered and overcome by the government.
The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the International Development LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science. Image credit: World Bank Photo Collection.