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Monday June 24, 2024

Pakistan grapples with digital divide, says UNDP report

By Mehtab Haider
April 24, 2024
In this image, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) board can be seen outside the office. —  United Nations Development Programme Website/File
In this image, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) board can be seen outside the office. —  United Nations Development Programme Website/File

ISLAMABAD: While ranking 45th out of 52 countries in the World Internet Development Index, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has said that Pakistan’s journey towards digital transformation is articulated against a backdrop of formidable challenges, including economic volatility, governance inefficacies, and pronounced socio-economic disparities.

The UNDP report discloses that women are underserved by digital development. A striking 83.5 percent of women report that their spouse or parents dictate their phone ownership.The UNDP launched its Nation Human Development Report 2024 on Digital Transformation in Pakistan on Tuesday and stated that Pakistan ranks low on the Human Development Index (HDI), at 164th out of 193 countries, according to the global Human Development Report (HDR) 2023-2024.

The HDI computed in the NHDR 2023/24, based on the Pakistan Social and Living Standards Measurement Survey (PSLSMS) 2019-2020, presents a richer and deeper analysis of Pakistan’s status on human development over the last decade and a half. It looks at dimensions of the HDI—education, health, and standard of living at the provincial and district levels to identify which of the three dimensions are contributing to low HDI across provinces, districts, and regions.

Among Pakistan’s provinces and federally administered regions, Pakistan-administered Kashmir has the highest HDI of 0.781, which represents improvement since 2017. Punjab comes next with an HDI of 0.762, followed by Khyber Pakhtunkhwa with 0.650, and Sindh with 0.645. Gilgit-Baltistan’s HDI value stands at 0.631.

Pakistan-administered high-medium Kashmir and Punjab fall in the high-medium human development category. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Sindh, and Gilgit-Baltistan are placed in the medium human development category.

Balochistan sits in the low human development category with an HDI score of 0.444. For all of Pakistan’s four provinces and two special regions, these HDI scores must be seen in relation to the country’s national HDI of 0.699. While all provinces and regions have marginally improved their HDI standing compared to HDI values in 2017, significant disparities persist between them, reflecting inequality in human development across Pakistan.

Balochistan’s human development ranking is well below the national level, whereas Pakistan-administered Kashmir and Punjab have surpassed the national HDI. Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and Gilgit-Baltistan also remain below the national average.

Human development varies between provinces and regions, and within provinces themselves. Punjab is the most developed province, with the fewest disparities within the province in terms of HDI. Most of the districts in Punjab fall into high, high-medium, and medium categories, with the only exception of Rajanpur, where low-medium human development persists. On the other hand, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Sindh, and Balochistan provinces demonstrate wider disparities in terms of district HDI. Districts within these provinces range from high to medium, to very low human development levels. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh, districts vary from high-medium to very low categories, with the exception of Abbottabad, which has progressed to high human development, on par with eight other districts from Punjab (Rawalpindi, Gujrat, Sialkot, Lahore, Chakwal, Gujranwala, Narowal, and Attock) and Islamabad Capital Territory (ICT). One district each from Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces—Tharparkar and Kohistan, respectively—sits in the very low development category.

Balochistan, the least developed of all the provinces, has most of its districts concentrated in low-medium, low, and very low development categories. The exceptions are Quetta and Gwadar districts, that rank medium on the HDI. The second highest-ranked district of Balochistan is Gwadar, with an HDI of 0.606, jumping 23 places from its previous ranking in 2017. This increase in Gwadar’s HDI may have linkages with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) infrastructure, comprising Gwadar Port, Free Zone, and Technical and Vocational Institute, which provide skills and employment opportunities to the local youth, as well as a host of social services, including water supply and treatment, and health facilities.

Pakistan also ranks low on all global digital indices. For example, it ranks 45th out of 52 countries in the World Internet Development Index (2023). Pakistan performs poorly compared to most countries, but better than countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

While Pakistan has demonstrated a strong policy commitment to the roadmap for achieving equitable digital transformation, it is still early in its digital transformation. Without better governance and regulation, technology will exacerbate current deprivations, vulnerabilities, and inequalities.

The National Human Development Report (NHDR) 2023-2024, ‘Doing Digital for Development: Access, Adopt, Anticipate, Accelerate’, presents a comprehensive exploration of digital transformation as a critical lever for uplifting the socio-economic fabric of Pakistan.

Economically, Pakistan grapples with modest growth prospects, exacerbated by global energy and commodity price inflation, constrained access to credit, and political transitions. The International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) standby arrangement of $3 billion in July 2023 provided the country with a lifeline, preventing a balance of payments crisis. Yet, the economic outlook remains cautious, with GDP growth for FY2023-24 projected at 2.5 percent based on IMF estimates and 1.8 percent based on World Bank estimates, and inflation at a staggering 29.2 percent for FY2022-235, indicating an uphill task against economic instability. Pakistan’s debt burden continues to be a significant concern, with the total debt stock ballooning by 26 percent to $260 billion, further straining fiscal sustainability.

The governance landscape in Pakistan is complex, marred by perceptions of corruption and challenges in the rule of law, which hinder the country’s governance efficacy. Indices such as the Corruption Perception Index 2022 and the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index 2023 highlight these challenges, underscoring the imperative for reforms aimed at enhancing transparency, accountability, and equitable justice. Effective governance is crucial not only for socioeconomic development but also for nurturing an environment conducive to investment, innovation, and equitable growth. Socioeconomically, the Human Development Index (HDI) 2023-2024 ranks Pakistan 164th out of 193 countries, placing it in the low human development bracket. Gender disparities are particularly stark, with the Gender Inequality Index 2022 positioning Pakistan at 135th out of 166 countries. Women’s labour force participation rate stands at a mere 24.5 percent, compared to 80.7 percent for men, reflecting deep-rooted gender biases that limit women’s economic and educational opportunities. The digital divide further exacerbates these challenges, with limited access to the internet and digital services hindering inclusive growth.

There are significant variations in the levels of digital development across provinces and districts in Pakistan. Punjab showcases a diverse range of digital development levels, from high to moderate, low, and very low, reflecting balanced and widespread levels of digital development. Out of the 36 districts of Punjab, two districts — Lahore and Rawalpindi — are in the high category, followed by nine districts at moderate levels, 21 districts at low levels, and four districts—Bhakkar, Dera Ghazi Khan, Muzaffargarh, and Rajanpur—at very low levels of digital development. In Sindh, only one district, Karachi, stands out as highly digitally developed, followed by Hyderabad, which is classified at a moderate level. Fourteen districts are at low levels of digital development, while eight districts are classified as very low.

In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, two districts—Abbottabad and Peshawar—are ranked at high levels of digital development, followed by five districts—Haripur, Bannu, Charsadda, Mansehra, and Mardan—at moderate levels. The success of these districts is largely due to engineering, education, infrastructure, and the presence of digital markets located in them.