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July 25, 2020

The case for digital growth

Opinion

July 25, 2020

If there is one lesson we have learned from this pandemic, digital growth is essential to helping economies survive in crises.

This present crisis affords Pakistan an opportunity to shape a digital future, by providing internet access to a maximum number of its citizens via modern technologies and a more stable broadband infrastructure, which in turn would allow work from anywhere and allow us to adapt to digital payments, Fintech and Ecommerce – something which in the pre-Covid era could not take off because of the cultural and social lag.

A crisis of this magnitude 20 years ago would have brought the world to a standstill but in 2020 we have the tools and technology to adapt. We must ensure that digitalization is further sped up with new technologies so that in the future, the world economy does not have to go through a sustained period of loss. Businesses big and small have had to adapt to these new technologies. Work from home or anywhere has only been possible through high-speed internet connectivity. This trend is only going to rise since some major tech companies like Twitter Inc have already given their employees a permanent work from home option. The barriers of geography and location have come down.

Similarly, schools and universities have had to adopt new technologies in their delivery of online classes, coaching, and assessments. EdTech adoption has led to a significant boom for Zoom, Google Classrooms, Microsoft Teams, etc for everything from work meetings to education. Doctors are now providing consultations online. Tele-medicine is taking off with tele-clinics being held instead of in-person consultations.

This is the new normal. If it were not for modern digital technologies, humanity would be constrained to silos – our own houses and living spaces – illustrative of a post-Covid-19 reality. Add to this the fear that this Covid-19 is the first of many pandemics in what was till early 2020 a hyper-connected world, and there may never entirely be a complete return to how things were. For Pakistan, this means urgent and immediate investment in building up a reliable broadband infrastructure as well as mobile data services.

Given the very real prospect of the changes wrought by the pandemic being irreversible, digitalization, irrevocable and necessary, opens up a new vista for humanity at large. The massive challenges that this pandemic has posed were met in some measure because we had begun to move online before it struck – from shopping to food delivery. The post-Covid age, therefore, is the age of e-commerce.

Life as we know it has moved online. As the CEO of a tech company, even I find it hard to shift my work and life entirely online during the lockdown. This difficult transition makes me wonder how underprepared others are – not just in terms of infrastructure but also the paradigmatic change that is upon us.

Life online inevitably means digital transactions. The telecom industry had already moved into the digital financial services before the pandemic. While these were previously seen as an opportunity for a massively unbanked population in Pakistan, it has now become a matter of necessity for everyone in Pakistan. Thankfully, we already had the technology to deal with such a scenario (albeit inadvertently), but yet, Pakistan is a country with among the lowest digital wallet penetration in the world and regionally too.

Even the banked population is now increasingly reliant on online transactions. This augmentation of cashless transactions is probably going to be irreversible and marks a permanent move toward conveniences that digital brings to the quality of life for an ordinary citizen. Moving forward, Pakistan’s reliance on cash may well be a thing of the past. The use of mobile wallets will become the new normal even after Covid-19 is done and dusted. The increased use of mobile money may well be boosted by health concerns that consumers may have with banknotes.

The growth of e-governance is also inevitable. Increasingly, the essential government services will be delivered online. We have seen this with the government’s Ehsaas Program. It is essentially the comprehensive digital record and data of Pakistani citizens that play a crucial role in determining who is eligible for financial support or not. About 40 percent of the population is struggling to access clean drinking water, and thus, many in the government think that having high-speed internet is a luxury or a rich man’s toy. On the contrary, I argue that when we change that mindset, our basic civic needs will be met more effectively if we aggressively adopt the use of digital tools at a community level. UN SDGs identify innovation and connectivity as a critical element of upward mobility. Courts in the country have also begun adapting to online technologies for cases and hearings.

The private sector must step in and work in collaboration with the government. Corporates can act fast, apply key analytics because their metadata is larger than NADRA’s, and effectively make services customer-centric. Conversely, the public sector needs the governments to monitor public good, institutionalize digital practices, and, more importantly, signal to the public that it’s time to go paperless, not just in fintech but in AdTech, e-government projects and elsewhere.

We must take responsibility for that opportunity cost of inaction, glacial speed approvals, and an unintelligent tax regime that does not fully grasp the difference between the exponential power of digital. With the National Incubation Centers around the country, the objective is to quickly ask leaders to step forward, get startups the support they need, and perhaps even look at the lockdown as a silver lining. Now more startups can help expand more and more customers to adopt digital services as a lifestyle.

The policy and regulatory environment does not always recognize that there is a price to be paid for not urgently making Pakistan digital. Governments around the world will have to recognize access to the internet and digital technologies as a fundamental human right, especially when it has direct nexus to right to life, association, expression, access to information and education. Pakistan cannot be an exception to this.

Superimposed on disparities in digital access are the prevalent class divides and other base discriminations that must end if we want every child in Pakistan digitally literate. We cannot celebrate any success for #DigitalPakistan until Pakistan’s deplorable ICT readiness ranking improves globally and 100 million and more Pakistanis are using mobile phones that are internet enabled.

The writer is CEO of Jazz, a leading digital service provider. Twitter: @aamir_ibrahim01