In Press

Business Recorder: e-Village: Empowering rural women and youth

June 28, 2012


Pakistan Social Association in collaboration with National Council of Social Welfare and Council of Science and Technology, Government of Pakistan, organised an NGO workshop on June 9, at Islamabad on economic empowerment of women and youth through the use of information and communication technology or ICT. This paper analyses core elements and benefits of a national strategy to build an ICT platform on the foundation block of E-Village to take Pakistan into the 21st century.

30 years before World Wide Web was invented, Canadian communication guru Marshall McLuhan predicted that “electronic interdependence” will connect mankind in a collective identity into a “global village”. About 2.5 billion people now live in Marshal McLuhan’s E-Global Village that has become not only a multicultural reality, but a big E-Market.

The world we know now is neither flat, nor round, but a digital cyber world, virtually ruled by Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Apple, RIM [Blackberry], Nokia, Facebook, eBay, and host of giant companies operating in telecom, mobile, internet, broadband, digital, IPTV, and converging markets. Top 15 publicly traded companies in these markets had a combined market capitalisation worth $1 trillion. Online advertising revenues have crossed $54 billion mark.

There is a global digital market worth 2 trillion dollars that we can easily access with the click of a mouse. But we are still begging to get greater physical market access to North American and European markets to increase our exports. By 2016, internet revenue will grow to $5 trillion to become the fifth largest economy in the world by itself, after US, China, India, and Japan. In the US, the internet contributes 5% of GDP [$750 billion]. In Pakistan internet to GDP contribution is zero.

Pakistan internet penetration or individuals using internet as a percentage of total population is 16%, slightly better than India’s 10%, but Indian internet economy is one of the fastest growing at 24%. Pakistan is far behind internet usage rate compared with Iran 47 percent, Turkey 46 percent, Jordan 38 percent, Egypt 27 percent, Philippines 33 percent, Malaysia 56 percent, Indonesia 22 percent, and Vietnam 34 percent. The reason is that our leadership does not have the vision, nor the political will to see internet as a tool for positive change for education and socio-economic development for 200 million people of Pakistan to step into the 21st century.

There is a high correlation between internet contribution to GDP and a strong internet supply ecosystem. The stronger the internet infrastructure, higher the e-intensity enabling internet access, therefore, the greater the contribution of internet to economic growth and jobs. The small and medium enterprises (SMEs) embracing the internet are growing faster around the world. Small businesses run by rural women entrepreneurs will rapidly grow once they get connected with the customers and suppliers on the web. This will generate economic activity and spawn a lot of service providers down the value chain. We have seen small farmers benefiting from online agricultural advice. Internet banking can also provide easy access to micro credit to women entrepreneurs looking for start-up and working capital.

Internet is a vital global resource and a powerful social and business tool but we missed the bus of digital revolution of 1990s because we were too busy fighting proxy wars, and taking a quantum leap in poor governance and corruption. Due to our lack of national priorities to develop and extend the critical fibre broadband infrastructure to our villages we failed to provide information and communication technology to train our rural women and youth, in job and entrepreneurial skills. Had we utilised this great digital opportunity for Pakistan, we could have improved our market competitiveness and growth, generating millions of jobs. A Digital Pakistan would have become an emerging economy, ranked at par with Turkey, Malaysia, Singapore, China, Mongolia, and South Korea, in literacy, per capita income, and standard of living.

The economic and social divide is actually a digital divide, as those separated by economic and knowledge barriers do not have access to information and communication technologies, and therefore, risk being left behind and marginalized. In the democratic knowledge economies, ‘digital discrimination’ is also a social inequality and a serious violation of human right to access information, knowledge, education, and to build capacity for communication with other communities world-wide. Role of media as a major stakeholder in civil society, and as a watchdog, is important to preserve human rights such as freedom of expression and access, not only to information, but also access to information, communication technology.

Like safe drinking water and clean air, knowledge, education, information and communication technology or ICT are also a necessary resource for the well-being of society and not a luxury any more. If we can bridge the digital divide, we will also effectively narrow down the economic gap between the rich and poor. E-education and e-commerce are powerful tools for rapid progress of society and economic empowerment of youth and rural women, and the disabled, transgender and other vulnerable groups, can earn a decent livelihood by learning ICT skills. Acquiring right skills for the right job will also improve survival chances for these marginalized social segments to become more employable, or self-employed.

The backbone of any digital economy is access to a critical broadband infrastructure and a strong information and communication technology (ICT) supply ecosystem of international quality standards. It is also important to ensure efficient availability of low-cost electrical supply, especially to far-flung and remote areas of Balochistan. ICT equipment, computers accessories and software should be fully exempted from taxes so that they are within affordable reach of rural women and youth. Pakistan should also sign and implement the 2001 Budapest Convention on Cybercrime, enforce cyber laws and beef up intellectual property laws to global standards, in order to give confidence to global investors and internet giants like PayPal, operating in 190 countries but not in Pakistan, to bring its financial transaction system to Pakistan.

The United Nations Millennium Development Goal [MGD] No 3, Declaration of 2000, is about promoting gender equality and empowering women, setting a target for 2015 to achieve that MGD Goal. Furthermore, In the UN sponsored World Summit on Information Society [WSIS] in Tunis, in November 2005, 19000 participants from 174 countries, including Pakistan, committed to implementing by 2015, ICT applications in eight priority sectors namely, e-government, e-business, e-science, e-health, e-employment, e-environment, e-agriculture, and e-learning [multimedia technologies for marginalized groups such as rural women and youth not having access to formal education or where school dropout rates are high].

Fortunately, on government policy level, we have seen for the first time a demonstration of seriousness to fulfil our commitment to achieve the WSIS ICT standards that could benefit Pakistan and raise our level of economic development. Professor Dr Mudassir Asrar, Chairperson, Pakistan Council of Science and Technology, Government of Pakistan, announced the formation of National Commission on ICT to examine the use of information and communication technology or ICT in rural development. Pakistan Council of Science and Technology will shortly launch a 4-year ‘Education for All’ programme, for ages from 9 to 90 years. The course, with matriculation equivalency, will be designed to cover essential tools of ICT.

Ammar Jaffri of Pakistan Social Association (PSA) announced the first Pakistani Model e-Village at Mera Begwal, near Rawalpindi. Fiber optics, broadband internet and 10 computers were provided to the Model e-Village and 50 boys and girls were successfully trained in ICT skills. The best part of the e-Village concept is that it gives ownership of all ICT resources to villagers themselves. In that sense, each e-Village will be a ‘Smart Village’ in terms of ICT, and connected to convenient community access points. The e-Village resource center will be fully equipped with video-audio and e-books library on learning basic mathematics, English, effective communication, financial literacy, and other vital job skills. Each e-Village Resource Center will be e-linked to academic institutions and research centers and regularly updated. Local teachers will be trained as instructors for the e-Village Resource Centers. ICT experts in Pakistan and abroad can volunteer to help design a user-friendly interface and develop self-tutorial online course contents. Free of cost CDs can also be distributed to students.

Pakistani diaspora and the private sector must come forward to sponsor 50,000 E-Villages to help transform Pakistan digitally. E-Village is not just about putting computers in a village but it is more about empowering women and youth with earning power potential made possible with computer literacy and acquiring job skills or business management and marketing skills through information and communication technology or ICT.

Ammar Jaffri also stressed the need for all NGOs to learn ICT skills, to support the e-Village project and also to compete for the upcoming projects such as e-health, e-education and e-environment that are on top of social development agenda and for which donor funds are available. For capacity development of NGOs in information and communication technology, PSA will soon launch several ICT workshops in collaboration with NCSW and Pakistan Council of Science and Technology.

Dr Fayyaz Bhatti, Director National Council of Social Welfare [NCSW], underlined the need for an accurate updated database as a basic requirement for effective planning for capacity development. He disclosed that baseline survey of transgender population was underway and requested NGOs co-operation in data collection. He said registration of NGOs should be the task of NCSW because it NCSW was basically responsible for NGO monitoring, evaluation and co-ordination, but surprisingly registration task is being handled by Ministry of Industries, who otherwise have no business with NGOs.

Progressing from a stitch of the handicrafts to a click of the computer mouse can connect small rural business organisations run by women to a global network by creating a virtual value chain via the internet market. In most cases, the missing link between success and failure of business is computer technology. A low-cost investment in information technology can transform small operations and bring exponentially high returns to self-employed women entrepreneurs. What is needed is capacity development of women through training workshops by taking ICT to the doorstep of the rural households. There is also need to adapt computer learning programmes and software to Urdu and major regional languages such as Sindhi, Balochi, Brahwi, Pashto, Seraiki, Punjabi and Hindko.

Click of the computer mouse can also replace the click of the gun to counter insurgency by making youth more employable through job skills. Instead of becoming a tool in the hands of militants, youth can become a more powerful tool for peace. Youth is our greatest resource, provided their energies are channelized into productive activities. Without information technology, our youth has no future. A youth with no future is a nation with no security. If we can manage to fill the information technology gap, not only will we provide our 100 million youth with a secure and stable and secure future, but also succeed in achieving a high GDP growth.

E-governance or e-government, will also improve efficiency of administration and law enforcement by ensuring a clean and efficient government through transparency and accountability based on independent performance audit of government functionaries. At the same time it will restore confidence of civil society in the government by closing the communication and co-ordination gap among several bureaucratic layers and myriad departments. According to Abdul Latif Leghari, Senior Joint Secretary, Ministry of Capital Administration, improving governance means giving equal protection of law to the vulnerable groups. In cases of violence against women, children and other vulnerable groups, e-Village Centres will offer free Helpline legal assistance. Psychiatric counselling can be provided to save lives of persons suffering from depression or suicidal tendencies.

The government can correct also flaws in public policy and improve efficiency of public sector by encouraging free and fair market competition through public-private partnerships [PPPs]. Such public-private sector participation is necessary to mobilise technical and financial resources and attract foreign direct investment in ICT sector for speeding up the development of national information and communication technology platform for meeting UN WSIS ICT standards by 2015.

Basic e-health prevention measures can save the Government of Pakistan Rs 110 billion that is spent on treatment of infectious diseases such as diarrhoea, 80 percent of which are water-borne and preventable, with basic health education and safe drinking water. Telemedicine will link patients, doctors and diagnostic labs without geographical constraints in any part of the world. Patients can buy prescribed medicines from qualified online pharmacists. GIS system can locate and monitor epidemics or outbreaks, such as cholera, gastro-enteritis, or dengue fever, on the basis of an updated National Database Disease Profile. Similarly, in times of natural disasters such as floods and earthquakes, e-Village can become the operating hub for rescue, rehabilitation and reconstruction efforts. Similarly, creating an e-environment sector can help reduce Pakistan’s carbon footprint and promote green and clean energy from recyclable waste, thus saving Pakistan billions of dollars in fossil fuel imports.

(The writer is a corporate business strategist and public-partnership specialist with expertise in social development sectors)

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