Information Technology (IT) has proved to be the one of the most potent catalysts to influence and transform the sphere of human activities in recent human history. IT has altered the pace of communications, presented exciting avenues for accessibility to information, and opened new vistas for business endeavours and social development. Recognising the significance of this silent yet forceful IT revolution, governments and nations have set forth to formulate policies and national guidelines to utilise IT to further their national and civic interests, and attain social, economic and technological gains.
Pakistan climbed aboard in the Internet bandwagon in the mid-1990s. However, the National IT policy was only approved by the Federal Cabinet in August 2000. It defined the role of the government as an enabler for an IT-based future economy, which would allow the private sector to drive the development in IT and telecommunications. In addition, the policy identified eleven high priority areas, namely: human resource development, training and education, IT in government and databases, IT market development and support, IT fiscal issues, telecommunications, convergence and deregulation, cyber laws, legislation and intellectual property rights (IPR) , IT and telecommunications manufacture and research and development (R&D), internet, software exports, e-commerce and creating incentives for IT investment. For these, eleven working groups headed by the relevant IT experts were setup to devise the IT policy and action plan.
In a nutshell, the main thrust of the national IT policy was to create a definite framework consisting of policy, legislative, financial, and operational guidelines, which could provide a stable umbrella for the development and economic growth of the local IT industry. There is little provision and emphasis on harnessing IT for social and civic development of the country, other than a cursory mention of e-governance and localisation projects.
Despite the oversights, the local IT arena has witnessed a steady growth in terms of the number of internet users during the past decade. According to the Internet Service Providers Association of Pakistan (ISPAK), the number of users logging on to the internet via a dial-up connection stood at 2.4 million, while there were thirty five thousand broadband users in 2005. These numbers do not yet take into account users who go online through a public access cyber café or a local area internet cable networks (popularly known as desi cable net – spanning a neighbourhood, which are a popular means of obtaining cheap ‘always on’, internet connectivity in urban areas.) While broadband is perceived as the acceptable mode of internet access in many parts of the world, its penetration in the Pakistan remains dismally low (less than 1 per cent) due to high bandwidth tariffs and inadequate infrastructure. This is despite the lofty goal of achieving 100,000 DSL connections at the end of the first year following the issuance of the Broadband Policy in 2004 (as outlined in the policy draft itself).
Policies and legislation are rarely formed in a vacuum. They are very often a reflection of the social and cultural norms prevalent in a society. Pakistani society being a patriarchal one, it is of little surprise that although the Section IV of the National IT policy does mention "facilitation and encouragement of hiring of women and in the IT sector to reduce employment and to utilise this largely untapped human resource" in as part of the human resource building aspect of the IT policy strategies; it fails to outline a clear cut course or an action plan required for the practical implementation of the above.
The importance of such steps become more pronounced when patriarchal values and cultural biases existing in a male-dominated society like Pakistan’s limit a woman's accessibility to IT and the internet. In middle/lower middle class families, boys -- perceived as the breadwinners -- are given preferential treatment when it comes to education, nutrition and health.
On the other hand, their female counterparts are expected at a very early age to manage both educational and domestic responsibilities, often resulting in poor scholastic performance and an early drop-out from schooling. Girls are often not encouraged or given the opportunity to pursue technological training and education, which limits their knowledge and accessibility to internet and/or a computer. Given the cultural barriers, the need for viable female literacy programs and practical incentives at the governmental level geared towards encouraging and facilitating the induction of women in the IT workforce and making them a part of the e-literate population become more imperative.
Similarly, with so much emphasis on boosting the local IT Industry and subsequently the economy of the country in the national IT policy, the large portion of human capital in Pakistan in the form of its rural population is overlooked.
Since Pakistan’s economy is based on agriculture, nearly 70 percent of the country’s population resides in the rural areas. There is a dire need to integrate the rural population into the “e-world”, and aid them to reap the benefits of IT. The practical implications of this would boil down to not just bringing connectivity to the rural areas, but a planned and viable investment in e-literacy initiatives and creation of viable localised content for the uneducated rural population. With literacy levels being grimly low due to social and cultural obstacles, women stand to be the more disadvantaged group in the rural setting as well.
According to the statistics released by the Federal Education Ministry of Pakistan, the overall literacy rate is 46 percent, while only 26 percent of girls are literate. However, the World Bank statistics as of September 2006 indicate that gender gaps remain in schooling in the rural areas, where only 22 percent of girls above age 10 have completed primary level or higher schooling as compared to 47 percent of boys.
In order to mitigate the digital divide within the country, between the rural and urban population and specifically between the genders, the IT policy needs to be revised, with the government taking into account the social and cultural factors hampering accessibility and adoption of ICT. Once identified, these can be addressed with the help of civil society and NGOs and through diligent planning and sustainable practices. Once the non-tangible hurdles are satisfactorily mitigated, the tangible components required for the adoption of ICT such as appropriate technological infrastructure, hardware and connectivity need to be taken into account.
Technology is an enabler – it is a means to the end, not the end itself. Similarly the purpose of governmental ICT policies is to regulate the changes brought about by IT, keeping in view the national interests of the country, and to facilitate citizens in making the most of the technological changes. Policies if not implemented after taking into account the social and cultural fabric of the society are worth little than the paper they are printed on