Massive digital divide, Innovation in govt Policy

By: Dr. Muhammad Shahid

The current Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the deep fault lines in our economy along with exposing the vulnerabilities of our health and education system. We have just finished the online semester and it was a mixed experience of learning many new things, tools and technology along with some unpleasant experiences and challenges of dealing with poor and deprived students. We observed a stark and massive digital divide across the population and geography. Pakistan has been ranked 76th out of 100 countries on the inclusive internet index 2020 released by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU). In South Asia, Pakistan ranked the lowest, Bangladesh at 70th, Sri Lanka at 56 and India ranked 46th.
The massive digital divide and the inability of the people to have access to internet facility are limiting educational opportunities. The phenomenon is more visible for people with lower income groups and particularly for those who live in far flung areas. The unavailability of the internet facility in remote parts of the province especially in Newly Merged Districts and Chitral is widening the learning gap between students in the urban centers and rural areas.
The elites in our society who are financial resources and are rich digitally have an added advantage in crisis and uncertain times. These digitally rich people have access to electronic gadgets including laptops and smart phones, have high speed internet and are at advantageous position to learn. Digital advantage allows the haves to thrive in pandemics by reshaping the education sector and distance learning. On the other extreme, there are the poor and deprived who have no access to electronic gadgets including laptops, smart phones and have no access to high speed internet in rural and far flung areas. The lack of access to internet facility by the poor is widening the gap between the digitally rich and the digitally poor.
The worst rates of connectivity in district Chitral and newly merged district and students with internet problems even from the settled district like Buner are disturbing and alarming in this era of digitalization. The stark digital divides identify two things in our society. First, the grinding poverty particularly rural poverty. Second is the inadequate infrastructure. The crippled public education in the areas of concentrated poverty is another outcome of this institutionalized neglect. Second wave of the pandemic and the corona virus has resurged. Government has closed schools, colleges and universities to prevent the spread of virus and avoid the terrible and devastating effects. We are back to online classes and the issue of digital divide will resurge like the resurgence of virus. Financial resources and political will are required to bridge the gap between the digital rich and digital poor.
Economist Intelligence Unit latest inclusive internet index indicate that Pakistan ranks 24th out of 26 Asian countries in 2020. The index used four dimensions considered for the ranking—availability, affordability, relevance and readiness. Unfortunately Pakistan showed poor and dismal performance in all four areas. Among these four indicators, the availability category performed the worst. Pakistan ranked 86th out of 100. Pakistan performed relatively better on affordability and ranked 57th. In terms of readiness and relevance, Pakistan ranked 64th and 71st respectively.
The cost of keeping people deprived from the benefits of internet is very high. The role of public policy in bridging the digital gap to minimize this cost is instrumental. Some kind of innovation in government policy is needed to reduce the digital and learning gap. First, the cost and affordability of ICT is a big and hardest issue to address without government intervention. Majority of the population in Pakistan have not sufficient resources to afford high speed internet, gadgets and smart phones. There the provision of financial resources by the state is necessary to facilitate the digitally deprived and marginalized segments of the society. Second, e-governance should play the leading role. Adopting a well-coordinated and citizen-oriented approach will allow the government to increase access as well as equal opportunities in the use of ICTs. Huge public investment in e-services is needed. Third, people from the lower socio-economic strata and those people living in less developed regions are more prone to the existing digital divide that has a negative impact on their learning, income and standard of living. Therefore, making e-governance effective and beneficial, coordinated efforts from all the stake holders including central governments, local public authorities, the private sector, academia, civil society, and international organizations are needed. Finally, this is the responsibility of the state to play a leading role in bridging the digital divide by facilitating the development of a proper and non-discriminative environment. Diminishing the digital divide between the young and elderly, women and men, the illiterate and the educated, or even between less developed regions and countries should become a priority of the government to ensure a knowledge society in the future.

The author has a PhD Degree in Economics from PIDE and has 15 years’ experience as a journalist and economic editor. He also teaches Public Policy, Governance, Poverty, Development, Gender and Political Economy.