This post is part of my 30 blogs in 30 days series. More details here.
Pakistan produces 20,000 engineers and IT graduates every year. It has the 10 largest connected audience in the world, with 76 Million people with a Mobile or Fixed broadband internet subscribers. Yet somehow digital technology is missing from both public and private sector entirely. This is the country’s technological debt. And the bill has come due.
What is Technology Debt?
The term Technical Debt comes from software engineering: “Technical debt is a concept in programming that reflects the extra development work that arises when code that is easy to implement in the short run is used instead of applying the best overall solution.”
Similar to the technical debt, technological debt can be said to affect institution that put off short term costs of integrating technology solutions. Like financial debt, it accrues a compounding interest. Over time, it ‘bankrupts’ institutions. In this case, an institution can be a small business, a Large Conglomerate, a governmental agency or a Nation State itself.
Pakistan is one such nation state. Decades of policy failure and private sector apathy have left the hope of technological advancement in the dust. Finding competent data scientists or electrical engineers is a tall order. In Pakistan, you would be hard pressed to find craftsman, such as machinists, HVAC technicians, and even electricians, that can meet demands of modern, globalized business.
How did it get this way?
No government has prioritized technological advancement at any level. The curriculum of elementary and secondary level STEM subjects might as well be designed in the 1950s. University curricula are devised to not produce leaders or innovators. An engineering graduate is supposed to work for a government organization maintaining foreign made equipment till retirement. This extends to the business universities as well, which are supposed to churn out cheap knowledge workers for multi-national corporations.
Despite all this, if you manage to secure funding for, you will face a bureaucratic apparatus that on the best days move at snail’s pace and have counter-productive policy goals. The goals also change with each successive government. The PTA spends 90% of it’s time being a mediocre moral police to satiate the Mullah Class. The SEC and FBR will make sure you never get an official NTN. The State Bank seems to be run exclusively by people who started working there in 1960s. Among other policies and regulation stuck in the 90s.
Labour is cheap in Pakistan. This is a double-edged sword. Since you can achieve any task by throwing more people at it, there is very little incentive to automate and digitize. Businesses that did not have the luxury went digital and automated just to save labor cost. This allowed to scale exponentially as the tech advanced over the past decade.
On the other hand, it is not possible to increase productivity at the same scale with manual labor. Whether manufacturing, securities trading, FMCG, or even your local kiryana shop. All have been left behind on the global state. Some of this can also be blamed on policy failures; the government had provided no incentive to digitizing businesses in terms of raising capital.
The most severe consequence is National Security. The US military considers Cyber as the 4th domain of war besides Land, Sea, and Air. Pakistan’s traditional enemy, India has not only invested in technology infrastructure, but is quite active in the social media DisInfo campaigns. From twitter to Facebook to even Reddit, Indian propaganda is always pushed to the top.
Another consequence is competitiveness of Pakistani businesses. Due to COVID19 pandemic, the supply-chains of the world shifting away from China. However, despite having the cheap labor, Pakistan does not have efficient enough businesses to be price competitive with most Chinese counterparts.
The first step would be to accept the problem. There is a lot of handwaving by business leaders and policy makers whenever these issues are brought up. Second would be to train the workforce in at least Excel or Google Sheets. These spreadsheet apps are probably the world’s most used practical programing language. Going forward, all stake-holders need to realize how important it is to catch-up to the rest of the world in terms of technology.