Red-tape and bureaucratic hurdles may end up costing the country a World Bank project for the setting up of a research lab for mobile software development. Sources familiar with the matter have said that the World Bank might withdraw its grant if the Pakistan Software Export Board (PSEB) fails to kick-off the project in time.
In January, a consortium of educational institutes and PSEB was supposed to execute a two-year project titled ‘mLab South Asia’; an initiative of InfoDev which is a global, fund-based division of the World Bank.
Sources familiar with the matter said that the World Bank has already released $240,000 out of the total entitlement of $380,000 to PSEB – which is the apex government body mandated to promote the IT industry. “The blue print is ready; courses have been designed and events planned,” sources said; “all PSEB needed was to allocate funds to the implementation partners and supervise.” However, bureaucratic hurdles have halted progress and annoyed the project’s sponsors.
“The implementation of the project has been delayed due to a variety of reasons, including leadership changes at PSEB,” infoDev Senior Communications Officer Angela Bekkers said. Bekkers neither denied nor confirmed if withdrawal of the project was on the cards. However, according to sources familiar with the matter InfoDev has hinted unofficially that it might do so.
“An InfoDev official raised serious questions during a conference call with one of the implementation partners as to what was going on with the project,” related a source. “InfoDev also talked about awarding the mLab contract to runner-up countries – India or Sri Lanka – in case the PSEB failed to execute the project,” the source revealed.
While speaking in PSEB’s defence on Wednesday, Joint Secretary of the Ministry of IT Rashid Bashir Mazari ruled out the possibility of the cancellation of the grant. Mazari – who holds the temporary charge of PSEB’s acting MD – said he is in talks with World Bank officials and there is no such possibility.
Explaining the causes of the delay, Mazari said that the former MD – a private sector officer – did not seek the board’s approval in forming the aforementioned consortium before sending its proposal to InfoDev. Secondly, the received grant money was deposited in a conventional bank account against government policy. No government institute can open an account for such programs without prior approval from the State Bank of Pakistan and the finance division, he said. PSEB needs to comply with these policies, he explained.
PSEB has resolved the bank account issue and is now seeking its board of directors’ approval for the consortium. “I am doing something now what the former MD should have done initially,” Mazari said.
Responding to a question, Mazari confirmed that InfoDev has given PSEB a six-week deadline to obtain such approval – contradicting his own statement that there was no possibility of withdrawal of the grant.
However, industry sources say that PSEB has made no progress under Mazari’s leadership.
“Since some joint secretary has taken temporary charge, the industry’s progress has come to a standstill,” said Jehan Ara, president of the Pakistan Software Houses Association (P@SHA) – a representative body of the IT industry. “No decision-making is taking place regarding prior projects,” she added.
“P@SHA has a seat on PSEB’s board of directors,” the president said, “but we don’t know what’s happening there because we get no feedback. Even our chairman failed to get any response.”
PSEB is trying to obtain the board’s approval through a circular because it’s hard to reach the prime minister – who chairs of the board – said sources, on the condition of anonymity. But “even a circular should not have taken more than a week to get approval,” the sources added; complaining that priorities are different for bureaucrats and IT professionals. “These bureaucrats have no knowledge of the industry, which greatly affects us,” sources said.
InfoDev had planned to establish five mobile software development research labs around the world. While mLab South Asia, which was to be set up in Pakistan, has faced delays, the other four have already kicked off.
Mazari categorically denied that other mLabs were in the process of implementation and insisted that there were only two such projects: one in Nigeria and the other in Pakistan. By contrast, InfoDev’s website confirmed that there were five mLabs: mLab Southern Africa (South Africa), mLab East Africa (Kenya), mLab Europe and Central Asia (Armenia), mLab South Asia (Pakistan) and mLab East Asia (Vietnam).
Published in The Express Tribune, March 30th, 2012.