Earlier this month, Omnitek Engineering Corporation, a firm based in the US, announced that it had signed an agreement with Karachi-based Xperts Technologies LLC to use diesel-to-natural gas conversion technology for all trucks and buses in Pakistan. This signalled a clean and economical way to engender technology adoption in a relatively stagnant innovation market. The company may set a unique precedent in Pakistan, where opportunities of innovation are rare. The IT revolution was spurred by the world’s focus on IT-enabled growth and globalisation in the mid-to-late 90s. Although Pakistan attempted to co-opt some of this momentum, we lost a majority of the share. On the other hand, the Indian service sector accounted for more than half of India’s GDP in 1998-1999, marking a shift towards a developed economy — a direct result of Nehru’s long-term investments in technical education. The Pakistani government, in collusion with feudal leaders, avoided such change in fear of upending the landed mafia.
With the rise of new technology adoption in the Pakistani textile industry and the retrieval of ethanol as a product of the sugar industry, innovation is slowly pushing its way through a clogged and arcane technology pipeline. This is not enough. The government must push innovation to the masses, highlighting service sector jobs outside the industrial landscape.
In Pakistan, culture is informed by religious extremism and affects international perceptions. The Facebook and Wikipedia bans earlier this year portray us as technologically averse and our government as strikingly authoritarian. India markets itself as the exact opposite. It is the land of Gandhi, the abode of nonviolence, the birthplace of innovation. With India next door, no one is willing to tiptoe around sensitive barriers in Pakistan at the expense of their business.
AnnaLee Saxenian, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, believes that the movement of Indians to America is not an example of “brain drain” but of “brain circulation”. She found that foreign-born entrepreneurs were becoming “agents of globalisation” by investing in their native countries from abroad. In Pakistan, we have separated the local from the foreign-based. We internalise revulsion towards those who have built their base abroad — producing a dangerous “brain separation” that weakens and destroys our immigrant networks which are bolstered by national stability, but the embedded fear of volatility in Pakistan limits the potential for information exchange. Instability also prevents politicians from investing in domestic infrastructure. In the mid-1990s, Nawaz Sharif established a Pakistan 2010 programme to fuse a range of IT businesses with public policy. The programme was never implemented due to a military takeover.
The East India Company exercised power through the British army during the colonial era. Control is thus historically bound to the army, particularly in Pakistan’s state-military complex. We are weakened by this colonial curse while India has emerged as the healed warrior.
Although the US has ties with both India and Pakistan, India is perceived as America’s ideological and moral partner. When India captured a large share of foreign direct investment, IT development became a zero-sum game. The US had developed a strong relationship with the Indian IT sector, representing 63 per cent of its software exports.
The Pakistani government overlooked the socio-economic packaging of information technology and downplayed the pervasiveness of culture. But what if innovation is not a zero-sum game? What if it is fragile and fleeting and though once lost, can be captured again? If innovation is tied to a nation’s economic pulse, we must use technological development as our revolutionary centre point and continue to press for change.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 22nd, 2010.