ISLAMABAD: In February 2016, Pakistan’s parliament did what it had never done before. It became one of the world’s first parliaments to formally adopt United Nation’s (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as the nation’s development agenda.
Seventeen SDGs had recently been formulated by the UN, to be achieved within one generation (till 2030). Similar goals were agreed to by all the UN member states in 2000 too. They were then called Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). But our performance in achieving MDGs is not anything to write home about.
To facilitate achievement of SDGs the cross-cutting Information Communication Technology (ICT) plays an extremely vital catalytic role.
How ICT helps SDGs
To fight poverty and hunger, ICT helps even the smallest of the farmers, by making it easy to inform the farmers about weather, markets, pests, fertilisers, insecticides in a much more effective manner, because the information can be area-specific, targeted at farmers of a particular area, using the ‘location-based service’ feature.
Feedback of farmers on various issues can be remotely solicited over mobile devices, with the aim of improving services. ICT also provides mobile banking (like Easy Paisa) and micro-credits to benefit millions who were previously excluded. Ownership and control over property is made easier and assured through computerised land records.
Performance of over-stretched agricultural extension workers can be vastly improved with digital information services.
To create awareness about such services another ICT service – FM radio – can be employed.
ICT enables health workers to collect information for status snapshots, analysing trends and making projections about disease outbreaks – all within tight time frames to reduce mortality. Some ICT applications are already being used by provincial organisations, like PITB uses smartphones to help in controlling dengue.
ICT connects teachers and students to audio-video learning resources and information relevant to their curriculum.
For higher levels, online courses (like Coursera and MOOCs), from the most renowned universities of the world, are just a few clicks away. This is particularly useful for those women who hesitate to venture out.
ICT reduces gender inequality by increasing women’s access to health, nutrition, education, training, employment and even political participation – particularly for those who face social isolation. In times of crisis ICT also provides access, consolation and help.
There are two ways ICT helps green energy (a) by using low-power renewable energy solutions (b) by sustainably managing cities through applications like smart buildings, intelligent transport systems, new efficiencies in energy consumption and waste management, not just for urban inhabitants, but also for the sustainability of the planet. For economic growth and decent work, ICT skills are so important that without digital literacy one cannot even find job listings and make applications. At the same time, new job opportunities are coming up in social media management, gaming, mobile apps, offshore services, crowdsourcing and micro work (data entry, coding, tagging, etc).
Pakistan is ranked among the top three countries where a large number of online freelancers do this kind of work. The numbers could be made to rise exponentially by removing some ICT related barriers.
ICT is increasingly acting as a powerful aid in electoral processes all over the world. In Pakistan voters already use NADRA SMS services, like checking their serial numbers in voters’ lists and locating their polling stations.
It should not stop there. Increasing transparency and empowering citizens through crowdsourcing, record-keeping and tracking government data and local demographics, all are possible today with ICT.
What needs to be done?
It is not being claimed here that ICT could implement SDGs on its own. But it is obvious that ICT’s contribution in achieving the SDGs can be colossal. Therefore, considering that our parliament took ownership of these goals, we should start according ICT a much higher level of attention so that all ministries and provinces follow.
To productively use ICT for achievement of SDGs, the barriers to ICT adoption will have to be removed. The enormous amount of required content in several languages cannot be created by IT ministries. Neither would the private sector do it on its own.
The government has to start removing these barriers. In the very short term, let tax-free ICT devices flood our markets and unleash the creative energies of our youth.
The writer is former CEO of the Universal Services Fund and is providing ICT consultancy services in several countries of Africa and Asia
Published in The Express Tribune, December 12th, 2016.