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The government has placed top most priority to human resource development.

By Syed Haider Abbas Zaidi
Aug 07 - 13, 2000

Pakistan has a relatively long experience in the use of computers — the first "second generation" computer was installed in 1964 at Karachi and soon some of the large banks and industrial concerns started using computers, mainly for accounting and payroll applications. The utility companies (e.g. gas, electricity) also started using the bureau facilities of these installations for their customer billing. Unfortunately, the financial crisis that the country faced immediately after 1971 did not permit the sustenance of this early lead and lack of maintenance forced the closure of most of these installations.

Potential

Although the possibility of export of data entry services and software from Pakistan has been discussed for over a decade, only a few companies were successful in getting some work .

Although not properly exploited, Pakistan does have quite a few inherent strengths, which can be used as the launching pad for making this country a potential offshore source of Software and Data Processing Services. Some of these advantages are:

A substantial number of educated unemployed youth with ability to read and write English exist in the country. They can be trained in the required skill (particularly in Data Processing Services) within a short time.

Quite a few Pakistani skilled professionals have been working abroad. They can be encouraged to return to the country and/or collaborate with Pakistani entrepreneurs, provided proper environment is created.

Universities in Pakistan are turning out an increasing number of graduates in Computer related subjects every year, although the number is much less than the requirement.

A large number of Pakistani students are studying overseas in Computer related subjects.

A wide range of Hardware platform from Mainframe to mini and micro comoputers is available.

Reasonable skills exist in the following areas:

o Operating System - Windows, Windows 95,98 & 2000, MAC/OS, Novell Netware, Windows NT, UNIX, OS/400, Linux

o Programming Language - C++, Visual Basic, Visual FoxPro, COBOL, RPG, OOP, J++

o RDBMS - Oracle, Informix, DB/2

o Multimedia Software

Pakistan offers a very attractive cost-effective wage level.

The government has taken a decision recently (June, 2000) to withdraw all import duties from all computer hardware and software. This has brought the prices of computers down to a level affordable by middle-income households and sales of PCs have soared during the last few months. An 80-90% annual growth in the number of PCs sold is expected this year.

IT Park

An Information Technology Park is going to be set up very close to Karachi. The government has already made 5 acres of land available for setting up this IT Park. This would be similar to the Software Technology Parks in India. The entire infrastructure, including high-speed telecommunication facilities (2 Mbps link) would be provided. These would enable the small companies to move into buildings with readily available facilities. Since this is going to take at least two years, a decision has been taken to initially set it up in an existing building in Karachi.

In 1996 the government decided to allow private companies to act as Internet Services Providers (ISPs) . At present, there are about 500,000 account holders with the ISPs (134 allover Pakistan) and the total number of users would be around 700,000. The slow speed of access provided by (64 to 192 kbps) is a major constraint. A number of Cyber cafes providing e-mail and Internet browsing facilities have been opened in Karachi and Lahore; these are quite popular among the young generation. Public kiosks with internet facilities are also being planned.

PTCL has already established a network for providing Internet connectivity and has started operating as an ISP a few months back. The proposed tariff rate should make Internet connection affordable to a larger cross-section of public. PTCL is also establishing a fiber optic backbone in the country.

In order to enable the young entrepreneurs in the IT field, the government to provide working capital loan without any collaterals has created a special fund. A venture capital fund is also being set up. The banking procedures are also being amended and simplified to reflect the different nature of software transactions.

Software exports

Experience of other countries shows that it is very difficult to achieve success in exporting software unless there is a big domestic market. The government ministries and departments are being asked to computerize their activities. Some of the local firms have already succeeded in exporting software, although the total amount is not very large. One firm has been producing CDs with searchable database for Latin American clients and US. CAD conversion work and webpage design work are also being undertaken. A leading firm has recently signed a contract with a Saudi Arabian Bank for supplying and installing a banking software package. Taking advantage of the considerable number of COBOL programmers who were trained in the sixties and seventies, some firms are doing work related to the Y2K problem. A local firm in partnership with Microsoft is developing ERP software.

The government has placed top most priority to human resource development in the IT field. At present, the annual output of graduates in the IT field would be around 500. The target is to produce 10,000 programmers annually by the year 2001. There are many Universities offering undergraduate degree programmes in IT-related fields. All universities have started offering undergraduate degree programmes in computer science and engineering from this year. The 20 Polytechnics are also introducing 3-year diploma programmes in Computer Technology. In addition, a large number of educational and training institutes, many of them with linkage with foreign institutions, are also offering training courses. One of the major problems faced by these institutions is the shortage of teachers and trainers.

Efforts were initiated about 10 years back to introduce computers in schools and colleges. 'Computer Studies' has been introduced as an optional subject both in SSC and HSC examinations. The lack of adequate physical facilities, computers and qualified teachers has resulted in very few students opting for these courses. Experience of other countries shows that teaching of computer programming by incompetent teachers may do more harm than good. Therefore, teacher training is one of the priority actions to be taken.

A large number of Pakistanis are now working in the IT field in different companies in USA and are gradually moving up the organizational hierarchy. The government is trying to get the assistance of these non-resident Pakistanis in IT development, particularly by giving them incentives to set up software companies in Pakistan.

Copyright

The lack of any copyright protection for software has been one of the major deterrents in the growth of software industry. Software Copyright Protection Act has already been drafted and is expected to be enacted very soon.

Although the banking sector had been among the pioneers in computerization in Pakistan, the present level of computer usage in banks is very low. The foreign banks operating in Pakistan have taken a lead in computerizing their front office operations. It is only during the last 4/5 years that some of the Pakistani banks have started gradually computerizing their front office activities and very soon a network of automatic teller machines (ATMs) would be set up by the private banks throughout the major towns.

Almost all the IT related developments which have taken place during the last few years are concentrated in the city of Karachi and Lahore; in other cities and towns, only a small number of computers are being used, mostly for word processing. (The government funded training institute, with a few hundred PCs is a notable exception). The danger of increasing the already existing disparity between urban and rural areas looms large in the horizon. In order to enable rural populace to get the benefits of IT, the present government has recognized IT as one of the priority sectors and is providing all support to the private sector to enable them to enter the export market for software and data processing services. Recognizing the bright future of IT, a large number of students, young professionals and businessmen are taking keen interest in acquiring knowledge about computers and its applications. It is expected that within the next 3 to 4 years, IT applications in Pakistan would not only spread to various private and public sector offices and industrial units, but Pakistan would emerge as a regional hub for software development.

The author is Coordinator, Center for Research & Development, Iqra University/Asian Management Institute