Adversity is poetic in most of its literal renditions. It is meant to make men out of boys and nations out of a people. Our current challenges may one day be recognized for comparable feats, it is hoped.
In the last fortnight, there have been numerous interesting and some worrying developments in our national policy space. Staying largely within the self- imposed confines of tech policy; these developments can be endlessly debated for their focus, method and numerous holes in their interlinings. But it is more stimulating to examine them as pieces of a bigger policy puzzle and an agenda.
SIFC, as I still like to see it, is a bespoke policy space for a formal role of The Powerful between the 18th Amendment on one side and the need to subvert the constitution on the other. It can also be reasoned that both the deep and shallow ends of the State are on board with this, and conceived it to reclaim control over national policy and resources. Thus, the recently unveiled ambition of $100 billion investments was only natural and expected.
Some day, these developments may be labeled as the biggest voluntary political surrender of our times. But this was also much needed for pragmatically moving forward various policy agendas.
Ideally, it will now provide necessary security and longevity to various initiatives and investments in our provincialism-infested and politically mutilated policy and regulatory spaces. But, can we really then count on SIFC to be an effective platform to deliver on the goals it has chosen for itself? But what exactly are its goals in commercial and quantifiable terms?
A plan to increase our software and associated services exports to $20 billion is so far the most clearly articulated policy goal for the IT sector. It has come recently from our Caretaker Minister for IT and Telecom. This is a suggestion of a nearly ten-fold increase in our current $2.5 billion annual exports. Then there is talk of another billion dollars or two in a ‘couple of months’ by streamlining public sector procedures. These developments are in addition to the investment specific projects listed on SIFC’s website except one. The idea of seven new geographically discrete Software Technology Zones (STZs) has now evolved into one located in the cyberspace.
Are these new developments early signs of a mission creep in the IT agenda? Or is there a realization of missing the forest for the trees? Or is it really a case of On-Job Training on planning and running national infrastructure projects? We may never know the real answer to these. And despite the objectivity of these new additions, it is still only half the story.
Peculiarly, public sector and governance specific IT opportunities, and secondly, engagement with global technology players and platforms, are missing from the publicly stated IT agenda of SIFC. The absence of the former is surprising since we are already running different public sector modernization programs with the help of our multilateral partners. For the latter, our strategy of regulating our relationship through a security and content governance frame is problematic for all. Then there is also a need for reforms in our extant policy and regulatory spaces. Rather than highlighting the challenges or possibilities, it will serve to point out that we must look at how Arabs and others, including India, are navigating this space.
The government has also outlined a plan to hold 5G Auction by June 2024. The regulatory intention to hold this auction has been in the works since 2020. Our telecom leaders may have a different take on this. And, we are yet to see a commercially viable local use case for 5G networks.
And lastly, the Caretaker cabinet has recently amended the rules for appointing new Chairman NADRA. Mr. Kakar’s comment on this affirms the formal arrival of ‘National Security’ Trojan Horse at the gates of our civil liberties. It is wise to say no more on this. But it isn’t rocket science to foresee its potential utility in regulating domestic politics, and subsequent impact on many other areas.
Our Masters must understand that words of a government and its leaders, more than their meaning, are often taken for their policy interpretations and implications. Today, the potential SIFC wants to tap, at least for IT sector, is mostly undefined in value and scale. The one that we know of through government’s own announcements is shifting a few billion dollars here and there every few weeks. Maybe its bad PR or maybe our ducks are still not in a line. Then there is this obvious challenge of an incomplete agenda and unclean policy hands.
Credibility itself is a currency particularly when you are out looking for investors and partners. Moreover, ‘Blast, Bulldoze, Disregard’ as a strategy or public speak from the powerful is detrimental for an already shaky investment environment. Likewise, it is also uncustomary and discourteous in policy speak. ‘When you have to shoot, shoot, don’t talk!’ is good advice to follow.
In order to conclude, these developments beget four rather simple questions: firstly, is the current policy agenda one for reform and economic growth or a quest for much needed dollars? Secondly, are our multilateral partners, particularly the IMF, onboard with this plan and do they even agree with different projections? Furthermore, will the Arabs or others invest, without a nod from IMF or a substantiation of our projections from their 3rd party advisors and consultants? And, lastly, how will these immediate and long-term outcomes benefit our economy and lives?