The economic transformation of Pakistan through IT

According to the World Economic Forum, Pakistan was ranked 111th among 144 countries in the Global Information Technology Industry report of 2014. Pakistan’s export of information technology (IT) services amounted to $2.2 billion in the fiscal year 2014-15. On the other hand, India is the world’s largest sourcing destination for IT owning almost 67 per cent of the US’ $124-130 billion market.

The Indian IT industry has led to the economic transformation of India and has totally changed the perception of the country globally. Today, Facebook, Google, Apple, Microsoft and all the other top IT companies of the US have branches in India. A lot of this has to do with India’s security situation but we need to note that the Indian IT industry was not set up just recently. It’s a fruit of the hard work put in over more than a decade. Today, corporations like Apple Inc. are planning to invest $25 million in Hyderabad, India, which will create 4,500 jobs. Similarly, Microsoft is planning to incubate 500 start-ups to create viable and profitable businesses and take advantage of the booming start-up sector in that country.

Why can’t Pakistan receive a small chunk of these investments when we have IT graduates from NUST, FAST, LUMS and many other universities in Pakistan? Unfortunately, the number of Pakistani citizens working in the IT sector in the US remains very low. This is further evident from the US H1-B visa programme, which is a non-immigrant visa allowing skilled workers to work in the country temporarily. The current quota for a single fiscal year is 85,000 visas. Although there are no official figures from the US Citizenship and Immigration Services about the exact number of Pakistani origin applicants for this type of visa, this figure is bound to be very low if we consider the number of people from Pakistan working in American IT firms. Furthermore, if we take the representation of Pakistani students in universities in Silicon Valley (San Jose) offering Master’s programmes according to industry needs, we will hardly see any Pakistani student enrolled in these programmes. I once needed on-the-job support and for this purpose tried contacting IT personnel in Pakistan. Unfortunately, they couldn’t figure out what was required as the US working methodologies were completely alien for IT experts in Pakistan. The skilled worker of the IT sector in Pakistan can only be groomed for international standards by either working in the US, or if we have an industry model in Pakistan that is based on the one in Bangalore.

The problem here does not only lie with the government’s lack of interest. Our education sector needs to create this awareness as well. Guidance counselors need to sit down with parents and students, and convince them that there are professions beyond the medical, engineering and legal ones. There is a whole vista of professions within the IT sector that can be pursued. These jobs can pay graduates enough money to support themselves, their families and contribute towards the economy through exports and foreign remittances.

At the government level, we need to persuade international IT giants to open campuses in Pakistan based on the model employed in Bangalore, which is the world’s largest outsourcing location for IT. We should be looking to set up IT cities in Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi. These cities, along with an effective foreign policy and a competent information ministry, having a specific mandate to secure IT projects during foreign trips of top government officials can change the economics of our country.

India was able to secure a nearly 70 per cent share out of the $130 billion American IT industry. If Pakistan is able to account for only 15 per cent share of this industry, that makes it a $20 billion industry, hence having the potential to become the country’s largest industry. It’s time that all political parties start focusing on IT. We need a young, dynamic IT minister who can sit with the likes of Mark Zuckerberg from Facebook and Bill Gates from Microsoft. The IT sector has the potential to transform Pakistan’s fortunes on the economic front, as well as change the global perception of Pakistan. This potential needs to fulfilled.