Tania Aidrus recently served as Special Assistant to Prime Minister on ‘Digital Pakistan’, a stint that lasted less than 6 months, Transformation


Transformation, A former Googler, she worked in Google’s Boston and Singapore offices for over a decade (2008-19). Her most recent roles were ‘Country Manager – South Asia Emerging Markets’ and later ‘Director Product Management, Payments & Next Billion Users’. Prior to that, Ms. Aidrus co-founded Click Diagnostics Inc., a m-health startup (2007) and served as senior consultant for Booz Allen Hamilton in the US (2003-05). She has an MBA from MIT and a BS (Biology and Economics) from Brandeis University, US.

Transformation, BR Research interviewed Ms. Aidrus a day before her surprising exit from the federal government. Selected contents from that discussion are produced below. The idea is to share constructive insights from an expert from the field, with a view to help develop Pakistan’s digital ecosystem.

BR Research: Based on your experience in the private sector and lately with the government, how do you see this issue where the push towards digitisation has traditionally lacked focus and coherence in Pakistan?

Tania Aidrus: Let me start by saying that when Digital Pakistan was being conceived, what you have pointed out was exactly the problem that we hoped to resolve. We have seen, for example, that Punjab started off its journey towards digitalisation much earlier. They built an IT Board, they were very well-resourced, and as a result when you compare them with other provinces, there was a lot more going on in Punjab. The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa IT Board came second, and in recent years it has been resourced well. Sindh is now in the process of putting something together, and Balochistan doesn’t have anything in this regard yet. At the central level, the NITB was set up a few years ago, covering the federal ministries and the Islamabad Capital Territory. Result was that each of these bodies was working on mandates that they had established themselves, as the mandate was not coming through one central body. And their execution was based on the quality of the people they were able to bring in. So, Pakistan never had a common starting point, such as a common operating environment and unified standards.

To give the digitalisation effort an over-arching, multi-stakeholder purpose, we pushed for Digital Pakistan to be set up under the Prime Minister’s Office. And the vision and the agenda were to be driven by the PM’s Office. This effort is still in its infancy. The idea for it is not to be duplicating what the IT Ministry is doing or what the NITB is doing or what the provincial IT Boards are doing. The purpose of Digital Pakistan is to figure out, through this shared vision, what the right set of policies are and what the most effective execution model should be that enables us to maximise impact across the board.

Transformation, Some policies already exist, for instance in May 2018 the first Digital Pakistan Policy was approved. That policy is a relatively comprehensive policy; there are some things that need to be updated, but for the most part it covers everything from infrastructure development to freelancing to increasing IT exports to leveraging open-source to transforming health and education. But it was unclear how to go about that policy’s implementation, in addition to issues like digital identity, data protection and even something as basic as what data is considered sensitive. This is where Digital Pakistan could play a role. Apps and websites are not what drive digital transformation in a country. The government’s mandate needs to help set the standards, help build the public infrastructure and to set the right guidelines and policies. Apart from that, everything else should be undertaken by the private sector.

BRR: You had a rather short amount of time working on those issues. Now that you look back, how do you characterise your experience and what can your successor learn from it?

TA: I was notified as the SAPM on Digital Pakistan end of February, and there wasn’t a structure so to speak under me; I did not have a delivery vehicle. In March, the Covid-19 crisis started and since then I had been cognizant of the fact that our response would need incredibly strong data for us to make any decisions. And because I had already gone through the process of doing the mapping, it was clear to me at that point that we didn’t have the systems in place to even collect the right type of data. So, in March, I just jumped in fully into the crisis response by helping make our Covid-19 response data-driven, and to be honest, this ended up consuming most of my time over the past many months. Looking back, today I feel good about the systems that we have put in place – data on equipment, hospitals, testing capacity, TTQ, etc. and platforms like tele-health and tele-school that have laid the foundation for digitalisation in these areas.

Transformation, As for the future of Digital Pakistan, the “structure” is critical, as the next person has to find a way to bring together strong technical talent from the private sector and link them with the people in the government who can get the work done. One may have a good handle on the private sector, but the government-side structure needs to be defined and beefed up in line with the mandates and capabilities of public sector stakeholders such as the IT Ministry. I am clear on the fact that in some cases this office will have to play the driving role and, in some cases, play a supporting role. The government works through its rules of business. That’s the reason that these two sets of people need to work together very closely and devise a mechanism that can create and scale impact.

BRR: In terms of strategy, which outcomes need more focus early on: low-hanging fruits or fundamentally game-changing initiatives?

TA: To be perfectly honest, I don’t think that it can be one or the other. That is why the five pillars of Digital Pakistan that were proposed go from short, mid, and generational targets. An example of a generational target would be the complete digitisation of payments and services of all intra-government services, citizen services and business services. That is not going to happen in one year or two years, but can it happen in five years, yes! However, it will take a very comprehensive effort, by capturing some short-term targets, or low-hanging fruits, to start building towards that target.

BRR: Please explain a bit what you mean by a generational target.

TA: For instance, in terms of ‘access and connectivity,’ a generational target is to connect all regions of Pakistan with affordable high-speed internet (data) and cheap smartphones (devices). To achieve this, there is a long list of short-term targets that need to be achieved. Some of those short-term targets include having local assembly of smartphones to fully supply the domestic market. But it won’t happen overnight. You will have to comprehensively put a plan in place to attract the big smartphone players that have the muscle and the expertise to train the local workforce and move the system in that direction.

It is important for us to move towards long-term and sustainable changes. There is no replacement for that. I do recognise the need to show something as progress, but I was never interested in launching apps merely for fanfare. I’d rather invest time in initiatives that are more productive and sustainable, even if that means the updates on progress would be relatively less frequent and flashy.

BRR: There is some activity starting on mobile phone assembly in Pakistan. What can be done to boost the device assembly ecosystem?

TA: Before I answer your question, let’s look at a broader trend that is happening, and which provides an opportunity for Pakistan. The US-China trade war is forcing Chinese electronics manufacturers to look for alternate options. There is a very short window where the Chinese players should be offered alternate locations for production. Many of them have already moved to countries that were prepping for this over the past few years. For instance, Samsung practically has Vietnam as their core manufacturing location now. Bangladesh has also been successful to an extent, and India was already attracting such players.

To answer your question, the device assembly activity is taking place, yes, but on their own the local players cannot grow the ecosystem with the speed and scale that is required at the moment. What we really need is to attract companies equivalent to major Chinese manufacturers. I don’t think we can expect to bring in a player like Samsung overnight. But based on our relationship with China, and with CPEC continuing apace, our best bet is to convince at least one major Chinese smartphone maker to start assembling in Pakistan.

Transformation, Ultimately, it is a question of financing, and the local players on their own cannot invest enough to match the quality and quantity of demand of 4G devices in coming years. The current licensees are mostly producing 2G devices, which will be sunset in a couple of years. The few assemblers who are churning out 3G devices have exceptionally low production volumes. I’m not saying it’s not a good start – we should absolutely be supporting these firms. Problem is that we need trained manpower, massive investment, big volumes, and global branding as a manufacturing destination. For that, we need big players to come in.

BRR: The Covid crisis has exposed the digital divide like no other event. There are gender, income, and regional dimensions to it. How can the government address that?

TA: That’s right. However, first it’s important to recognise that most new technologies start with a certain target audience – and those audiences almost always tend to be younger, more affluent and tech-savvy. That pattern holds true unless a platform is solving an extremely specific, fundamental need of a different socioeconomic segment, with notable examples being mobile money payments that have taken off in countries like Kenya and Pakistan. Other recent exceptions are coming out of China, such as TikTok, Transformation, that are slightly bending these rules in their own way. With those exceptions, most recent new technologies – e.g. in search, mapping, and digital payments – confirm that their adoption almost always starts with a skewed target audience of affluent, tech-savvy youth.

Transformation, That being said, there are certain steps that can be or have already been taken to accelerate the use of this technology spilling over from a narrow audience to the public at large. Most technologies have been built keeping some literacy levels in mind. Now we are seeing a trend towards platforms that are largely visual in nature, so the literacy barrier – in terms of reading and typing – is circumvented to an extent. Localisation of platforms needs to happen next, as has happened in countries like Indonesia and Vietnam where content feels local to the population.

Transformation, In a country like Pakistan, the gendered dimension in any type of disparity becomes glaringly obvious and the digital divide is no exception. The digital divide due to gender stems from the literacy divide that exists due to gender: a bigger proportion of women are not literate as compared to men and therefore, unable to access digital technologies. Other than literacy, there are other cultural ideas and values that keep women out of the sphere of technology. We need to dispel this impression that only men can use phones and devices. This is detrimental to the economy as digital tools can help women in contributing to their families’ income and education levels. In my opinion, the mindset change will take time, but the government still has to play a role through inclusive policies in making that happen.

BRR: Digital payments are all the rage these days, albeit exposing digital divide here as well. On the digital payments side, what can be done to make different mobile wallets interoperable with each other? Right now, service providers do not seem interested in linking their services.

TA: The core philosophy of the State Bank of Pakistan’s ‘micropayment gateway’ is interoperability, and they are working on it. The idea is that all forms of payment – be it banks or wallets – need to be able to speak to the same system and initiate payments. For instance, an HBL account holder should be able to send money, at no cost, to someone having an Easypaisa account, and vice versa. So, the system must ensure that anybody can do the transaction initiation and they should be able to do so through a mobile.

Transformation, There are many components in this, but the biggest component is ‘authentication’ of the user. When you talk about interoperability, you don’t just need a gateway in between the users, you also need to be able to authenticate a user from their device when they are initiating the payment. This component needs a lot more attention than it currently has. Unless we set common standards for authentication, the system will not be fully interoperable. That, in turn, requires a centralised system, which must be NADRA, the only real identity system that we have today. That system will help the banks, mobile wallet providers and Fintech companies to get a “yes” as to the person initiating the transaction is indeed the same person.

This news was originally published at brecorder.com