World Libraries, Volume 17, Number 2, Fall 2007
Emerging Information Society in Pakistan and the Role of Libraries
Pakistan is a developing country with many social and economic problems, but indicators show that an information society is emerging in this country at a very fast pace. These indicators include fast–growing telecommunication facilities, free flow of information through electronic media and the use of computers and the Internet in public life. This paper argues that libraries can play a vital role in an information society. The situation of libraries in Pakistan, particularly public and school libraries, is very poor. Most federal policies do not provide for the establishment of effective libraries. Some policies do recommend a library system but there is no effort to implement these at the governmental level. This paper urges decision makers to include libraries in their planning for the country.
Our society is undergoing profound and rapid changes resulting from the development of the information superhighway. These changes are evident in the economic, social, cultural and political spheres of our society. Increased dependence on computers, economic globalization, and the shaping of government policy by multinational corporations are only a few points on a landscape of change. The revolution in information and communication technologies (ICT) has created a platform for the free flow of information, ideas and knowledge across the globe. The Internet has become an important global resource, one that is critical to both the developed world as a business and social tool and the developing world as a passport to equitable participation as well as to economic, educational and social development. This revolution has made a profound impression on the way the world functions and has transformed it to an evolving information society. Aware of the rapid expansion of the information society, the United Nations organized the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), organized under the auspices of the International Telecommunication Union. The two–phase summit began in Geneva in 2003 and concluded in November 2005 in Tunis. The goal of this meeting was to assess progress and prompt further global action to capture the promise of ICT for all. The purpose of the WSIS was to ensure that these benefits are accessible to all while promoting specific advantages in areas such as e–strategies, e–commerce, e–governance, e–health, education, literacy, cultural diversity, gender equality, sustainable development and environmental protection.
At the Geneva WSIS meeting in December 2003, world leaders declared
Recognizing the importance of the revolution in ICTs as a means of shaping the future of the world and in achieving the development goals outlined in the Millennium Declaration, world leaders decided that a global vision and a global dialogue were needed to build the framework of an all–inclusive and equitable Information Society.
The Government of Pakistan actively participated in the World Summit on the Information Society. In this context, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) came up with a proposal to conduct consultations in selected countries in Africa and Asia to develop new models of multi–stakeholder collaboration to catalyze and strengthen implementation from Geneva to Tunis. It was carried out by a team of international experts in collaboration with the Information and Communication Technologies for Development (ICTD) Group in UNDP Headquarters. The UNDP chose Pakistan as one of two countries from Asia (the other was the Philippines). Pakistan was chosen for a number of reasons, including its recent major focus on IT and the ICTD’s extensive work undertaken by one of its own global initiatives in the country — the Sustainable Development Networking Programme (SDNP). SDNP Pakistan was assigned the responsibility for helping to facilitate this national consultation, which involved all the country’s important stakeholders of WSIS. Pakistan’s Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunication provided support and guidance to achieve the goals and objectives of WSIS (World Summit on the Information Society, 2007).
The Pakistani people’s attitudes towards major information society applications, such as distance learning, computer–supported political participation, government information services to the citizens, finding a job online, telemedicine, information and communication technologies like cellular phones, satellite dishes and the Internet, are prominent indicators of an emerging information society. Here is a brief overview of some initiatives empowering the information society in Pakistan.
Government initiatives with the collaboration of the private sector
The tripartite model of the WSIS is based on a partnership between the government, civil society and the private sector. Governments all over the world are seeking the most appropriate responses to bring maximum advantage for their countries through the introduction of information strategies and policies to shape the development of information societies. Governments also realize that they cannot do everything alone and that their objectives can only be achieved through cooperation and alliances with a wide range of actors, including the private sector, civil society and other groups. Keeping these realties in view, the Government of Pakistan has started many initiatives with the collaboration of the private sector.
In October, 2002 the Federal Cabinet converted the Information Technology Commission into the Electronic Government Directorate (EGD) as a unit within the Ministry of Information Technology. The Terms of Reference of the EGD according to a Ministry of Information Technology Notification are:
The EGD project assesses the needs of departments and ministries. It started with only the electronic workings of the departments but it will later be extended to provide online services to the public such as government forms, tax filing processes, healthcare applications, training and education (Yaseen, 2006).
In April 2005, the “E–Government Strategy and 5 Year Plan” document prepared by EGD was approved by the National E–Government Council and then later in June 2005 was endorsed by the Federal Cabinet. The strategy proposed for the first five years has the following salient features that are to be run in parallel wherever possible for an accelerated implementation:
Information technology policy
The Government of Pakistan approved the first national IT Policy in August 2000. Features of the policy regarding the role of IT in development cover such aspects as:
Pakistan’s telecom sector has emerged as the fastest growing sector across Asia in recent years. Realizing the benefits achieved from telecom deregulation around the world, Pakistan has moved from a monopolized structure to a deregulated one. The monopoly of the Pakistan Telecommunication Company Limited (PTCL) for basic telephony has been abolished and new operators have emerged on Pakistan’s telecom scene where competition has been introduced. Competition in all segments of the telecom sector has brought in lower tariffs and cheaper handsets, which saw the Pakistani people jumping on to the mobile bandwagon with a vengeance. In fact, all performance indicators of the telecom sector have shown tremendous levels of growth. Foreign investment in the telecom sector has passed US$1 billion during the first three quarters of 2005–06. These growth patterns in the telecom sector of Pakistan compare well to those of many South Asian economies (Sargana, 2006).
With the liberalization of the telecom sector, teledensity of the country has improved greatly in the last few years. The total teledensity reached 40.17 percent in March 2007, as compared to 2.8 percent in 2000–01. This huge jump is mainly attributed to the boom in the mobile segment of the sector. The fixed telephone line industry, on the other hand, is yet to reach its competitors’ targets. This is partly due to the need for additional time to prepare their respective fiber optics.
The cellular mobile segment is the most thriving and growth–oriented sector since liberalization. Approximately 1.6 million subscribers are joining cellular mobile networks each month in Pakistan. In fact, the total number of mobile subscribers at the end of March 2007 passed the 55.6 million mark. Competition and liberalization in the market have changed the market share of major cellular companies on a positive note.
PTCL no longer operates a monopoly; in fact, the fixed line sector holds 14 Long Distance International (LDI) licenses, out of which 12 companies are operating commercially. As a result, consumers enjoy maximum benefits while making international and nation–wide dialing calls at much lower prices. Presently, international calls are as low as Rs.1.99 per minute for selected countries. Private companies have also compelled the incumbent operators to reduce the rates significantly. PTCL, for instance, has reduced its rates up to 14 percent for Nation Wide Dialing (NWD) calling cards and almost 40 percent on international calls to countries like the U.S. and the UK. Out of 37 newly–licensed local loop companies, only three were able to start their operations during 2005. Other licensees are busy laying their infrastructure and hopefully in the coming years some of their operations will also start and will increase the fixed teledensity of the country.
Wireless local loop services
WLL services are gaining popularity due to their relatively low deployment and maintenance costs and are replacing fixed wire line networks. Out of sixteen licensed companies, four companies have started WLL services in different regions of Pakistan. These are PTCL, Telecard, World Call and Great Bear. WLL services are available in more than 160 cities in Pakistan. The WLL segment of the telecom sector has shown tremendous growth; WLL subscribers have reached 1.57 million December, 2006 from a mere 81,030 in January, 2005 (Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, 2007).
There were 12 million Internet users (7.2 percent of the population) by the end of 2006 (Internet World Stats, 2007). Internet penetration remains low, but the numbers are growing. Broadband access is now available in the major cities. Also, wireless broadband Internet has been introduced by the WLL (Wireless Local Loop) networks in many major cities. In January 2007, Pakistan Telecommunication Authority reported over 12 million Internet users; however, low bandwidth is a concern for most. Most Pakistani companies and government departments maintain Web sites that have further increased the demand for the Internet (Wikipedia, 2007). There are 1,898 Internet cities in Pakistan, of which 1,166 cities are in Punjab Province, 202 in Sindh Province, 420 in the North–West Frontier Province, and 110 in Baluchistan Province. PTCL has now launched the Universal Internet Number; Internet service providers can, therefore, subscribe this highly effective service and send to their customers a strong message of care and service excellence (Pakistan Telecommunication Company Limited, 2007).
Rural telecom development
The telecom sector may be on the verge of expansion but it still requires governmental action for the provision of services to rural areas. Considering this, the Government of Pakistan and PTA initiated a multibillion rupee project called Universal Service Fund (USF), which will help provide funds to the telecom operators in these deprived areas. Furthermore, PTA includes the UN Development Programme, Zarai Traqiati Bank Ltd. (ZTBL) and post offices for the establishment of telecentres and public call offices. Yaseen (2006) claims that the Asia Pacific region — with its large population, growing economy and world’s largest emerging telecommunication market — has a great potential to become the center of the world for information and communication technologies (ICT). To take advantage of the opportunities prevailing in the emerging information society, the Government of Pakistan is also paying attention to the development of such policies and strategies. Among the countries of South Asia, Pakistan has the most extensive Internet coverage and lowest Internet rates. However, in terms of ‘real access’ as measured by grassroots, need–based, innovative applications of ICTs, it lags behind most countries in the region. In terms of Pakistan’s efforts in this arena, only SDNP’s seeded Cyber Community Centres and KADO’s ThreadNet (Hunza) could be cited as small examples (Rizvi, 2003). To provide the latest telecommunications and Internet facilities in rural and far–off areas, Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) has launched a telecenter project called ‘Rabta Ghar.’ Under this scheme, 400 telecenters will be established in the first phase, for which equipment worth Rs.50,000 each will be provided free of cost (Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, 2007).
Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) was established in 2002 with the charter to establish a new vision of electronic media in the private sector. PEMRA is mandated to issue licenses for the establishment and operation of broadcast or rebroadcasting stations, including FM radios and cable TV networks. During the first nine months of the fiscal year 2005–06, 31 licenses were awarded to different groups for the establishment of cable TV and FM radio in the major cities of Pakistan. PEMRA also initiated the process of awarding licenses to international standard TV stations to be operated through satellite communication for the promotion of education and recreation facilities in the country. For this purpose, 16 licenses have been issued to satellite TV operators including four educational channels. Among them, 12 satellite TV channels have started their operations. PEMRA has also granted multi–channel multi–distribution service (MMDS) license to five parties covering five major cities of Pakistan. Cable television (CTV) is a fast growing segment among the electronic media. For this purpose, 1,213 licenses have also been issued to different categories of CTV since its establishment. During the fiscal year 2005–06 PEMRA issued 200 CTV licenses. It has also granted landing rights to 15 companies for the distribution of foreign satellite TV channels in Pakistan (Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority, 2006).
Computers at post offices
The Pakistan Post Office has used information technology to connect its main offices in 15 major cities, including Islamabad, Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar and Quetta. Furthermore, a fully computerized system has been developed that transfers money from 196 countries and territories to Pakistan, with the collaboration of Western Union. All major post offices in the country have been computerized (Pakistan Post, 2006).
Keeping the emerging e–learning trends in view, the “Virtual University of Pakistan” was established by the government as a public sector, not–for–profit institution with a clear mission to provide extremely affordable world–class education to aspiring students all over the country. The Virtual University is Pakistan’s first university based completely on modern information and communication technologies. Using free–to–air satellite television broadcasts and the Internet, the Virtual University allows students to follow its rigorous programs regardless of their physical location. The University opened its virtual doors in 2002 and in a short span of time it has reached over 60 cities in the country with more than a hundred associated institutions providing infrastructure support to the students. Pakistani students residing in other countries of the region are also enrolled in the University’s programs (Virtual University, 2007).
The Higher Education Commission (HEC) of Pakistan has launched the “National Digital Library.” This program provides researchers in public and private universities in Pakistan and non–profit research and development organizations with access to high–quality, peer–reviewed journals, databases and articles across a wide range of disciplines. More than 20,000 journals can be accessed through this library (Pakistan National Digital Library, 2007).
Another HEC project worth mentioning is the Pakistan Research Repository, which promotes the international visibility of research originating from institutes of higher education in Pakistan. The aim of this service is to maintain a digital archive of the intellectual output of Pakistani institutions, to provide a single–entry access point to view this research, and to distribute this information as widely as possible. The repository, which is currently being populated with content, has already made the full text of over 550 Ph.D. theses available in high–quality digitized format, while a further 200 have been digitized and are in the process of being uploaded into the repository and made available through the Web. An additional 350 Ph.D. theses are in the process of digitization, and the HEC has introduced a systematic mechanism for the collection and digitization of the remaining theses. Once completed, the repository will include all Ph.D. theses published by institutions in Pakistan, which are estimated to be approximately 3,200 in number (Pakistan Research Repository, 2007).
Other ICT initiatives
Other ICT initiatives include the Pakistan Computer Bureau (PCB), which was established in 1971. In 2000, the Ministry of Information Technology was established and the PCB was attached to it. This unit has the following mandate: training of officers and staff in public sector organizations in IT; undertaking systems analysis, software development and implementation of computer–based systems; provision of advisory services for computerization in the government and public sector organizations; and, assisting in the implementation of initiatives of Ministry of Information Technology under the IT policy (Pakistan Computer Bureau, 2004).
The Pakistan Software Export Board (PSEB) is a guaranteed limited company with a Board of Directors comprised of representatives of the government, industry associations and the private sector. PSEB is government–owned, and is mandated to promote Pakistan’s IT industry (Pakistan Software Export Board, 2007).
Libraries are the representatives of social society and aim to serve the society. Libraries and information services contribute to the sound operation of the inclusive information society. They enable intellectual freedom by providing access to information, ideas and works of imagination in any medium and regardless of frontiers. They help to safeguard democratic values and universal civil rights impartially. The unique role of libraries and information services is to respond to the particular questions and needs of individuals. This complements the general transmission of knowledge by the media, for example, and makes libraries and information services vital to a democratic and open information society. Libraries are essential for a well–informed citizenry and transparent governance, as well as for the take–up of e–government. Keeping this reality in view, the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) has stressed the active role of libraries in information society:
IFLA urges national, regional, and local governments, as well as international organizations, to invest in library and information services as vital elements of their information society strategies. By so doing, an informed and literate citizenry will not only be more stable, but more productive and thus able to participate more effectively in the democratic process and also be helpful members of their respective local communities (Horton, 2005).
In a bid to foster the role of libraries as key players in building people–centered, inclusive and development–oriented knowledge societies, UNESCO and IFLA have decided to establish a strategic alliance as part of their contribution to implement the decisions of the WSIS (UNESCO, 2006).
Keeping the tripartite model of WSIS in view, the Government of Pakistan is also trying to assure the participation of the civil society in the WSIS platform at local and international level. The objective is to create environments that support and nurture informed, aware citizens who contribute meaningfully to society through multimedia based content; delivery through multiple means such as radio, Internet, computers and CD–ROMs. Major stakeholders of this category are the government (relevant ministries), non–governmental and community–based organizations, private organizations such as content developers, and corporate social responsibility programs at multinational corporations and local companies.
The list of participants of meetings held to achieve the WSIS objectives reveals that no representative was chosen from a library. Libraries’ traditional assets lie in their skills in organizing large masses of information and acting as channels to that information. At least half of the presentations made to the pre–Summit delegates involved, in one way or another, the notion of social inclusion. That is to say, governments need to work much harder to find ways to reach out to immigrants, the under–employed, the unemployed, and other “unstable” populations. Governments should begin to see libraries as a tool to help reduce social unrest by encouraging unstable groups to come into libraries and access the Internet and read books and periodicals, thus making libraries, especially public and school libraries, much more valuable to their governments and countries. The other aspect of social inclusion is more closely related to the traditional library role, but it is placed a little more directly in the context of the information society. It is that libraries and information services share the common vision of an “Information Society for All” (analogous to UNESCO’s Information for All and Education for All programs), which might be viewed as a restatement of the “Haves versus Have–Nots.” It has, however, the added objective of libraries helping all citizens to create, access, use, and share information and knowledge.
Fundamental to the creation of a knowledge–based economy is the ability to access information at a fast pace and at the right time. The broadband can provide such access; however, education, awareness and skills also have a vital role in the knowledge–based economy. Due to the large population and high rate of illiteracy in some areas this task is challenging for Pakistan. In this regard, educational institutes should be the main driving force to spread broadband and ICT technologies. School and public libraries especially should be provided with personal computer labs and broadband services hooked up on the parent organization’s Intranet to save costs and control network access.
According to the studies by Haider (2002) and Mahmood (2005a), education in general has always been neglected in Pakistan. The government barely spends $3 per capita on activities important for human care. The institutions providing education are heavily under–financed as compared to institutions in neighboring countries. In universities, an average of three percent to four percent of the budget is allocated to research, libraries and equipment ($40–$50 per student); in fact, the budgetary allocation for libraries is barely enough to buy two new books per student per year. The position of university and special libraries is much better than that of school, public and government libraries. The lack of resources and political will are the main hindrances in the establishment, development and maintenance of public libraries under the clear mandate of law in Pakistan, while the school library development is in its embryonic stage. The concept of library automation and networking is being adopted by academic and special libraries in Pakistan. There is an immediate need to coordinate and consolidate the resources and services of different types of libraries in Pakistan to enhance people’s access to quality information in this region.
An analysis of E–government Strategy and 5–Year Plan and IT Policy and Education in Pakistan: A white paper on education policy (Pakistan. Ministry of Information Technology. Electronic Government Directorate) reveals that libraries are a missing link in government policies and strategies in Pakistan. The only exception is the establishment of the National Digital Library. Some policies and legislative documents provide for the establishment of libraries but no action at all has come of them. For example, the Local Government Ordinance, 2001 provides that “a concerned local government may establish and maintain such libraries, reading rooms and circulation libraries as may be necessary for the use of the public.” National Education Policy (1998–2010) provides for the establishment of “multimedia libraries and information resource centers at grass root levels, i.e. Union Council which will encourage and attract the youths and adults to self–learning and similar constructive activities.” The policy also encourages the use of the latest information technology, computers, Internet, databases, etc. in libraries. Education for All: Framework for Action to Meet Basic Learning Needs, adopted by the Pakistan Government, recommends that “In partnerships with school and community workers, libraries need to become a vital link in providing educational resources for all learners — pre–school through adulthood &Mdash; in school and non–school settings. There is therefore a need to recognize libraries as invaluable information resources.” Under education sector reforms the Federal Ministry of Education has planned to set up 500 tehsil/district teacher resource centers (TRCs) in all provinces which will include public libraries.
The establishment of Internet labs in some public libraries of large cities gave good results (Mahmood, 2006). This practice can be replicated in small libraries. Public and school libraries can better serve as multipurpose community telecenters (MCTs) for the development of rural and deprived areas (Mahmood, 2005b) but this prospective role of libraries is also ignored by the government of Pakistan. On the other hand, librarians especially in public and school libraries, appear to be lacking in vision and effectiveness. Funding is one of the constraints, but there is also the structure of local government itself and the place of public and school libraries within this. There is a dire need for effective and efficient efforts from both policy makers and librarians to fill this gap for the valuable participation of civil society and better utilization of opportunities prevailing in the information society.
Like other countries in the South Asian region, Pakistan exhibits a wide range of inequalities, which add to its socioeconomic problems. Unemployment, poverty, illiteracy, inflation, regional inequality, etc. are the enduring problems that affect the growth and development of library and information infrastructure in Pakistan. This paper concludes that the library services support the educational, social and cultural development of all citizens; indeed that it is the essence of inclusion. Libraries, especially public and school libraries, must therefore be integrated into the information society infrastructure for inclusion. Here are some recommendations towards this end:
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Dr. Khalid Mahmood is Professor & Chairman of the Department of Library & Information Science at the University of the Punjab in Lahore, Pakistan.
Farzana Shafique is Lecturer in the Department of Library & Information Science at Islamia University of Bahawalpur, Pakistan.
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