Education, Human Development, India, Pakistan, Poverty, South Asia, Technology
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Human Development in South Asia Report 2008

[Mehbubul Haq Development Centre launched the Human Development Report 2008 today in Islamabad. Following is the summary overview of the report]

Technology and Human Development in South Asia

An education and skilled population as well as adequate infrastructure particularly in rural areas vital to exploit full potential of technology


South Asian countries are embracing technology in many useful ways. However the limited adoption and diffusion of technology has to be addressed seriously to enhance productivity of the economy, to improve human development through adequate public service delivery and overall governance in South Asia.


 1998 in the second South Asia Development Report on The Education Challenge, Mehboobul Haq had lamented that ‘while many developed countries are seeking technologies of future, several countries in south Asia are stuck with technologies of the past.’ Since then this situation has changed, especially in India where the application of technology in many areas has increased the country’s output and productivity., and improved employment prospects of the educated and the skilled population. In the other South Asian countries also, technology particularly the information and communication technology is being used rapidly, and in many ways bringing a silent revolution in their economies and societies.

Often the role of technology is accessed from the point of view of enhancing overall productivity and increasing national incomes. It has been proved, through several ways that the adoption of technology is a sure route to higher economic growth.  But, does it improve the lives of the ordinary people? Does it reduce poverty and enhance human capabilities? These are the questions that seldom have been addressed in a comprehensive manner. This report fills the critical gap by examining the ways in which technology can be harnessed for greater human development in the context of South Asia. It also looks at the current status of technology and how it is being exploited to improve incomes, health education and the overall system of governance in South Asia.

 Globalization and market liberalization has changed the landscape of South Asia’s economies. The deregulation of telecommunication industry,  in particular, has brought about an information and communication revolution in South Asia. The use if ICT related goods such as computers, internet, mobile phones have registered an outstanding growth in all South Asian countries. India’s performance stands out in the region in terms of not only enabling the use of ICT, but also exporting IT related software and services. The contribution of this sector to India’s exports has been quite encouraging with IT exports going up from $0.25 billion in 1991 to $8.04 billion in 2002. Such a rapid growth in ICT sector over the past one decade has potential economic gains in terms of increasing the overall rate of GDP growth. The services sector that is now the largest sector in terms of its contribution to GDP has been the major beneficiary of such an outstanding growth of IT in South Asia. Exports have also been diversified to include services particularly in India. The benefits have also started reaching the manufacturing sector in India that has entered into production of ICT related goods such as software and hardware as well as mobile phones even the semi conductor devices that are used in the production of these phones. But apart from India, there are concerns that the benefits of this growth have been limited to the services sector and to the well educated and qualified people. Moreover, it is mostly the urban areas which are the hub of such IT led growth. There are also concerns about the growing digital divide and the low penetration rates of internet in the rural areas. This digital divide is primarily a reflection of a much deeper divide in South Asia that exists in terms of human abd economic development among various states/provinces and amongst the rural and urban areas.

 Exploiting the full potential of technology depends upon a number of prerequisites that must be met. These include the presence of an educated and a skilled population as well as adequate infrastructure particularly in rural areas. South Asia is still grappling with meeting with some of these prerequisites. Enrollment rates remain low and the region is far from achieving universal literacy. Enrollment in technical, vocational and higher education also remain low- lower than any other region in the world and the system is fraught with problems such as outdated curricula that has little relevance with contemporary demands of the labor market, a low prestige associated with it, and lack of social and academic acceptance of this form of education and training.

The state of higher education as reflected in rate of enrollment is not very encouraging. The gross tertiary enrollment in South Asia is one of the lowest in the world, secondly only to Sub-Saharan Africa. Although the overall enrollment rates in tertiary education increased over the period of time from 4.2% in 1965 to 10.5 % in 2005, yet many other regions such as Latin America and Caribbean and Middle East and North Africa that had lower tertiary level enrollment rates than South Asia in 1965 have made significant advances over the period of time and have surpassed South Asia in 2005. Apart from low enrollment, it is also important to note that amongst those who enroll for higher education in South Asia, not many opt for science and technology- afield that absolutely crucial for technological creation and absorption. In East Asia, 40 percent of the students at tertiary level are enrolled in science and technology. In contrast, only 21 percent of tertiary level students go for science and technology field. Investment in research and development- that is crucial to adopt technology according to local needs- is extremely low in South Asia. The region spends about 0.65of its GDP and R&D that is less than half of what East Asia and Pacific spend on one fourth of that in developed countries. Besides having the lower R&D spending. South Asia also has the lowest stock of R&D individuals. It is the region that has the lowest number of the researchers per million inhabitants in the world second only to Africa.

Despite, all these limitations, South Asia is embracing technology in many useful ways. The use of mobile phone that- arte relatively cheaper, do not rely on permanent supply of electricity; and can be used by people who cannot read and write- are being used in an innovative manner to generate income. The Grameen bank in Bangladesh, for instance handed out mobile phones to women to generate income. They are also being used by the Bank as a tool to provide basic health care through telemedicine to people in far flung areas who cannot travel far to reach health care centers. The Bank has also launched health line which is a 24 hour call centre manned by registered physicians to extend basic health information and consultation. These innovative initiatives in South Asia are however few and far between, but they hold great potential to expand access to healthcare services in a region that suffers from poor healthcare infrastructure and dismal health indicators.

Mobile phones, along with other forms of information and communication technology such as Radio, TV, and Internet are playing great role in awareness campaigns regarding health and hygiene. Radio broadcast in particular, is assisting in terms of communicating important information related to the prevention and basic treatment of diseases can also be transmitted. Advancements in medical technology are helping great deal to cure diseases that were incurable earlier in a much more cost effective manner. One example of such a major breakthrough is the development of oral rehydration therapy (ORT) that is much more cost effective in treatment of Diarrhea. The development of this technology by International Centre for Diarrhea Disease Research (ICDDR) in Bangladesh has greatly reduced the number of deaths due to dehydration across the world. Diagnostic technologies such as radiology and pathology are helping to diagnose diseases in a much more accurate manner whereas the computerization of patient’ record in hospitals is assisting the health care providers to provide better diagnoses and treatment of patients. However, most of these advanced technologies are concentrated in urban areas, districts headquarters hospitals and tertiary care centers. They have yet to be expanded to rural areas whereas majority of the South Asian population particularly that of the poor reside.

The adoption of the technology in agriculture sector has a greatly potential to reduce poverty directly by raising the wages of the labor involved agriculture and indirectly by reducing food prices. South Asia has shown remarkable gains in agricultural yields during 1960s-80s due to the adoption of green revolution. However, during the past one decade, agricultural yield particularly for food crops have either become stagnant or very low. Moreover there are many lagging regions which have not exploited their full agricultural potential and in some parts, the gap between the actual yield and those attainable for their agro-ecological endowments is significant. Agricultural research and development is the key to technological progress in agriculture. However mostly South Asian countries continue to under invest in this sector and private sector involvement remains extremely low as compared to the developed world.

Technology in the form of food fortification techniques can also be used to fight against the challenges of malnutrition in South Asia. Various programs for salt iodization have been every country of the region. Thee governments in South Asia are also realizing the need to fortify flour as an effective means to fight malnutrition and have started taking some initiatives. India, Bangladesh and Pakistan also started fortifying food with Vitamin A. In India cow’s milk is being fortified and in Pakistan cooking fat is being used as a vehicle for the provision of vitamin A. Bangladesh has recently launched national program for fortification of edible oil. The use of Internet, TV, and radio is also facilitating learning and distance education to student who cannot enroll formally into schools. The wealth of recourse available online has greatly enhanced the capacity of educationists, researchers and students.

It has given them access to knowledge and ideas that are being created in every corner of the world and has empowered them with ever expanding wealth of knowledge and information.


ICT is also being used effectively to meet the information needs of all groups pf population such as: the educated youth that needs information on where and how to find gainful employment; mothers that need information on health and hygiene of their infants; traders who need information on markets and process on ways to expand their trade networks; farmers who need information on market prices of their produce and how to get reliable seeds. Electronic media and internet are playing great role in helping citizens access information and thereby make informed decision about their national lives. Technology in form of computerization and improved management techniques is also helping in improving the efficiency of public service delivery by cutting down costs, eliminating corruption and improving services.

Despite all these uses to which technology is being put in South Asia today, the difference between the actual and realized potential of technology in this region is huge and this difference is primarily due to the technically trained and educated population and the infrastructure bottlenecks particularly in rural areas. The South sian governments are realizing the significance of technological advancement to meet multiple goals and have formulated a number of public policies and articulated elaborate strategies that range from the general as providing quality educationand trade openness to the more specific such as incentive for promoting the use if ICT. However, the gap between the promise and action In this area remains huge in the most South Asian countries due primarily to the lack of realistic goals and the absence of an effective implementation and a followup strategy.

 In the current era of globalization and competition, adoption of technology is crucial to shrive and thrive. It is also crucial to improve human development and reduce poverty. But can we exploit the full potential of technology without an educated and literate population and without adequate infrastructure? This is the question that we all need to reflect.


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