Accessibility links

Pakistan Seeking to Tap Global Outsourcing Trade


Inspired by India's success, Pakistan is trying to tap into the global outsourcing trade. Despite its reputation for political insecurity, Pakistan wants to be seen as a leading market for Information Technology - or IT - work.

Twenty-one year-old Naveed Ahmed is editing his final report on a computer at Quaid-I-Azam University in Islamabad.

The computer lab where he works is in an old building with paint peeling off the walls. Stray dogs roam the path outside the building despite the rusted chain link fence that surrounds the campus.

Last month, just a few kilometers down the road, a suicide bomb attack killed 19 people at a religious shrine.

But Naveed says none of this can distract him from his work. In two weeks he says his report will be done and he will graduate with a degree in computer science.

And when he does, he says Pakistan will be the perfect place to launch his career as a computer software engineer. "There is very much opportunity here. Progress in the IT [information technology] field is especially strong, so there are very bright chances of a job," he says.

It is a message the government here is eager to reinforce.

Local economists say Pakistan's information technology business will probably double in size next year and help students like Naveed participate in the global economy.

For more than a decade, Pakistan could only watch as India became a global powerhouse in computer technology. Last year Indian software and computer services exports topped $17 billion.

Pakistan, by contrast, made about $300 million. But local officials say India's success could actually help Pakistan attract business.

Aamir Matin is the managing director of Pakistan's Software Export Board. He says new investors are having a tough time getting started in India's established IT sector. "So you say, 'Okay, I want an office like this.' They say, 'Too bad, offices like this don't exist anymore.' You say 'I want a workforce just like the workforce you've got.' They say, 'Well, we've unfortunately drained the entire workforce in the country. Everybody is happily employed.'"

But in Pakistan, he says qualified workers are still easy to find and cheap to hire. And businesses that have come to Pakistan say the country offers many of the same advantages as India.

Ahmed Alsaidi is the managing director of Clarus, a mid-size IT company that moved to Karachi in 2001. "It is the same talent pool as you would find in India; you find some people with very good English," he says. "You have hardworking people, dedicated people."

And Mr. Alsaidi says Pakistan's government is clearly committed to helping the IT sector grow.

The newly deregulated telecommunications industry has attracted billions of dollars in overseas investments and this has helped expand the country's IT networks.

In 2001 for example, there were two-and-half-million cell-phone subscribers. Today, there are around eight million. And the cost of accessing and transmitting information over the Internet is now the lowest in South Asia.

The government also cut corporate taxes on software exports and has promised to crack down on computer piracy.

Currently, Clarus employs around 50 people. But Mr. Alsaidi says the way things are going in Pakistan, by 2008 the company should have more than 300 employees."Timing is right now. I firmly believe that. The timing is absolutely right now. There's so many things this country can offer, it's a matter of timing," he says.

Unfortunately, not everyone is so optimistic. For all its potential, many investors say doing business in Pakistan is still too risky.

Local officials admit Pakistan's reputation for terrorism and political instability costs the country millions, perhaps billions of dollars in lost investments.

The Software Export Board's Aamir Matin says every time a bomb goes off in Pakistan, IT companies around the world look someplace else to do business.

The country's future, he says, depends on students like Naveed Ahmed and their ability to lure investors to Pakistan.

Bright, ambitious, hard working, Naveed represents the new face of Pakistan's modern workforce. And in just a few weeks he will find out if anyone is hiring.

XS
SM
MD
LG