Pakistan Leads the World in Low Cost Texting

Pakistan's 152 billion text messages and Rs. 40 billion in texting revenue in 2009-10 put it among the top-ranking nations for sms traffic, says a report produced by Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA).

The main driver for growth of texting in Pakistan has been its low cost compared with voice calls, a key reason for many users, including illiterate phone users, to be attracted to using text messages to communicate, according to a study done by Alex Gilchrist and Jim Linton Williams of the UK-based Popular Policy Engagement Lab. They start by asking literate relatives and friends to read text messages to them, and sometimes ask them to type messages for them as well. Gradually, they also learn to read and type text messages themselves.


A recent Brookings Institution paper titled A New Face of Education: Bringing Technology into the Classroom in the Developing World compared the effective use of cell phone text messaging in Pakistani schools with the failure of One-Laptop-Per Child (OLPC) scheme in Peruvian schools. It highlights Mobilink-UNESCO program to using text messaging increase literacy skills among rural girls in Pakistan. Each girl in the program uses her mobile phone to send an SMS message in Urdu to her teacher. After sending, she receives messages from her teacher in response, which she copies by hand in her notebook to practice her writing skills. Here's how Brookings paper describes the results:

"Initial outcomes look positive; after four months, the percentage of girls who achieved an A level on literacy examinations increased from 27 percent to 54 percent. Likewise, the percentage of girls who achieved a C level on examinations decreased from 52 percent to 15 percent. The power of mobile phone technology, which is fairly widespread in Pakistan, appears in this case to help hurdle several education barriers by finding new ways to support learning for rural girls in insecure areas—girls who usually have limited opportunities to attend school and who frequently do not receive individual attention when they do. Often they live in households with very few books or other materials to help them retain over summer vacation what they learned during the school year."

The Brookings report compares the use of low-cost, simple and ubiquitous cell phone technology for education in Pakistan with the deployment of relatively more expensive, more complicated and much less ubiquitous laptops to educate children as part of One-Laptop-Per-Child program in Peru. Here's how Brookings paper describes it:

"In Peru, a number of colorful laptops sit in a corner of a classroom covered with dust. Given to the school through a One Laptop Per Child program arranged by the Ministry of Education, the laptops were intended to improve students’ information communication technology (ICT) skills, as well as their content-related skills. Without the proper support for teacher training in how the laptops are used, with no follow-up or repair and maintenance contingencies, and with outdated and bug-infested software, the laptops are seen as unusable and serve little purpose. In this case, technology has not helped improve the educational experience of learners."

Health Care:

Mobile communications service provider Mobilink has recently partnered up with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), Pakistan's Ministry of Health (MoH) and GSMA Development Fund in an innovative pilot project which offers low cost mobile handsets and shared access to voice (PCOs) to Lady Health Workers delivering community-based health care in remote parts of the country. Mobilink hopes to bridge the communication gap between the LHW and their ability to access emergency health care and to help the worker earn extra income through the Mobilink PCO (Public Call Office).

Civil Society:

A recent study of the use of cell phones found that mobile phones are enabling low cost access to community members across class, linguistic and geographical boundaries to build and strengthen a strong civil society across the nation. They are an effective tool for educators, community organizers, NGOs, health care providers, social and political activists and businessmen to communicate with a large cross section of people in Pakistan, as well as to learn from them, and even collaborate with them. Here are some interesting highlights of the Gilchrist-Williams study which focuses on it:

1. 37 percent of the poorest 60 percent of Pakistan’s adults owned a mobile phone; that the majority had regular access to a mobile phone despite not owning one; and that 47 percent of phone-owners used SMS.

2. Just as many women as men have access to a mobile phone through one means or another – but that whereas men tend to own a phone, or to use the phone of a friend or of a Public Call Office, women tend to use a phone owned by an adult male family member.

3. Viral text messaging is widespread in Pakistan. The remarkably low cost of text messages in Pakistan allows this one-to-one viral transmission to achieve quite considerable scale. Jokes, proverbs, quotations, news and religious injunctions are all frequently forwarded, and are often adapted by users with unpredictable effect.


Deployment of simple, cheap and ubiquitous mobile phone technology and related services are helping Pakistan develop in ways that could not have been imagined just a few years ago. While there are some reported instances of the abuse of mobile phones by criminals and terrorists to harm people, I believe the net result has been that it is empowering individuals and society to become better educated, healthier, more informed and more productive to build a better Pakistan.

Related Links:

Haq's Musings

Cell Phones for Mass Literacy in Pakistan

Pakistan's Lady Health Workers Best in the World

Pakistan Tops Text Messaging Growth

Media and Telecom Boom in Pakistan

Pakistan 100 Mbps FTTH Launch


Riaz Haq said…
Here's a ProPakistan website story on Punjab govt's giveaway of 100,000 laptops to college students:

Punjab Government has planned to distribute 100,000 laptops amongst the top achievers in MS (Hons.), MA, MSC, LLB programmes, said an advertisement published in today’s papers.

All those students who achieved more than 60 percent marks in last annual examination or scored more than 70 percent in their last semester are eligible for the offer.

In addition, all registered students for MS, LLM, Ph.d and M.Phil will also get a free laptop.

Top 100 position holders from all Punjab boards in their matriculation examinations are going to get free laptops too.

Eligibility Criteria

One hundred thousand Laptops will be provided to following categories of youth in Punjab:

All students of 4 years BS Degree Programme who have secured
60% or above marks (in the previous year) in case of annual examination system OR
70% or above marks (in the previous semester) in case of semester system
All post graduate students (Part I & II) of 2 year Masters Degree Programme, who have secured
60% or above marks (in the previous year) in case of annual examination system OR
70% or above marks (in the previous semester) in case of semester system
All currently enrolled students/scholars of MS, LLM, M.Phil and Ph.D
The top 100 students of each Board of Intermediate and Secondary Education of Punjab

In case of 1st year students, the data for the last examination in which the student appeared, shall be considered.

Check if your name is in the list or not:

To see if your name was selected in the list or not, click on this link:
Uzair Sukhera said…
Though laptops are of much more value than OLPC yet there is a likelihood of repetition of the failures you mentioned in Peru's case (lack of content, support and digital libraries in med schools). Micheal Trucano on his world bank blog states the top reasons for failures of projects most of which haven't been addressed in the Govt of Punjab initiative (

Overall ICTs in education is doing a great job all over the world and there are a few stories from Pakistan as well. (Though its sad India is way ahead of us and there were hardly any jobs in this sector in Pakistan).

Here are two cases from Pakistan (Punjab and Sindh) about use of mobiles in education covered by World Bank Blog.
Riaz Haq said…
Education News reports concerns about the loss of Urdu script with growth of technology:

In SMS-happy Pakistani, many young people are writing their text messages in using the Latin alphabet, rather than the traditional Urdu script. That has some concerned that the classical script will disappear.

Cell phone users in Pakistan sent an average of 128 text messages each per month in 2009, government figures show.

That was the fifth highest figure among all countries in the world. Fueled by texting, a growing number of Pakistanis are using Latin letters to write Urdu, the national language, instead of using the official Urdu script.

Though the trend is limited, it has left some Urdu purists concerned about what happens if the trend continues.

While it may sound harmless, it has unintended consequences. Because the first generations of mobile phones couldn’t send text messages using Urdu script, Pakistanis improvised and started converting Urdu phrases into the Latin alphabet. Even though Urdu-capable phones are more common now, many people have become used to the Latin script.

Shaista Parween, a math and computer studies teacher, said texting-mad students are just as comfortable writing Urdu in Latin as they are using the regular script. In fact, she said they sometimes do schoolwork using the Latin alphabet.

“I’m facing this a lot in my classes,” Parween said. “Latin Urdu is being used so much, what can we do? We can’t say it’s wrong if they are trying. It’s used so much in the media and television, that’s why.”

Officially Urdu is written in a variation of the Arabic script. But while the use of Latin letters for Urdu has reached high levels, though still a minority, it isn’t the first time it’s been done.

European missionaries and administrators converted Urdu into the Latin script in the 18th century. And in the 1950s, military ruler Ayub Khan proposed officially writing Urdu in Latin letters, just as Mustafa Kemal Atatürk had done with Turkish decades earlier. But religious leaders said the Arabic script was an important connection to Pakistan’s Islamic identity, so Ayub abandoned the idea.

But now, tech-savvy kids are doing what a military dictator couldn’t achieve 40-years ago. And many Pakistanis aren’t happy about it.

“Trying to write a language in another script is like trying to drop off your skin and trying to have a new one,” said Rauf Parekh, an assistant professor at the University of Karachi’s Urdu Department.

He’s concerned about the impact this will make on society if people stop learning the Urdu script.

“They will be cut off from their culture, from their tradition, their history, their classical literature. How are they going to enjoy if they cannot read it in the original. So it’s a kind of deprivation on cultural and educational side. They won’t feel it perhaps now, but maybe hundred years from now they will realize what a great loss they have incurred,” he said.

While Parekh bemoans the loss of traditional Pakistani culture, a new kind of “text messaging culture” is emerging. Pakistanis use text messages for just about anything, but especially for passing on political jokes, poetry, quotes and for flirting.
One book is titled “Cool SMS,” another “Love & Love SMS.” Each joke or poem is printed in both the Urdu script and the Latin transliteration.

“It’s been about 10 years that these books have been published now,” shop owner Basharat explained. “There was a lot of demand for them initially. This is because the majority of our population is not educated, so Latin Urdu books were made so that every person can read the books and send SMSs. It made it so much easier.”..
Riaz Haq said…
Here's a BBC story on an experiment involving slum children learning to use computers on their own:

(Prof Mitra) has watched the children teach themselves - and others - how to use the machines and gather information.
Professor Mitra's work began (in 1999) when he was working for a software company and decided to embed a computer in the wall of his office in Delhi that was facing a slum.

"The children barely went to school, they didn't know any English, they had never seen a computer before and they didn't know what the internet was."

To his surprise, the children quickly figured out how to use the computers and access the internet.

"I repeated the experiment across India and noticed that children will learn to do what they want to learn to do."

He saw children teaching each other how to use the computer and picking up new skills.

One group in Rajasthan, he said, learnt how to record and play music on the computer within four hours of it arriving in their village.

"At the end of it we concluded that groups of children can learn to use computers on their own irrespective of who or where they are," he said.

His experiments then become more ambitious and more global.

In Cambodia, for example, he left a simple maths game for children to play with.

"No child would play with it inside the classroom. If you leave it on the pavement and all the adults go away then they will show off to one another about what they can do," said Prof Mitra, who now works at Newcastle University in the UK.

He has continued his work in India.
Stress test

"I wanted to test the limits of this system," he said. "I set myself an impossible target: can Tamil speaking 12-year-olds in south India teach themselves biotechnology in English on their own?"

The researcher gathered 26 children and gave them computers preloaded with information in English.

"I told them: 'there is some very difficult stuff on this computer, I won't be surprised if you don't understand anything'."

Two months later, he returned.

Initially the children said they had not learnt anything, despite the fact that they used the computers everyday.

"Then a 12-year-old girl raised her hand and said 'apart from the fact that improper replication of the DNA contributes to genetic disease - we've understood nothing else'."

Further experiment showed that having a person - known as "the granny figure" - stand behind the children and encourage them raised standards even higher.

Returning to the UK, he fine-tuned his method even further.

He gave groups of four children a computer each and set them a series of GCSE questions.

The groups were allowed to exchange information and swap members.

"The best group solved everything in 20 minutes, the worst in 45 minutes."

To prove that the children were learning, and not just skimming information off the web, he returned two months later and set the same questions. Crucially, this time the children had to answer them on their own with no computer aids.

"The average score when I did it with computers was 76%. When I did it without computers, the average score was 76% - they had near photographic recall."

Professor Mitra has now formalised the lessons from his experiments and has come up with a new concept for schools called SOLE (Self Organised Learning Environments).

These spaces consist of a computer with a bench big enough to let four children sit around the screen.

"It doesn't work if you give them each a computer individually," he said.

For his experiments he has also created a "granny cloud" - 200 volunteer grandmothers who can be called upon to video chat with the kids and provide encouragement..
Riaz Haq said…
Here's Daily Times on more midwives for Pakistan:

Speakers at the second annual conference on Maternal and Newborn Health Programme have stressed the importance of research-based evidence to improve policies and practices related to maternal and newborn health in Pakistan.

The conference was held on Thursday, with the theme ‘Bridging the Gap – Evidence for Policy and Practice’. Findings and lessons from projects funded by Research & Advocacy Fund (RAF) were presented. Sessions focussed on the cost and financing of maternal and newborn health in Pakistan, socio-economic and cultural factors affecting maternal and newborn health and engaging with civil society to improve health outcomes.

Delegates from both the public and private sector, including provincial secretaries and director generals of health and heads of various national and international NGOs attended the event.

Planning Commission of Pakistan’s deputy chairperson, Dr. Nadeem ul Haq hoped the commission will learn from the research findings from RAF work.

Peter Upton, Director British Council, Desmond Whyms, Senior Health Advisor UKaid, Andrew Mackee, Acting Counsellor Development Cooperation AusAID and Sarah Hall, Programme Manager RAF also addressed the audience, stressing the respective commitments of their organisations to remain engaged in improving Pakistan’s health outcomes. The speakers highlighted the purpose of RAF, and stressed the need to share knowledge, information and strengthen collaboration between national, provincial and local public and private stakeholders to work together to improve maternal and newborn health in Pakistan.

“Women and children are the UK’s number one health priority in Pakistan” said Desmond Whyms. He claimed that by 2015, UK aid would have funded the training and deployment of 12,000 community based midwives, helped prevent the death of 3,600 mothers, delivered 350,000 more babies in hospitals and provided full immunisation for 280,000 children.\03\22\story_22-3-2013_pg11_3

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