The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified development challenges and sharpened the view on opportunities to overcome them. Evidently, policymakers were confronted with the healthcare system’s limitations, and the socio-economic impacts from the crisis directed the focus on social assistance, agriculture and food processing, and the need for accelerating reforms necessary to develop more of a partnership with the private sector.
As a country with a young and growing, largely rural population, with legacy challenges of considerable connectivity constraints, Tajikistan has felt acutely institutional and infrastructure constraints during the partial lockdown and strict travel restrictions, with a growing sense of translating these weaknesses into sources of post-crisis recovery and resilience.
Central to this effort is the prospect of digital transformation, with a view to increasing the quality of public service delivery and crowding in private-sector activities, including in the country’s rural and remote regions.
With a view to “leapfrogging” into a digital future, Tajikistan has the potential to respond to the pandemic’s detrimental development impacts substantively—as a critical element of an economic policy package with which to strengthen the foundation for a dynamic, sustainable, and inclusive recovery over the longer term.
The digital agenda was of global strategic significance well before the pandemic, and it has grown exponentially as a result of the crisis. Indeed, COVID-19 has unleashed an unprecedented dynamism in digital innovations. Throughout the world, digital technologies have provided governments, businesses, and individuals with the means to cope with social distancing, ensure business continuity, and enable remote learning.
Reliable, high-speed internet has helped to prevent service interruptions that would otherwise have contributed to welfare, revenue, and employment losses. Governments and businesses across the globe have negotiated virtually, while families have benefited from access to online education and e-health services.
Tajikistan has already seen the benefits of an advanced ICT industry. During 2000–15, it was one of the country’s fastest growing sectors, contributing to socio-economic development and, indirectly, to state budget revenues.
Through transparent licensing procedures and low licensing fees, Tajikistan translated effectively its economy’s relative weakness—low penetration rates—into an ability to attract reputable international operators. In early 2015, the telecom regulator reported ICT revenue growth rates of close to 15 percent. Since then, however, gross revenues in the ICT sector have started to fall gradually, with the number of new subscribers having begun to decelerate.
This has affected the present situation. Today, Tajikistan is suffering from limited access to, and high prices for, internet services, especially in rural areas, where more than 70 percent of the population lives. In 2019, far less than one in a hundred households had broadband internet access (primarily in urban areas), and only 35 percent had mobile internet access.
Similarly, only a handful of enterprises have broadband access and fewer than one percent offer digital services. This limited use of the internet has hindered economic development, including the transformation of the country’s industrial sectors. The situation is aggravated by high prices for international connectivity, the high cost of public services, limited local connections, and weak content development.
The principal question is whether the changing regulatory environment and the lack of a level playing field in the market (given the dominance of the state-owned telecom company) have contributed to the worsening sector performance. Similarly, critical are the potential links between high tax margins and the ability to reinvest funds in 3G/4G infrastructure and general industry development.
It is understood that, without the expansion of high-speed internet, digital transformation will not be possible in Tajikistan, and e-government services and mobile financial applications cannot be advanced. Without a focus on the required reforms, prices will remain among the highest in the world, even in face of limited access and low speeds.
The Government of Tajikistan has expressed interest in fostering the development of a digital economy and, in this context, joining the World Bank-financed Digital CASA project. The project aims at increasing access to more affordable internet, crowding in private investment in the ICT sector, and improving the Government’s capacity to deliver digitally public services.
Related interventions are embedded in related infrastructure investments in Central Asia and parts of South Asia, through which a regionally integrated digital infrastructure is to be developed and an enabling environment supported. Tajikistan’s central location in the region—it shares borders with Afghanistan, the Kyrgyz Republic, and Uzbekistan—positions it as a strategic linchpin in the regional network infrastructure as envisioned by broad Digital CASA design.
For this intervention to provide the envisaged COVID-19 response potential, Tajikistan will be collaborating with World Bank experts in implementing less restrictive regulatory policies, ensuring better connectivity, and improving the sector’s operational and financial performance. These reforms and interventions would help to generate additional resources that could be re-invested in more innovative, affordable, and accessible services.
If successful, this kind of ICT strategy—with forward-looking, dynamic, and profitable firms employing (young) people countrywide—would stimulate significant socio-economic development and yield additional revenues for the state budget.
By removing entry barriers and implementing a modern regulatory framework, Tajikistan could attract more private investment, thereby creating a virtuous cycle as newly established, profitable private enterprises would co-finance the deployment of broadband infrastructure and improved network capacity, including last-mile investments.
There is considerable interest in, and potential for, the full digital transformation of Tajikistan’s economy, from new tech firms to e-government, cashless payments, and smart city solutions. For this to work, however, removing the existing constraints to a more favorable business environment would have to be a policy priority
If given the right support, Tajikistan’s digital transformation could help the country to emerge from the COVID-19 crisis stronger, more competitive, and ready to support efforts in addressing development challenges and creating new opportunities. Notwithstanding the inflationary use of transformational objectives, for young Tajiks it is clear: