by AKANI CHAUKE
JOHANNESBURG, (CAJ News) – AN estimated US$408 million collected to expand internet access throughout Africa is sitting dormant in public coffers yet the continent is struggling to connect women and other offline populations.
Failure to utilize these funds—enough to bring six million women online, or to provide digital skills training to 16 million women and girls—, risks widening global inequality and undermining global development.
These are among the findings by the Web Foundation, Alliance for Affordable Internet and United Nations Women, released in New York on Monday at the 62nd UN Commission on the Status of Women.
Just 22 percent of the population in Africa is online. The continent also has the widest gap in internet use between men and women (25 percent).
Universal Service and Access Funds (USAFs), which are underutilised, are communal public funds dedicated to expanding internet connectivity and access opportunities for underserved communities who are least likely to be connected through market forces alone.
A majority of African countries have a USAF in place that is collecting funds. 37 African countries (or almost 70 percent) have a USAF set up, and 62 percent of these funds are considered ‘active’.
However, most governments are failing to spend the funds collected. In 2016, USAFs across Africa disbursed just 54 percent of funds collected.
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women, said failure to utilise the funds sidelined women and girls in the digital revolution.
“We call on governments to take immediate action to put these funds toward their intended purpose, and to work to make the digital divide history—starting with women and girls,” she said.
Sonia Jorge, Executive Director of the Alliance for Affordable Internet and Head of Digital Inclusion Programmes at the Web Foundation, said stakeholders could not reduce global inequality without closing the digital divide and online gender gap.
“We call on governments to make effective and timely use of available funds, and to invest at least 50 per cent of them in projects aimed at bringing more women online,” Jorge said.