About $408 million expected to help Nigeria, and other sub-Saharan African (SSA) countries expand Internet access and reach on the Continent, is said to be lying idle. The fund is otherwise known as Universal Service and Access Funds (USAFs).
USAFs are communal public funds dedicated to expanding Internet connectivity and access opportunities for the populations and other underserved communities who are least likely to be connected through market forces alone.
According to the Web Foundation, the Alliance for Affordable Internet and the United Nation (UN) Women, which conducted a research released on Monday, they accused African governments of failing to take action to connect women and other offline populations — despite the existence of funds earmarked for this purpose.
These bodies called on governments to invest at least 50 per cent of the funds for the expansion of connectivity in projects targeting women’s Internet access and use.
The report warned that failure to utilise these funds — enough to bring six million women online, or to provide digital skills training to 16 million women and girls — to expand connectivity to all, risks widening global inequality and undermining global development.
Though nearly half the world is online today, close to four billion people remain unconnected. Just 22 per cent of the population in Africa (1.216 billion) is online, and the Continent has the widest gap in Internet use between men and women (25 per cent).
In Nigeria, as at two years ago, about 40 million people residing in some 205 communities have not had access to basic telephony service. There are currently 100 million Internet users, out of the estimated 190 million people in the country.
The UN report, titled: ‘Universal Service and Access Funds: An Untapped Resource to Close the Gender Digital Divide’, examined the existence and use of USAFs across Africa, and the extent to which these funds are being put to use to improve Internet access and use among women.
The research finds that a majority of African countries have a USAF in place that is collecting funds. 37 African countries (or almost 70 per cent) have a USAF set up, and 62 per cent of these funds are considered ‘active’.
But, most governments are failing to spend the USAF funds collected. In 2016, USAFs across Africa disbursed just 54 per cent of funds collected. Across all 37 USAFs in Africa, unspent funds total an estimated $408 million — enough to bring six million women online, or to provide digital skills training to 16 million women and girls.
According to the report, few countries are focused on improving women’s Internet access and use — despite the worsening digital gender gap. Just three of the 37 countries with USAFs have universal access policies guiding the USAF that explicitly aim to connect women and girls through the fund.
Most USAF managers do not yet appreciate the importance of investing in solutions to reduce the gender digital divide. Many assume that investment in any internet access solution will equally benefit both men and women, which is unfortunately not the case.
Information about USAF financing, programming, and disbursement is hard to find. Just 23 countries openly publish details on their USAF activities; even when they do publish these details, they can be hard to find and hard to understand, leaving citizens little power to hold the USAF to account.