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Decades On, the Elusive Quest for Meaningful Connectivity Persists

As nations worldwide join hands on August 1, 2023, to commemorate and celebrate the strides made in creating a connected world, there is a widening disparity between the haves and the have-nots, as the digital divide continues to stick out like a sore thumb and access to the internet is still far from ubiquitous.

The Global Digital Inclusion Partnership (GDIP) estimates that in Africa, a paltry 40 percent of the population has access to the Internet. It is three years after the year marker set for achieving SDG9c passed, yet the 46 Least Developed Countries (LDCs) still do not have universal and affordable access to the internet. SDG9c focused on Access to Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs). It sought to “significantly increase access to information and communications technology and strive to provide universal and affordable access to the Internet in least developed countries by 2020.” 

The Commemoration of World Wide Web Day comes at an opportune time when the world’s eyes are set on achieving universal connectivity in line with the global 2030 targets. ​​United Nations Member States adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in September 2015 at the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit. This framework supports sustainable development between 2015 and 2030 and comprises 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 Targets. Although there are no ICT-specific targets, there are at least seven ICT indicators covering six targets under Goals 4, 5, 9, and 17.

 In 2015, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) General Conference endorsed the concept of Internet Universality to support the growth, evolution and development of the Internet according to the ROAM principles of Human Rights, Openness, Accessibility, and Multi-stakeholder participation.

 However, in 2019, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) documented that an estimated 28.2 percent of Africa’s population was online compared to 82.5 percent in Europe. Two years later, ITU recorded these statistics as having improved, showing a rise in the number of people that use the internet in Africa. However, many blind spots remain as 37 percent of the world’s population, amounting to 2,9 billion people, have never used the internet, 96 percent of whom are from the least developed countries, 33 of which are within the African region.

For millions of Africans, meaningful connectivity remains elusive as the ITU shares that almost 30 percent of Africa’s rural population still lacks mobile broadband coverage, despite the many opportunities and benefits that the world wide web provides. Connected nations enjoy the world wide web’s essential features, which include hyperlinks, web browsers, web servers, search engines, uniform resource locators (urls) and hypertext markup language. These features have allowed the world wide web to become a powerful platform for streaming, live video calling, online learning and work, real-time global news resources, digital marketing and business, allowing users to share and access information on a global scale. Most recently, the world wide web has allowed a boom in generative artificial intelligence, demonstrating endless possibilities in connecting the world and solving the world’s most grand challenges. The world wide web has created seamless communication, defying global borders and creating a global village. The world wide web is enriching the human experience for those who are connected, while Africa remains at the tail end as the least connected region. This is a stark reminder of the digital divide that continues to ensue despite several advancements in the development of the world wide web. With all the challenges that bog Africa, one question remains, could meaningful connectivity still be a mirage?

Governments need to create policies supporting internet prosperity to reduce inequality and achieve universal and meaningful connectivity. The United Nations (UN) already created a Roadmap for Digital Cooperation for achieving meaningful connectivity and to support this, governments, civil society and communities should aim to accelerate discussions on connectivity. Governments in Africa should curb corruption and improve the use of the Universal Access and Service Fund (UASF) to provide the infrastructure that allows communities to access the world wide web and the many emerging technologies that require the world wide web. Of note is that over 30 African countries have adopted the UASF as their preferred universal access strategy for facilitating digital inclusion. However, research published by Paradigm Initiative Londa 2022 indicates that there is limited transparency on the use of the UASF in Botswana, Zimbabwe, South Sudan, Togo, and Benin, among others. It recommendations regular proactive disclosures of the value of the UASF in African countries. To bridge the digital gender gap, the research recommends that countries such as Ghana, that are ranked 117th out of 156 in the 2021 Global Gender Gap Index should invest about 50 percent of the funds in projects targeting vulnerable, marginalised groups and women’s quality internet access, and use. Moreso, many other governments in Africa should make targeted efforts to close the digital gender gap in Africa, to enable access to the Internet for all.

The writer is a Partnerships and Engagements Officer at Paradigm Initiative

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