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2021 Debate Insights

Disconnected from the Future: Bridging the Digital Divide for a Universal Post-Covid Recovery

Author: Sciences Po student Thomas Singbeh summarizes the debate session of the fourth edition of the Paris Peace Forum

Date: 12 November 2021

 

Disconnected from the Future: Bridging the Digital Divide for a Universal Post-Covid Recovery

The massive scale of Africa’s digital divide has become more obvious as a result of the Covid pandemic. Despite the tectonic rise in internet connectivity and access globally, over half of Africa’s population still lacks basic access to a computer, high speed internet connectivity, or knowledge in operating digital devices. A recent report from the Mo Ibrahim Foundation’s Forum revealed that about 89% of students in Sub-Saharan Africa lacks access to home computers, and a significant percentage of even those with computer access do not have the proper skills to use them. This session “Disconnected from the Future: Bridging the Digital Divide for a Universal Post-Covid Recovery” welcomed several interesting speakers with vast experiences in the ICT sector, development community, and the digital policymaking space of the African continent. They include: Cina Lawson -Togolese Minister for Digital Economy and Transformation, Dr. Amr Talaat – Egyptian Minister for Communication and Information Technology, Koen Doens – Deputy Director-General for International Cooperation and Development, European Commission, and Peter Ib – Chief Executive Officer of Bluetown. Mo Ibrahim, Chairman of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation moderated this session.

Comparably, Africa’s digital position is regrettably at the bottom in relation to other continents. Digital divide generally refers to inequality or the gap in the distribution, access (including affordability), usage and benefits of digital technologies. How can the digital divide in Africa be bridged?  As students and workers across the world migrated to the virtual space amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, many African schools and businesses were forced to suspend operations because of the difficulties in both internet access and usage. Even those with virtual learning programs faced challenges that made learning virtually impossible. For example, in its 2020 pilot e-learning special semester, the University of Liberia, recorded significant challenges, notably in faculty and students access to internet, digital devices and knowledge of digital technologies. Enrollment dramatically decreased and faculty performance was exceptionally dismal, with nearly 80% of instructors reporting minimum to no computer literacy, limited smartphone usage or difficulties in internet access.

At the same time, the African Union has launched a 10-year Digital Transformation Strategy for Africa (2020- 2030) as a collective measure to shatter the digital divide and promote digital entrepreneurship, education, innovation, e-governance, continental integration, and to facilitate sustainable economic development by combating poverty. However, the key question still remains, what are the underlying factors behind Africa’s digital divide and how can it be addressed to stimulate a resilient post-Covid recovery? The question is one that beckons responses of strategy and strategic implementation.

Over the last few years, African states have been taking several steady steps in developing both the infrastructure, digital literacy and internet penetration rates to improve their visibility in the digital economy amidst the tremendous scarcity of resources. In her initial comments about the case of Togo, Cina Lawson highlighted that the “Convergence between digital and electricity” remains a foremost priority. The success of Africa’s involvement in the digital space would primarily mean addressing other connected issues, such as electricity and the development of the digital infrastructure. Improving the connectivity rate through aggressive internet penetration and securing high speed internet fiber optic cables and power lines would involve considerable investment and partnership with ICT companies and telecom operators, she remarked.

However, some states across the African continent seem to be making faster progress than others. Egypt, for instance, has invested about $2 billion dollars in digital infrastructure development since 2019, which in the words of Dr. Talaat has helped the country “in terms of digital infrastructure, in terms of fixed broadband as well as mobile services.” With such “big strides in ICT”, Mo Ibrahim stated, there is still a huge gap across the African region especially in the area of digital literacy to bolster efficiency and competitiveness in the labor market. Dr. Talaat explained: “The most difficult part when we address the digital divide is the ICT skills that we all need to build in our African countries and this is an area we need to focus on not only for ICT professionals, that they can compete effectively in the labor market, but also for non ICT professionals.” Another interesting point in the digital divide debate is that it cannot be attributed solely to “a split between least developed countries and the middle-income countries, or within countries between rural areas and urban areas” as Koen Doens intimated, but must also consider the presence of a gender gap which is largely influenced by the disparity between male and female education rates throughout the African continent.

For Peter Ib, addressing the digital divide in Africa should factor in concerns of sustainability, affordability and multi-stakeholder engagement to widen the impact. He argued that these partnerships help promote financial inclusion by subsidizing revenue streams for capital intensive projects that provide speedy connectivity and enhance business operations at the lowest cost. This could also have further positive human development impact, as he hinted: “You will increase the income level for the people living in these rural areas and slowly start to see an improvement in the quality of life in these areas.” Although public-private partnership has scalable effects, the commitment of political authorities, entrenched corruption, energy deficit, and the gap in policy implementation remain hindrances, undermining the digital transition process.

Finally, it’s no evidence that the pandemic has exposed or exacerbated the large digital divide in Africa, particularly in the Sub-Saharan region, but it’s key to also recognize that the pandemic implores some moments of critical reflection. Thus, as Cina pointed out, it presents an “opportunity to really take decisions in terms of what we do to improve access to infrastructure, basic infrastructure on the continent and again converging electricity and digital”.

 

Contribution by Thomas Singbeh

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