New research from the Web Foundation, the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4Ai) and UN Women, released at the 62nd UN Commission on the Status of Women, calls on governments to invest at least 50% of funds collected for expanding connectivity in projects targeting women’s internet access and use.
With an estimated US $408 million collected to expand internet access throughout Africa sitting dormant in public coffers, the report finds that many African governments are failing to take action to connect women and other offline populations, despite the existence of funds earmarked for this purpose.
For instance, Kenya has one of the largest amounts sitting unspent with US $42.01 million (Kshs 420 million) unused in Universal Service and Access Funds (USAF) as the country has not disbursed any funds in the two years – 2015 and 2016. This, according to the report, is particularly problematic as in Nairobi’s slums, only 20% of women are connected to the internet, versus 57% of men.
The report warns that failure to utilise these funds – enough to bring 6 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 4 billion people remain unconnected. Just 22% of the population in Africa is online, and the continent has the widest gap in internet use between men and women (25%). Universal Service and Access Funds (USAFs) are communal public funds dedicated to expanding internet connectivity and access opportunities for these populations and other underserved communities who are least likely to be connected through market forces alone.
The report, Universal Service and Access Funds: An Untapped Resource to Close the Gender Digital Divide, examines 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 found that:
A majority of African countries have a USAF in place that is collecting funds. 37 African countries (or almost 70%) have a USAF set up, and 62% 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% of funds collected. Across all 37 USAFs in Africa, unspent funds total an estimated US$408 million – enough to bring 6 million women online, or to provide digital skills training to 16 million women and girls.
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.
Analysis in the report shows that in order to reduce the growing global gender gap in internet use – a gap which is widest in Africa – USAFs should boost investments in programmes that aim specifically to tackle obstacles to internet use and access faced by women.
Commenting on the report’s findings, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations, Executive Director of UN Women, said: “Universal Service and Access Funds offer an incredible and vastly underutilised opportunity for making real progress – an opportunity we cannot afford to miss. Every day that these funds remain unused is another day women and girls are sidelined 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.”
Sonia Jorge, Executive Director of the Alliance for Affordable Internet and Head of Digital Inclusion Programmes at the Web Foundation, added: “We can’t reduce global inequality without closing the digital divide and online gender gap. We must act now to stop the online world from entrenching offline inequalities. We call on governments to make effective and timely use of available funds, and to invest at least 50% of them in projects aimed at bringing more women online.”