Press release: Over US$400 million sitting dormant in public funds designed to expand internet access 

New research calls on governments to invest at least 50 per cent of government Universal Service and Access Funds in projects to expand women’s internet access and use  

Date: Monday, March 19, 2018

Media Contact:
Lauran Potter; +1 202-595-2892; press@webfoundation.org

New York —New research from the Web Foundation, the Alliance for Affordable Internet and UN Women, released today at the 62nd UN Commission on the Status of Women, calls on governments to invest at least 50 per cent 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. The report warns that failure to utilize 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 is online, and the continent has the widest gap in internet use between men and women (25 per cent). 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 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 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 underutilized opportunity for making real progressan 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 stothe 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 per cent of them in projects aimed at bringing more women online.” 

The full report, Universal Service and Access Funds: An Untapped Resource to Close the Gender Digital Divide, is available at webfoundation.org/research/closing-gender-digital-divide-in-africa/

Notes

For more information or interview requests, please email press@webfoundation.org

About the report

This report examines the status, existing funding, and disbursement levels of Universal Service and Access Funds (USAFs) in Africa, as well as what these funds are currently doing to address the digital gender gap. Research, which began in mid-2017, included (1) desk research, using publicly available documentation and analysis about USAFs in Africa provided by governments, regulators, mobile operators, and the media; (2) a partnership with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to conduct surveys of governments in that region and their use of USAFs; and (3) interviews with USAF management in Mozambique, Ghana, and Benin. 

About the Web Foundation

The World Wide Web Foundation is an independent, international organisation working for digital equality – a world where everyone has the same rights and opportunities online. Established in 2009 by web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the Web Foundation works to advance a free and open web 'for everyone' by influencing government and corporate policies to ensure everyone can use the web freely and fully. 

About the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI)

The Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) is the world’s broadest technology sector coalition working to reduce the cost of internet access to enable universal, affordable access for all. Initiated by the Web Foundation in 2013, the Alliance is composed of 80+ member organizations from across the private, public, and not-for-profit sectors in both developed and developing countries. Working through a consultative, locally-driven and locally-led process in member countries throughout Africa, Asia, and Latin America, A4AI works to shape the policies and regulations needed to drive down prices and enable everyone, everywhere to afford to connect. 

About UN Women

UN Women is the UN organization dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women. A global champion for women and girls, UN Women was established to accelerate progress on meeting their needs worldwide. UN Women supports UN Member States as they set global standards for achieving gender equality, and works with governments and civil society to design laws, policies, programmes and services needed to implement these standards. It stands behind women’s equal participation in all aspects of life, focusing on five priority areas: increasing women’s leadership and participation; ending violence against women; engaging women in all aspects of peace and security processes; enhancing women’s economic empowerment; and making gender equality central to national development planning and budgeting. UN Women also coordinates and promotes the UN system’s work in advancing gender equality.