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UN Tasks Africa on Internet Infrastructure for Inclusive, Sustainable Growth

The United Nations has urged African countries to invest in building resilient internet infrastructure to tap digital opportunities and accelerate social and economic transformation on the continent.

This is as global leaders attending the 17th Internet Governance Forum being held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, underscored the importance of digital technologies as tools for enhancing development across Africa.

The UN Secretary-General, Mr Antonio Guterres, told participants that while digital technologies were transforming lives and livelihoods, they were outpacing regulations and exacerbating inequalities around the world.

He called for a human-centred digital future based on a resilient internet that is open, inclusive, and secure for all, in line with his proposed Global Digital Compact. The proposed Global Digital Compact aims to deliver universal connectivity, close the digital divide and reach the millions of people who are not connected to the internet.

“The safe, secure human-centred digital space begins with the protection of free speech, freedom of expression, and the right to online autonomy and privacy,” said Mr Guterres, emphasizing that governments, private companies, and social media platforms have a responsibility to prevent online bullying and misinformation that undermines democracy, human rights, and science.

“We need to work for a safe, equitable, and open digital future that does not infringe on the privacy or dignity,” Mr Guterres urged.

On his part, the Acting Executive Secretary of the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), Antonio Pedro, said reducing the digital divide is essential to building new pathways for rapid economic growth, innovation, job creation, and access to services in Africa.

“Harmonizing regulations to remove barriers to connectivity both within African nations and across the continent is crucial,” said Mr Pedro, explaining that harmonized regulations will facilitate the operationalization of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). The AfCFTA is key to Africa’s food and energy security and fosters competitiveness through economies of scale and improved market access.

Statistics show that an estimated 871 million people are not connected to the internet in Africa, and access is even limited in rural areas. Though 70 per cent of Africa’s population technically has access to mobile internet, less than 25 per cent are making use of the internet due to the high cost of mobile internet across the region, Mr Pedro noted.

“The lack of digital and literacy skills is another key barrier to achieving digital inclusion,” said Mr Pedro, adding that “These skills gaps have been further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, where the expansion of online education, e-healthcare, e-commerce, and remote work, have left a large portion of the population without internet access even further behind.”

He said the need for meaningful digital connectivity to boost sustainable development, particularly for the Least Developing Countries (LDCs), has never been more urgent. Despite this, Africa has made some progress in promoting digital access.

“Now is the time to double down on our effort to close the digital infrastructure gap and to leverage digital technologies to power key initiatives in support of achieving a greener and more inclusive digital world and a just and sustainable development for all, “said Mr Pedro, remarking that a multi-sectoral approach in realizing a resilient and unfragmented internet in Africa was key.

“The implementation of digital technologies should progressively and continually mirror key principles of inclusion, representation and accessibility… Private sector involvement in spurring digital development, specifically infrastructure development, will leapfrog socio-economic development,” Mr Pedro underscored.

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