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Are Universal Service Funds being used to close the online gender gap?

Web Foundation · May 9, 2017

In our work to tackle the growing digital gender gap and enable universal access — regardless of gender, income, or location — we often mention the potential of Universal Service and Access Funds (USAFs) to achieve these goals. USAFs (sometimes also called USFs) are government-managed funds, financed by contributions from a country’s telecommunications operators, and designed to deliver ICT access to a country’s population.

These funds can be used to help close the digital divide — and the growing digital gender gap — by supporting public access initiatives, device subsidies, and digital skills training for women and other marginalised populations. For the most part, however, details on how USAF money is used to further the fund’s stated goals can be hard to come by. That’s why the Web Foundation and A4AI have collaborated with UN Women to uncover fresh information on where USAFs are in place and how they’re being used to advance access — if they’re being used at all.

This week, at the Transform Africa Summit in Kigali, Rwanda, UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Mgcuka is presenting the preliminary findings of this study, focused on USAFs across the 18 SMART Africa member states. The full study, which will be completed over the coming months, will aim to determine levels of USAF activity among 20 African countries.

In the meanwhile, here’s a look at some of our initial findings:

  • The majority of SMART Africa member states have some form of USAF in place. Nearly 90% of SMART Africa countries have a USAF in place. Djibouti and South Sudan have no USAF, or have no publicly available information regarding a USAF; Mali and Angola both have USAFs in place, but both funds are inactive.
  • However, USAFs remain an untapped resource for achieving digital equality. In the five SMART Africa countries which openly publish details on USAF spending (Benin, Kenya, Rwanda, Togo and Uganda), we estimate that at least $59 million — enough to provide basic digital skills training to over 18 million women — is sitting unused, or has been diverted to other non-ICT agencies. Given that 14 of the 18 SMART Africa countries have active USAFs, the total figure is likely to be far higher.
  • Most USAFs do not explicitly take gender considerations into account. Only two SMART Africa countries (Kenya and Uganda) consider gender in their universal service and access policies and plans (i.e., have specific objectives on closing the gender digital divide or on increasing women’s access, skills and use).

Our research so far makes one point clear: USAFs remain a vastly underutilised tool for tackling gaps in internet access and use. If we are to realise the global goal for universal, affordable access (Sustainable Development Goal 9c), governments must ensure that universal access policies employ USAFs to support both internet access and use programmes for all — and especially for women and girls, who are being left behind. Greater transparency in USAF operations will be a critical step towards ensuring that these funds are being effectively used to make internet access for all a reality.


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