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Using Africa’s Unspent Millions to Close the Digital Gender Gap

A recent study has found there’s $408 million sitting in unused funds across Africa – money that could be used to get millions more women and girls online. The Alliance for Affordable Internet’s Dhanaraj Thakur explains how.

Written by Megan Clement Published on Read time Approx. 7 minutes
Women and girls in Africa are held back by cost, access, skills and content. But the money is there to help turn that around.Eric Lafforgue/Art in All of Us/Corbis via Getty Images

Africa has the largest gender gap of any region in the world when it comes to internet use: 25 percent fewer women are online than men, and 14 percent fewer women own a mobile phone.

Cost is often cited as a major factor in preventing women from getting connected to mobile or internet services, but a recent study from the World Wide Web Foundation and the Alliance for Affordable Internet has found that 37 nations across Africa could be sitting on $408 million in already-raised funds that could be used to close the gender gap.

The money has been levied from mobile operators by governments into Universal Service and Access Funds (USAFs), which are intended to widen access to digital services across the board. The study’s lead author, Dhanaraj Thakur, says if 50 percent of that money were targeted to women and girls, it could be leveraged to close the continent’s digital gap entirely in the next 12 years.

The study, funded by U.N. Women, found that USAFs are not currently being used to their full potential. A general lack of transparency meant that even collecting data for the study was difficult, Thakur says. His analysis showed that just 54 percent of money held in USAFs was disbursed at all in 2016. And only three countries – Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda – operated a dedicated gender program from their funds.

“I think if the funds were used in a smart and targeted way, in the way we are suggesting, then it can really make a difference,” he said.

News Deeply spoke to Thakur, senior research manager at the Alliance for Affordable Internet, about what drives the digital gender gap, and how USAFs can help.

Women’s Advancement Deeply: What is the intention in setting up Universal Service and Access Funds, and how are they supposed to work?

Dhanaraj Thakur: Many governments created these funds as a way to close the access gap where [mobile] companies didn’t think it was profitable enough to invest, typically rural areas. These funds would step in and would typically subsidize investments by mobile phone operators to create connectivities and infrastructure in those areas. It would therefore allow mobile operators to build up infrastructure in a lot of these areas that would not otherwise see that kind of connectivity.

It’s basically using these levies on mobile phone operators to redistribute funds, or redistribute investments in the other areas. Everyone, ideally, would then get online.

Women’s Advancement Deeply: That’s how they’re supposed to work, but your research shows they’re not necessarily working in that way. Why is it that you found the funds were not necessarily effective in providing wider access?

Thakur: One of the biggest problems is the lack of transparency in how much money is being collected, how much is being disbursed, and where. If there were greater transparency, then you would see more efficiency in how the funds are being used. With greater transparency, ideally, you would expect more efficient investments.

Women’s Advancement Deeply: Given that you found there is limited success across Africa in using USAFs, why do you recommend using them to close the gender gap?

Thakur: There have been a lot of criticisms of USAFs, and we pointed out a lot of weaknesses in the report. But we still think they’re an important tool. These are public investments and we will always need public investments, because mobile phone operators have different standards to operate by. And so they’re not going to always invest in every community and every area.

On one level, we need to improve the efficiency of these funds, and that is why we have recommendations on improving transparency, having disbursement targets and using open data. But because they are public investments, we could go further. And so we argue that it can actually be used to address this much larger problem of the gender gap.

Women’s Advancement Deeply: What are some of the major factors that drive Africa’s digital and mobile gender gap?

Thakur: First of all, it’s important to emphasize what it means to have meaningful access to the internet: having a good, affordable connection and then being able to use it in a way that makes sense for you. It’s very important that everyone has this kind of access.

One of the challenges is the gender gap in access, meaning that men are more likely to use the internet and men are more likely to make better use of the internet. The factors behind that include things like cost – it ends up being relatively more expensive for a woman, in part because of the wage gap.

Then there is a skills issue. Different levels of educational attainment also have an impact on people’s ability to make use of the internet, to know what applications make sense for you, and how to leverage those applications.

Then there are what some people might call cultural issues, but what I would call patriarchal norms. For example, some women in many communities have public access – they might not be connected to a smartphone with a data plan, but they might be able to go to a community center or a library to access the internet. But in those spaces, sometimes, it’s more difficult for a woman to use computers in a safe and comfortable environment, because of possible harassment.

There are multiple factors that are driving this gap, and the underlying problem in all these factors is the systemic problem of gender distribution influence, or if you want to use the term: patriarchy. I would argue that is the underlying problem area that manifests itself in all these different ways.

Women’s Advancement Deeply: This is the idea that technology reflects the world that we have as opposed to being something that is neutral.

Thakur: This is critical. Unfortunately, many of the fund managers that we spoke to had this sense that putting forward a technical intervention was neutral, when we know that these things are never neutral. But there’s a false assumption that it is, and that’s a huge problem.

Women’s Advancement Deeply: For some, it might seem that the inevitable conclusion of that argument is that we can’t do anything about the digital gender gap until we fix the patriarchy. But you’re saying that there are targeted things we can do, as well as working on the underlying societal and cultural barriers for women?

Thakur: One of the arguments we make in this report is that you can have targeted interventions that address the specific access and use-needs of women and girls, but at the same time, we still need to address this problem of norms, and the way people think about gender. That actually has nothing to do with technology, but just the fundamental ways we think about gender relationships.

Uganda is one of the only countries to have dedicated parts of its USAF to closing the digital gender gap. (Michele Sibiloni/AFP/Getty Images)

One of the things we suggest, then, is within the Universal Service and Access Fund itself, why not have this separate exercise where all the staff actually consider what it means to be a man and woman within that society, what constraints men and women face? Hopefully, in that discussion you can highlight some of the imbalances and discrimination.

We have to have targeted interventions from the start, and recognize that the status quo is not going to be neutral, and it’s not going to address the problem of the gender gap.

Women’s Advancement Deeply: Let’s say we’ve got an example country that has a USAF and it’s waiting to disburse its money – how would recommend it do so, in terms of helping close the gender gap?

Thakur: I think the first step is to develop targets. We can say, for example, within five years the country should reduce the [gender] gap by a certain amount, and within 10 years eliminate the gap. If we have that overall policy goal, then now we can see how the fund might contribute to achieving it.

One of the recommendations we have is to allocate 50 percent of the funds to specific interventions that improve access and use for women and girls.

I say access and use because it’s not just about investing in a community center, for example, that has several desktop machines which are connected [to the internet] and that will be accessible for women and girls, but also ensuring that they have the right kinds of skills.

We can address the access issue, but the funds can also get involved in the larger issue of content. What kind of content would be useful and meaningful for women? I raise that question because we shouldn’t assume that the content that’s made available through social media platforms or through data services that mobile phone operators provide are going to be attractive to both men and women.

Content must be applicable to all consumers, since this is a business, but it must definitely not be applicable to men to the exclusion of women.

One of the points that I want to push more is for USAF fund managers – they’re all men – to think about these issues in greater detail. The problem is really about the way men think about these issues: If we are to encourage us men to think differently, we need to have these conversations.

In our interviews with fund managers, the idea [that came up] was, “Why do we need to have targeted interventions for women and girls when we are investing in projects in rural communities?” And, “There’s no discrimination. Anyone, a man or woman, can come and access the internet, so what’s the problem?”

The problem is that just because you set up a facility or develop an intervention, you cannot assume that people can access these interventions and facilities in the same way.

There are lots of factors that prevent women from equally accessing these types of facilities, compared to men. And as long as we hold on to these assumptions that benefits will be distributed equally because there’s no overt discrimination, then USAFs as they are now are not going to work. That’s why we want to vigorously encourage fund managers to think differently about this.

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