Andrus Ansip wants European aid to finance the African digital market

Andrus Ansip said he wants to create a new EU "centre of excellence" to deal with cybersecurity certification of technology products. [European Union]

Digital development should be put at the heart of the EU’s aid policy, the Commissioner for the Digital Single Market, Andrus Ansip, said at the European Development Days event in Brussels. EURACTIV France reports.

“New information and communications technologies play a central role in development,” Bibi Ameenah Firdaus, the president of Mauritius, said at the openining session of the European Development Days on Wednesday (15 June) in Brussels.

The tenth European Development Days event brought development actors together in the European capital for two days of debate on 15 and 16 June.

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The new 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were adopted by the international community in 2015, but many observers in the aid community believe they will be unattainable without the help of digital technology.

“If we do not manage to invest in mobile telephony, we will not achieve the Sustainable Development Goals,” said, Bob Collymore, the director of Kenyan telecoms company Safaricom, during a debate on the contribution of digital to the SDGs.

Increasingly present in agriculture, education, health and financial services, information technologies can often help to liberate poor populations, and are widely used in developing countries.

“In Togo, we have connected 4,400 village chiefs by giving them mobile phones and calling credit. This enables them to share local information,” said Cina Lawson, Togo’s minister of telecommunications.

Investment needed

One slight problem is that European development assistance is not geared towards digital services, despite the need for enormous investment in telecommunications infrastructure on the African continent.

“Today, of the €32 billion the EU will spend on development by 2020, only €150 million are allocated to exclusively digital projects,” Ansip said. “But we know that Africa is the continent most lacking in Internet connectivity,” he added.

To rectify this lack of support, all development projects should “contain a digital angle”, the Commissioner said, assuring that the idea would benefit from “broad support within the European Commission”.

This proposal of this cross-sectoral approach for including digital in development projects was also welcomed by a number of developing countries. “Integrating a digital angle in the projects is a good idea,” said Lawson.

Regulatory framework

Besides infrastructure, Africa also needs to improve its regulatory framework. “Regulations need to evolve in order to attract foreign investors, because Africa has a glaring lack of infrastructure,” said Lawson.

For Ansip, the absence of a digital market in Africa provides the continent with an opportunity to move more quickly than Europe. Hampered by diverging regulations in the EU’s 28 member states, the Commissioner has struggled to advance the construction of Europe’s Digital Single Market.

INFOGRAPHIC: Closing the Internet gap

The latest data shows that internet use continues to grow steadily, at 6.6% globally in 2014 (3.3% in developed countries, 8.7% in the developing world). The number of internet users in developing countries has doubled in five years (2009-2014), with two thirds of all people online now living in the developing world.

“In Africa, they should avoid making the same errors we made with the digital market in Europe. Sometimes, an absence of digital history or tradition can allow faster progress,” Ansip said. “Developing countries must pay attention to interoperability.”

Financial barriers

Digital inclusion in developing countries, and particularly in Africa, often falls down due to the cost of mobile phones and subscriptions.

“The price of smartphones is a real challenge, but so is access to electricity to charge the phones. Individuals may have the money to buy a phone but no electricity to charge it with,” said Collymore.

As a result, in certain African countries, the share of household income spent on mobile phones and subscriptions can be extremely high.  “In some developing countries, one third of income is spent on telephony,” the Commissioner said. “That shows how important it is for people.”

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