Next month, the new United Nations Sustainable Development Goals will be adopted in New York. The SDGs will usher in new development objectives for the international community. These goals encompass a wide range of objectives, but they make only passing reference to a vitally important instrument in the development toolbox: expanded Internet access.
Overlooking the expansion of Internet access is problematic as it is set to become the most important infrastructure for development that the world has ever seen. The free flow of data can positively affect a country’s wealth, health and education, not to mention broader social goals such as improved democracy, accountability and an expansion of the rule of law. According to the Boston Consulting Group, by 2016 the Internet will contribute upwards of $4.2-trillion (U.S.) to G20 economies – and most of the world is still offline.
The potential upside of expanding Internet access is most pronounced in Africa, where access rates are still low. According to World Bank indicators, for example, Internet penetration rates in sub-Saharan Africa have risen from less than one connected person per 100 people in 1996 to roughly 19 connected people per 100 people in 2014. This is a significant increase, but sub-Saharan Africa’s 2014 numbers still remain well below the world average of 41 connected people for every 100 persons.
Clearly, many of the next billion Internet users will come from Africa. The mobile-payment revolution is just one example of how technological advances combined with new business models can pole-vault African countries to higher levels of economic and social development. Expanding Internet access also promises higher levels of local competitiveness in the global marketplace, while promising to provide higher levels of accountability and transparency across sectors. But this leap forward hinges not only on the expansion of Internet infrastructure and the correct calibration of Africa’s regulatory environment to maximize how the network is used, but also on skill development and support to local technology innovation. Abundant Internet adoption is contingent upon government, businesses, technical experts and civil society being engaged with Internet governance.
Creating an appropriate regulatory environment so that the Internet has its best possible effects requires that special attention be paid to local initiatives. This is because development itself is inherently a bottom-up process. As a result, in the context of development in Africa, if one wants to know how countries can succeed at leveraging the Internet for development, they need to look at what Africans are doing to help themselves.
Ghana and other African countries, such as Kenya, are taking a lead in this space.
For example, Ghana’s interbank-payment platform has helped streamline the country’s banking sector, making it easier for people to make and receive payments through a virtual system. Such a simple measure, often taken for granted by people in the West, has a huge economic effect on the ability of Ghanaians to conduct commerce. Development will follow.
Development also cannot be separated from security. For example, if digital payment systems are to be widely used, they need to be secure. Ghanaians are also at the forefront of IT security in the West African region. AfricaCERT, for example, is increasingly mainstreamed and recognized by governments as the first line of crisis response. A secure Internet will encourage use by everyday Africans, unleashing the generative potential of the system. The innovative uses of the Internet that millions of Africans might locally develop once secure access is obtained will be overwhelming.
Ghanaian civil society groups are also monitoring the state of network freedom, ensuring that as the Internet expands in Africa, it does so in a way that preserves the founding principles of the network, particularly openness, permissionless innovation, and the free flow of information and ideas. Ghana’s Open Data Initiative, for instance, monitors the state of the Internet in Ghana and increasingly in other West Africa countries as well.