- The African Union and the European Union have released an important report describing how the digital transformation in Africa can accelerate the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
- The digital transformation can reduce poverty, create jobs, facilitate commerce, improve healthcare and education, provide access to finance and other banking services, improve governance and protect human rights.
- For the digital transformation to enhance equality, rather than exacerbate inequality, access to technology and the skills needed to use it must be available to all people.
- Wide access to technology will require bringing electric power and connectivity to all areas of the continent, including rural and hard to reach areas.
In June 2019, the African Union and the European Union released a report written by the AU-EU Digital Economy Task Force entitled New Africa-Europe Digital Economy Partnership: Accelerating the Achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.
The Digital Economy Task Force provides a platform of partnership for the private sector, donors, international organisations, financial institutions and civil society based on a shared understanding of how an already fast evolving African digital transformation can achieve cross-border integration and bring benefits to all people.
The report rests on four interrelated pillars: expanding connectivity and access to digital technologies; development of skills needed to use and benefit from the technologies; entrepreneurship and development of a digital ecosystem; and acceleration of adoption of e-services in many sectors, including healthcare, education, finance, commerce and government.
Inclusive digital transformation is critical to achieving SDG 1 (poverty elimination), SDG 5 (gender equality) and SDG 8 (decent work and sustainable economic growth). After the release of the Report, implementation of its recommendations is critical.
The report focuses on achieving results. It emphasizes the need to scale up adoption of digital technologies and the development of human skills to fully obtain potential benefits. The digital transformation can produce jobs and economic growth, support for human rights, more robust democracy and greater government responsiveness and transparency. As one example, Sierra Leone recently became the first nation to use blockchain technology for its elections. As another, banks are using blockchain technology to reduce transaction costs for remittances. Mobile technologies are bringing access to financial services to millions of previously ‘unbanked’ people.
The digital transformation can produce greater equality. However, if its promises and benefits are not shared by all people, it can lead to great inequality. There is a need to move from multi-stakeholder collaboration to ‘omnistakeholder’ participation. This will require bringing electric power and internet connectivity to rural and hard-to-reach areas.
To finance the digital transformation, government and private sector contributions will be necessary. Several African countries are enhancing access to needed finance through co-investment programmes for start-ups. Most successful programmes involve public-private partnerships.
To achieve needed scale, free trade areas encompassing many nations are needed, as well as harmonised and flexible regulatory schemes among nations. New players should be allowed to participate and compete in traditional sectors such as telecom and finance.
As there remains a staggering number of people without access to digital technology, much work remains.