Given our experience in ICT4D, we understand well that no solution which makes use of technology will be sustainable if the intended beneficiaries cannot afford the technology. This is why we are excited to share our takeaways from the latest A4AI annual Affordability Report for 2017, what we consider to be a definitive source on issues related to ICT access.
Perhaps the most startling - and worst - takeaway that we had from the report was that women (and by extension girls) in developing contexts continue to be excluded from the potential benefits of ICT access because they remain offline. Even if you assume a critical stance on the benefits of technology access and use, there can be no denying that in some way technology has made your life better or at least more efficient. That the poorest females are unable to enjoy these benefits is a lingering challenge that even the UN hopes to address through Sustainable Development Goal 5 on Gender Equality, specifically the target to "enhance the use of enabling technology, in particular information and communications technology, to promote the empowerment of women." Given that the 2017 Affordability Report highlights that the world might miss the 2020 target to "provide affordable, universal internet access" by more than 20 years, everyone should be alarmed by this finding.
Given my own interest in the policy side of ICT access, it was also disappointing to note that, years after first training in telecommunications policy with Sonia Jorge (the Executive Director of A4AI) only 29 of the 58 countries included in the Affordability Drivers Index have a pubic access policy that can actually be operationalized with the financial resources available. This is unfortunate since for the countries that do have such policies in place, it is clear that substantial gains are being made to provide affordable internet access for all.
It is worth mentioning that four of the top five countries with the highest ranking in terms of affordability were from Latin America (Colombia, Mexico, Peru, and Costa Rica) since a number of analyses (including this one from the World Economic Forum) have found this region to be the most unequal in the world in terms of income.
Leading the charge to make life-enhancing tools available to more people in these countries makes sense but also has the potential to transform the circumstances in ways which might challenge the existing power structures that caused inequality (unarguably a good thing that some governments may not actually want!).
Lastly, I was heartened to see examples of working Universal Service and Access Funds in countries such as Costa Rica, Ghana, and Rwanda that are finding creative ways to support digital literacy skills development among the populace - itself a mechanism for stimulating demand for internet access. As we have argued quite a bit at Panoply Digital, education remains perhaps the strongest horizontal enabler for most of what occurs at scale in ICT4D. People who do not know how digital tools can be appropriated to improve their lives are unlikely to ever want to go online since they may believe that access to such spaces is not for them.
I suggest that future A4AI Affordability Reports should provide more detailed insight into how education and training initiatives for digital literacy development have contributed to the rising demand for internet access in real terms. I believe that seeing more tangible examples of the impact that capacity building can have in terms of how and why the internet is used in a country will help more governments understand some of the steps they can take to realize affordabe internet access outcomes similar to their peers. Nonetheless, as always, the A4AI Affordability Report for 2017 yielded fresh and actionable insights that will be crucial for governments to give their attention to - especially if their ADI ranking is not among the top 10. Competition in this area is a very good thing!