" ITREALMS: USPF: Nigeria lacks transparency around universal service, access funds

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

USPF: Nigeria lacks transparency around universal service, access funds

Nigeria has been accused of lacking in transparency around the Universal Service and Access Fund, around how these funds are dispersed remains a secret, says the latest research by the United Nations Women, alleging that estimated US$408m is sitting unspent across Africa, reports ITRealms.

The Universal Service Provision Fund (USPF) in Nigeria is resident in Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) with an Executive Secretary as its chief executive officer.

Nigeria, ITRealms gathered, is one of only four African countries required to spend its Universal Service and Access Funds (USAF) by the end of the fiscal year.
“However, there is a lack of transparency around how these funds are dispersed,” part of the report read.

Although Nigeria is touted to have 47 per cent of the population online, according to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU, 2015) while some
36 per cent of women are online, as said by Web Foundation, 2015.

The new research from the Web Foundation, the Alliance for Affordable Internet and UN Women, made available to ITRealms at the 62nd UN Commission on the Status of Women, calls on governments to invest at least 50 per cent of funds collected for expanding connectivity in projects targeting women’s internet access and use.  

With an estimated US$408 million collected to expand internet access throughout Africa sitting dormant in public coffers, the report finds that many African governments are failing to take action to connect women and other offline populations — despite the existence of funds earmarked for this purpose.

The research warned that failure to utilise these funds which is enough to bring 6 million women online, or to provide digital skills training to 16 million women and girls — to expand connectivity to all risks widening global inequality and undermining global development.

Though nearly half the world is online today, close to four billion people remain unconnected. Just 22 per cent of the population in Africa is online, and the continent has the widest gap in internet use between men and women (25 per cent). Universal Service and Access Funds (USAFs) are communal public funds dedicated to expanding internet connectivity and access opportunities for these populations and other underserved communities who are least likely to be connected through market forces alone.

The research entitled, Universal Service and Access Funds: An Untapped Resource to Close the Gender Digital Divide, examines the existence and use of USAFs across Africa, and the extent to which these funds are being put to use to improve internet access and use among women.

Further, the research findings include that a majority of African countries have a USAF in place that is collecting funds, amongst 37 African countries, which amounts to almost 70 per cent have a USAF set up, and 62 per cent of these funds are considered ‘active’.
But, most governments are failing to spend the USAF funds collected. In 2016, USAFs across Africa disbursed just 54% of funds collected. Across all 37 USAFs in Africa, unspent funds total an estimated US$408 million — enough to bring 6 million women online, or to provide digital skills training to 16 million women and girls.

“Few countries are focused on improving women’s internet access and use — despite the worsening digital gender gap. Just three of the 37 countries with USAFs have universal access policies guiding the USAF that explicitly aim to connect women and girls through the fund.

“Most USAF managers do not yet appreciate the importance of investing in solutions to reduce the gender digital divide. Many assume that investment in any internet access solution will equally benefit both men and women, which is unfortunately not the case. 

“Information about USAF financing, programming, and disbursement is hard to find. Just 23 countries openly publish details on their USAF activities; even when they do publish these details, they can be hard to find and hard to understand, leaving citizens little power to hold the USAF to account.”

“Analysis in the report shows that in order to reduce the growing global gender gap in internet use — a gap which is widest in Africa — USAFs should boost investments in programmes that aim specifically to tackle obstacles to internet use and access faced by women.

Commenting on the report’s findings, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations, Executive Director of UN Women, said that the Universal Service and Access Funds offer an incredible and vastly underutilised opportunity for making real progress; an opportunity that cannot missed.

“Every day that these funds remain unused is another day women and girls are sidelined in the digital revolution. We call on governments to take immediate action to put these funds toward their intended purpose, and to work to make the digital divide history — starting with women and girls,” Mlambo-Ngcuka said.

The Executive Director, Alliance for Affordable Internet and Head of Digital Inclusion Programmes at the Web Foundation, Sonia Jorge, said that they cannot reduce global inequality without closing the digital divide and online gender gap.

“We must act now to stop  the online world from entrenching offline inequalities. We call on governments to make effective and timely use of available funds, and to invest at least 50% of them in projects aimed at bringing more women online,” she said

Chuks Egbune/GEE

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