The EU and U.S. have laid out ambitious plans to promote values-based digital connectivity in Africa. The coordination of mechanisms and principles with democratic allies will be crucial for these visions to succeed. Geopolitical goals should be aligned with a development policy agenda that engages with Africa as a partner in fostering digital innovation and governance.
The Covid-19 pandemic has illustrated the imperative of closing the digital divide. Access to reliable digital infrastructure and online services have proven crucial for maintaining economic activity and social connections as well as for providing public goods – from social protection payments to virtual schooling and health care. As countries around the world struggle with digital inequities, the situation is most dire in low- and middle income countries, where big parts of the populations – especially women – remain offline.
Digital development plays a prominent role in emerging plans by the U.S. and the EU to provide connectivity to low-and middle-income countries. The Biden administration placed its “Build Back Better World” (B3W) initiative on the G7 agenda in June 2021, pledging to invest 40 billion USD and mobilize hundreds of billions more for infrastructure projects related to climate, health, as well as digital and gender inclusion. Digital connectivity is listed as the first of five priorities of the European Commission’s Global Gateway initiative, which was released on December 1, 2021 and includes the pledge to mobilize infrastructure development investments of up to 300 billion EUR until 2027.
The U.S. and EU initiatives have been framed as instruments in the economic and systemic global competition with China’s Belt and Road Initiative, including the so-called “Digital Silk Road.” Strategists have called for an alliance of liberal democracies to avoid increasing financial and political dependencies of many countries on China. In the area of digital connectivity, they also see the need to propose a values-based democratic agenda to stem the export of China’s “digital authoritarianism,” for example through smart city solutions that contain surveillance technologies.
More than infrastructure: digital connectivity includes skills and data governance
At the same time, China remains an important partner and investor for many countries in the Global South. For any democratic counteroffer to be attractive, the U.S., EU and their democratic allies will have to bring them to life with the necessary financing and multilateral coordination mechanisms. They will have to be very clear about the elements of a proposed values-based agenda. As with bridges, roads and power plants, project planning should follow strict mechanisms for transparency and public consultations as well as rigorous environmental and social and gender impact assessments. In the case of digital infrastructure, a values-based approach has to extend from building subsea cables and data centers to capacity-building and data governance – from IT security and data protection to privacy and freedom from algorithmic discrimination in AI applications.
In the papers we present here, two expert teams from the U.S. and Germany outline their visions for a digital development agenda with Africa and explore areas and mechanisms for transatlantic and multilateral coordination. Apart from closing the digital infrastructure gap, both author teams call for investments in skills training and capacity building, in local innovation ecosystems and in assistance with building data governance frameworks and institutions. The U.S. author team explores multilateral coordination of financing as well as on standards for transparency, ethics, sustainability, building on standardization efforts by the G7, OECD, World Bank and others. The German author team engages with the EU’s digital development agenda and explores pathways for future Europe-Africa digital cooperation.
The papers and a stakeholder workshop with high-level participation from the U.S., the EU and Africa confirmed the acute need for investing in digital connectivity in Africa as well as the shared interest in a values-based approach. The discussions also illustrated need for further debate:
- Harmonizing the transatlantic digital agenda. When it comes to digital infrastructure such as subsea cables and data centers, powerful U.S. industry interests and Europe’s quest for digital sovereignty can complicate a joint transatlantic approach. The U.S. is also far from meeting European expectations for data governance, from data protection to platform regulation. Working towards greater convergence on these issues is on the agenda of the Transatlantic Tech and Trade Council. Germany can use its G7 presidency as an opportunity to foster coordination between the US-led B3W and the EU’s Global Gateway.
- Aligning geopolitics with the development agenda. Many stakeholders in Africa are eager to shape their continent’s digital transformation and they ask donors to engage “as a partner, not a patron.” Workshop participants highlighted the progress made by individual countries and regional organizations in shaping a forward-looking digital agenda for the continent, pointing to opportunities for mutual learning and reverse innovation in donor countries. Most importantly, they do not want to become mere objects of a new geopolitical rivalry. Some African observers noted that the EU consulted more closely with the geostrategic policy community than with African stakeholders in the lead-up to the Global Gateway strategy.
A solid democratic agenda will rely on greater transatlantic convergence on rules for the digital economy. In their engagement with partners in Africa and elsewhere, the U.S., EU and their democratic partners will have to meet local needs and priorities. At the same time, they will have to hold their own companies and government agencies accountable to common principles for ensuring human rights, inclusion and democratic participation, as well as ecological and financial sustainability. Even if a partner country’s laws and institutions cannot currently ensure these principles, donors should strive to develop common gold standards for a rights-based and sustainable digital development.