Universal Service and Access Funds (USAFs) are communal public funds dedicated to expanding internet connectivity and access opportunities for those least likely to be connected through market forces alone.
This report, Universal Service and Access Funds: An Untapped Resource to Close the Gender Digital Divide, examines the existence and use of USAFs across Africa and estimates that US$408 million collected to expand internet access has been left unused.
The research — conducted in collaboration with the Web Foundation and UN Women — also investigates the extent to which these funds are being used to improve internet access among women and 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 report calls for governments to invest at least 50% of funds in projects targeting women’s internet access and use.
- A majority of African countries have a USAF in place that is collecting funds. 37 African countries (or almost 70%) have a USAF set up, and 62% 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.