Stronger digital voices from Africa

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Teleanu, Sorina
Kurbalija, Jovan
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As of October 2022, no African country had a digital foreign policy strategy codified in one dedicated document. However, many of them have started developing principles and practices as building blocks for digital foreign policy strategies. Our study identifies these building blocks in the holistic approach of African countries to digital transformation as well as in their policies dedicated to several focus areas (digital infrastructure and standards; cybersecurity, cybercrime, and child protection online; digital economy; human rights; sociocultural issues; and artificial intelligence (AI)). We do so through a two-tier approach. We first look at official digital and information and communications technology (ICT) policies and strategies of selected countries, identifying aspects that relate to international relations, engagement in international processes, and positioning on international markets. Our study then focuses on the participation of African stakeholders – governments, businesses, the tech community, and civil society, as relevant – in global processes such as the UN Open Ended Working Group (OEWG) on security of and in the use of information and communications technologies (previously known as OEWG on developments in the field of information and telecommunications in the context of international security), ITU, the IGF, and the Global Forum on Cyber Expertise (GFCE). Finally, the study provides concrete recommendations on what African countries can do to strengthen their voices in global digital governance. This starts with low-hanging fruit, such as strengthening participation in digital negotiations happening in International Geneva, one of the global digital capitals hosting many intergovernmental organisations. It then shifts into more medium-term perspectives, such as galvanising existing national capacities in the business and tech sector to enhance the countries’ participation in international digital policy, and strengthening diplomatic capacities. Also included are recommendations for long-term approaches for building academic, research, and policy capacities of the next generation of African diplomats and policymakers. In sum, this study identifies existing building blocks (and missing pieces) for African digital foreign policies and diplomacy, and outlines the picture of African involvement in international policy processes in the digital realm. It also proposes practical steps for the development of African digital diplomacy by strengthening the voices of national and regional actors.
As late-comers to digitalisation and digital transformation processes, countries in Africa lag behind in terms of digital development. But while internet penetration rates are still at low levels (although the growth rates are considerable) and digital divides within countries remain high, governments and regional institutions are putting in place policies and strategies to encourage the uptake of digital technologies as drivers of development and to foster inclusive digital economies and societies. Beyond initiatives focused on advancing digital development at a national, regional, and continental level, Africa also needs stronger voices in global digital governance. And while countries across the continent do not have dedicated digital foreign policy strategies, elements of such policy can be found in various digital strategies and other national documents, as well as identified in contributions of African countries to global digital policy processes. Our study explores such elements and makes the case for a more active engagement of African stakeholders in organisations and processes that tackle key internet and digital policy issues. There is a strong opinion that Africa could – and should – use digital transformation as an opportunity to take the destiny of countries, citizens, and communities in the continent’s own hands, instead of being on the receiving end of global geopolitical and geoeconomic battles (as has happened many times in the past). A sustained engagement in global digital governance could contribute to this, by ensuring that African interests, priorities, and goals are meaningfully considered.