Africa stands at a decisional threshold regarding the development of sustainable digital infrastructure. At the Davos World Economic Forum (WEF) last week, numerous leaders called for sustainable, resilient development supported by collaborative partnerships between the public and private sectors.
These are exactly the kind of partnerships that will help drive Africa into the digital infrastructure sector, as its leaders aim to bridge the continent’s fragmented economic development space and help landlocked countries benefit from pan-African economic growth. It also goes without saying that realization of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that speak to decent work, innovation, as well as sustainable cities and communities, must embrace strategies that have strong institutions and partnerships at their base.
Wait, who’s responsible here?
One of the reports from the WEF asked an important question: “Who is responsible for developing the digital infrastructure that society now counts on to support the exponentially growing traffic that uses it."
Indeed, —and many, many stakeholders are involved. We also know that—worldwide— there are serious impediments that constrain the development of digital infrastructure and without new approaches those constraints will not be relieved.
What can Africa bring?
I’d like to consider what new approaches can be embraced in particular by Africa, and who the innovative custodians of these approaches might be.
I firmly believe that And I believe this can be achieved through long-term working agreements formalized through public-private partnerships (PPPs).
PPPs are contractual agreements where the public and private sectors collaborate on the delivery of services or goods. In this engagement, both sides share risks; innovations and efficiencies are embraced; and the private sector is incentivized to deliver a well-defined set of deliverables.
The engagement of the public and private sectors through PPPs can deliver Africa from the digital infrastructure development inertia that exists in much of its territory. This will require an enabling environment for dedicated public and private sector champions that addresses the challenges of digital infrastructure development head-on. It must address:
- Strategies that embrace technology leapfrogging
- Obsolescence that threatens private sector investments
- Protection of intellectual property
- Innovative financing
- Apathy toward partnerships that embrace private sector innovation
- The role of independent regulators who can play a constructive role in licensing of the internet and user fees, in addition to regulating state monopolies
- Harmonization of laws and regulations (domestically and internationally) that allow transnational companies to deliver digital infrastructure
Transnational digital infrastructure challenges
To my last point, when transnational digital infrastructure development is considered, challenges are elevated to a higher level. In 2014, the WEF had already addressed the challenges of transnational infrastructure projects in Africa. These are questions identified then:
- Who will own and manage transnational digital infrastructure (that is, governments or the private sector)?
- How will transnational agreements be reached between domestically-focused national regulators on differing development priorities?
- Is there a role for state-owned telecommunication enterprises?
- How will cybersecurity interests and the integrity of national networks be balanced?
- Where will the physical foundational elements of digital infrastructure be located and how will the cyberspace elements be shared?
Some ideas for solutions
These solutions would contribute to an environment that promotes the development of transnational digital infrastructure:
- Avoid unnecessary territorializing of the digital infrastructure space that leaves landlocked countries vulnerable.
- Collaborate with transnational digital infrastructure institutions that can address the typical policy environments that are conducive for PPPs.
- Work closely with international multi-stakeholder associations such as the World Wide Web Consortium, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, and the International Telecommunication Union to harmonize approaches.
- Embrace the role that innovative companies can play.
- Modernize government institutions and strengthen independent regulators who can implement harmonized strategies and laws for the good of all African nations.
- Accept PPPs that are forward-looking, sustainable, and resilient (in other words, obsolescence shockproof).
- Address users’ needs in an approach that focus on the customer.
- Allow global market forces to gently push when there may be national government intransigence.
I recognize this last point is likely loaded. But it’s important that governments embrace proactive strategies for the development of transnational digital infrastructure, or—make no mistake—their economies will suffer in isolation. Additionally, as they increasingly define the digital infrastructure ecosystem in partnership with the private sector, users should be heard.
Disclaimer: The content of this blog does not necessarily reflect the views of the World Bank Group, its Board of Executive Directors, staff or the governments it represents. The World Bank Group does not guarantee the accuracy of the data, findings, or analysis in this post.
Tricky transnational infrastructure PPPs: Some suggestions
Digital is the pathway to the Africa we deserve
Infrastructure sharing in energy and digital development: takeaways from cross-sectoral cooperation
Trends that will drive global PPPs in 2019
This blog is managed by the Infrastructure Finance, PPPs & Guarantees Group of the World Bank. Learn more about our work here.