Cape Town, 14 July 2023 – A regional review meeting took place in Cape Town on 4-5 July to incorporate Africa's perspective into the United Nations Global Digital Compact (GDC) and promote a more inclusive and equitable digital future. The meeting reflected on key themes: Africa's infrastructure development, digital public goods, digital trust, data protection, human rights, regulation of emerging technologies such as AI. Experts, policymakers, and stakeholders from 32 member states representing government, private sector, civil society, and academia attended the meeting to provide technical inputs.
The GDC aims to foster an open, free, and secure digital environment, reflecting shared principles of trust, inclusivity, and sustainability. It was initiated in recognition of the transformative potential of digital technologies worldwide, emphasizing the need for international cooperation to maximize benefits and mitigate risks. Rwanda and Sweden are co-facilitators leading the intergovernmental process to establish the GDC. As part of the consultative process to establish the GDC, the UN is actively seeking inputs from individuals, organizations, and entities worldwide to shape a comprehensive and inclusive agreement.
In his opening remarks, Fayaz King, representing the Office of the Secretary General’s Envoy on Technology, emphasized the need for Africa to take a central role in shaping the GDC. He highlighted the importance of ensuring that Africa is “not just a provider of data to a small group of entities’butshould also actively participate in shaping its digital future. He called for the “development of standards for data interoperability and effective regulations that go beyond self-regulation,” while also stressing the significance of regulating AI and handling data in a manner that informs decision-makers and serves the common good.
Antonio Pedro, Acting Executive Secretary of ECA, via a video message said, “The benefits of shared prosperity that emerging technologies such as AI, blockchain, and autonomous intelligent systems can bring are unequally distributed and dominated by players outside of Africa,” flagging the importance of providing “basic policy and regulatory guardrails to support safe and equitable digital transformation.”
“The Global Digital Compact provides an opportunity to address these divides through its multi-stakeholder consultation process and by setting clear goals and bringing stakeholders together,” he added.
Leon Juste Ibombo, Minister of Posts, Telecommunications and Digital Economy of the Republic of the Congo and Chair of the Council of Ministers of ICT (CMICT), raised issues of inclusivity, noting the importance of “widening language data pool for training AI models beyond the predominant use of English and Chinese languages”. He underpinned the benefits of encouraging initiatives that enhance digital culture, including coding and machine learning.
Representing the South African Ministry of Communications and Digital Technologies, Alfred Mamadou, stressed that both state and non-state actors need to work together to develop Africa’s digital economy and lauded the GDC’s multistakeholder and consultative approach to shaping regulatory frameworks.
For his part, Nelson Muffuh, UN Resident Coordinator in South Africa underlined the importance of approaching negotiations “from a position of strength, rather than disadvantage” and emphasized the need to prioritize capacity building to enhance the skills and knowledge required to effectively embrace digital technologies.
Alison Gillwald, Executive Director of Research ICT Africa (RIA), stressed the need to address the ‘digital divide paradox’ whereby coverage exists but penetration is lagging behind. The low productive use of online services and weak governance of the digital space were among the challenges she highlighted.
“There is need for empirical data through research to inform policy and further development of the digital economy in Africa, as well as the need for paradigm shift in the manner in which digital economy data is collected and used by focusing on African context research for the digital economy and disaggregation of data,” said Gillwald.
Participants stressed the need to break down silos, and the importance of sharing information as well as involving all stakeholders to leverage the UN's pillars of peace and security, human rights, and sustainable development. Addressing digital infrastructure divides, policy gaps in governing new technologies, and talent and capacity development for a fair and equitable digital transformation were also highlighted.
According to Mactar Seck, Chief of Technology and Innovation Section, the Economic Commission for Africa's Digital Center of Excellence will continue the consultative process to consolidate African voices within the GDC's multistakeholder framework and collective efforts to address global digital challenges. The GDC is expected to be agreed upon at the Summit of the Future in September 2024.
More on the Secretary-General's report here: 'Our Common Agenda'. Click here for the Global Digital Compact and information on the Office of the Secretary-General's Envoy on Technology.
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