Data Governance Dialogue Series

The Need for Africa’s Active Role in the Global Digital Governance Environment

Globally, a plethora of rich and stimulating conversations are currently taking place around the emerging institution of digital governance, reinforcing the  fact that digital governance is inextricably linked to development. A lot of intercontinental initiatives aimed at promoting data and its governance have substantially presented data as ‘the new oil’ that unmistakably drives global transformation. Africa is clearly leaving no stone unturned in proving itself as the next frontier in the global digital space, while following in the footsteps of the ‘Big’ digital platforms like the United States, the European Union, and China. The African Union’s (AU) recently released Data Policy Framework, a comprehensive and important data policy document developed to unleash Africa’s potential to drive data value creation on the continental level and endorsed by the AU Executive Council in February 2022, is a remarkable initiative, which is largely informed by the Data Transformation Strategy (DTS) of the Commission, as well as the operationalisation of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA).

*The Dialogue on Data Development (DDD) Team of the Centre for the Study of Economies of Africa (CSEA) is firmly committed to promoting awareness on the enormous potential of a robust digital economy to the creation of new business opportunities, increment of efficiency, boosting of sustainable development and reshaping of people’s socio-economic lives. It seeks to investigate the .potential contribution of the AU Data Policy Framework towards shaping  digital governance development in the African continent, as well as fixing the peculiar problems that are associated with the institution. To this end, it (the DDD Team) interacts with Professor Alison Giliwald, Executive Director of Research ICT Africa (RIA), the ICT hub of the AU, under whose supervision the development of the policy document was created. Reacting on a range of issues which essentially border on the unique role which the Data Policy Framework is designed to play, Alison Giliwald shares her experience on the direction for data governance in Africa and also reveals the capability of the new data policy environment to make Africa become a leader in the global digital space (Excerpts).

The importance of the AU Data Policy Framework in the continental digital space

The document is important in unleashing the potential in data value creation on the continent.  It is largely informed by the AUC’s Data Transformation Strategy (DTS). DTS is geared towards enabling the African continent to create a Digital Single Market. Here, Data is considered a strategic resource that drives transformation. DTS acknowledges that data must collected, stored, processed and shared in order for it to have value.

The policy allays fears that surround the cross-border data flow by acting more like a global digital awareness policy regarding aspects of digital operations such as data localization. It guarantees  that a country can develop local capacity to protect data flow. It subscribes to the human rights framework. It is progressive, not only in terms of how data is viewed in relation to  economic growth but also in terms of individual privacy.

 It also extends the notion of equity and justice towards data governance. The policy document is committed to redressing the uneven distribution of  opportunities and harms that exist between and within countries. It is not only about data protection and the individual aspects, but also about understanding, from a governance perspective, the need to prioritise the collective interest  of an indigenous community in terms of ensuring that their indigenous knowledge or data is protected. It is a highly principled document, but it is also a compromised document, as it has to be adopted by 53 countries.

Specific problems that the data policy seeks to solve

The AU Data Policy Framework addresses similar policy challenges in digitalisation and datafication that are being faced globally. Each country has its  peculiar challenges. The opportunities and impacts of digital technology vary from country to country and are unevenly distributed both between and within countries. The aim is to create greater opportunities within Africa. While creating an enabling environment at the national level, it also attempts  to safeguard the African digital space from the harms associated with the big digital platforms, as well as the decision-making that relates to them. It also addresses the resulting exclusion of a large number of Africans online, who are often discriminated against as a result of decision-making. It is critical to address these challenges in order to promote economic growth, enhance data value and create a single digital market.

It is important for this regional digital policy framework to encourage private value creation in relation to data and, also, create local conditions for production rather than simply limiting the continent to service consumption. However, in order  to achieve all of this, there is need  for economies of scale and scope which will go a long way in shaping the creation of a single digital market. At the regional level, this will guarantee economic development and  redistribution, as well as address equity concerns. The big challenge from the governance point of view is the enforcement of data protection  and privacy in the digital environment. It is highly necessary for digital technology to be steered towards benefitting the continent more evenly, both across and within countries.

The capability of the new data policy environment to make Africa become a leader in the global digital space

Given its history and legacies as a postcolonial entity, Africa faces some peculiar challenges; thus, its policy needs to be aspirational. Despite being the most densely populated region, Africa has enormous potentials. Hence, there is a lot of room for optimism. There is a lot that Africa as a region can do that will be extremely beneficial for the well-being of the majority of Africans. However, there is much more that can be done digitally to position  us as a  leader in the global digital space. The aspiration of local innovation in the reproduction of relevant goods and services is critical. If Africa can focus innovatively on  targets and objectives that contribute to national and regional aspirations, it will qualify to be ranked as a global leader. Competing with  global digital giants like the US and China, in terms of Artificial Intelligence, development may not be Africa’s immediate goal.

Key enablers for the successful implementation of the AU Data Policy Framework

Policy implementation has always been a major problem in Africa. This is why many good policies, developed by the continent, are still sitting on the shelf, gathering dust. The AU Malabo Convention is an excellent example in this regard. For nearly a decade , the AU has been unable  to  secure the ratification of the Convention by up to 15 Member States  allowing it to become officially binding. Nonetheless, an important part of the recommendations given by the AU Data Policy Framework is that the continent should proceed with the innovation of the data protection and cyber security content of the Malabo Convention. The point that  all Member States have made to the AU, particularly in relation to Digital Transformation Strategy, which is supported by the EU-AU bilateral funding, relates to the second phase of this Framework, that is, the AU Data Policy Framework Implementation or Action Plan. To ensure implementation, a lot of work would go into this Action Plan so the implementation takes the high-level, principled part of the Policy Framework.

In order to ensure proper implementation, roles have been assigned to specific institutions. The Implementation Plan also includes capacity requirements that take into account the unique institutional, contextual, and economic characteristics of each Member State. But the constraint, however, is that Africa does not have the guiding resources to support implementation. The high-level and principled Framework has been incorporated into the Implementation/Action Plan due to how crucial the Implementation Phase is. There is now a pool of strategies from which every Member State can choose and adapt to their respective peculiarities in the areas of budgetary allocations, timelines and so on. However, in addition to the Implementation Plan, there is a third phase with a  much more comprehensive programme on capacity building in all of the identified areas. In this round, the capacity-building programme has different components of institutional skills required to achieve institutional collaboration, which is required at the global level, in order to  drive a vibrant  digital economy.

In addition, for Africa to maintain its pride of place in the digital economy, the AU Data Policy Framework recommends is that it be far more active in global digital governance fora where, as a bloc, its interest can be more effectively represented to ensure a better outcome for the continent. Then, at the national level, African countries must examine their institutions and capacities, identify their needs and capacity challenges, and transfer these to the AU for the regional authority to find technical assistance for these countries in order to fill their various gaps. Furthermore, every country needs to understand the type of monitoring and evaluation it needs at the different phases of implementation. It should include  in its implementation plan, the indicators for which assistance is needed to meet its goals. The interesting thing is that most of these indicators can be derived from cities, data regulators, information and a variety of other sources. However,  many  other data points could be digital and data indicators, which are not immediately obtainable from the continent. As a result, gathering basic socio-economic data is currently a major task in this type of planning and implementation.

The AU’s accomplishment of its data policy objectives in the face of implementation challenge

Remarkably, the AU Data Policy Framework’s objectives are complementary to those of other existing international data protection policy frameworks. Furthermore, these objectives reflect the diversity of the continent as well as the different levels of development in the various countries. However, these objectives are based on quite practical and specific recommendations in each of section of the high-levelled principles, which are aimed at  harmonisation. There are also practical recommendations, such as interoperability, which brings to mind the Malabo Convention. Hence, there is room for the harmonisation of policy objectives within the African continent. A lot of approaches to governance in the Framework take the form of a spectrum, depending on the local contexts and conditions. The Framework shows that different categories of data exist.

It also allows for unrestricted inter-Africa data flows, from which all African countries can  benefit. This development encourages nationally integrated systems of cross-border data flows. The implication  is that, if the AU can protect sensitive personal, health, and other data, it can also be more stringent on cross-border data flows. However, if the regional authority can make non-sensitive data open to cross-border transactions, it will be creating an enormously enabling environment for the AfCFTA to be operational. It is not solely about ensuring digital services on the continent, where value is created in a multi-economy, but also about facilitating the standardisation of customs and duties through digitisation. This would make the systems flow more easily, thus resolving  issues such as information asymmetry within the production system between countries on the continent. As a result,  there is a practical recommendation for achieving the high-level objectives of this Framework.

Collaboration among stakeholders to promote and  safeguard Africa’s digital interest

For this Framework to be progressive, there is a need for unprecedented collaboration, at all levels,  between stakeholders, in order to promote and safeguard Africa’s interests. In order to ensure equitable and secure access to data for innovation and competition, as well as to see this data policy being actualized, Member States across the continent must establish a unified legal approach. Regional collaboration, especially in the area of enforcement, would go a long way in promoting African interests.

African policymakers’ concern on the alignment of regional data governance initiatives with national priorities

This is an essential part of policy formulation. The AU Data Policy Framework is very well cognisant of this concern. It’s a guiding framework for African policymakers to consider this extremely complex global data system that is required to operate at the national level. The development of this Policy Framework is like the extension of the mandate of the regional Data Protection Authority towards the Member States, particularly those that have not enacted any legislation on data protection. The Framework makes it clear that it would require a review of existing data protection laws and policies in the African digital space. Member States need to align with what is going on at the regional level as it would help determine their ability to reap the benefits of economies of scale and scope. This, by extension, is a catalyst for economic growth and development.

The support that Member States can enjoy from the AU for an effective national data governance framework

As a regional authority, the AU is focused on the institutional and capacity building of its Member States. It demonstrates total commitment to many areas of development, including those that may benefit these Member States. However, there are procedures that allow the AU to respond to Member States’ request for assistance or identified areas of need. The truth is that the AU does not have the vast resources to meet all of its Member States’ needs at the same level, because each Member States  have different levels of need for assistance or support.

However,  there are ways by which the Commission can be  assisted, say, by the European Union, in the funding  some capacity-building projects that benefit Member States. The AU’s Member States will receive capacity-building assistance in the coming years. Another important feature of this Framework in terms of the support that the Commission can provide to its Member States is the collaborative mechanism that exists at the solidarity level on the continent. Strategic pairing initiatives have been explored to solve many peculiar problems on the continent.

A  recent example was the convergence of  AU power regulators at the University of Cape Town where they focused on the challenges that  various Member States face in  areas such as generation and distribution, bringing in the required expertise to address such challenges. A similar idea, which will be unveiled soon, is currently being proposed by the data protection regulators on the continent. This will make a significant contribution to the digital transformation of the continent.

  • The Dialogue on Data and Development (DDD) Team of the Centre for the Study of Economies of Africa (CSEA) is led by Adedeji Adeniran (Ph.D.), and other members that include Sone Osakwe, Drusilla David, Kashema Bahago and Kunle Balogun