Advancing ICT Policy to Accelerate Equitable Digital Development

September 24, 2021

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Experts work with lawmakers to draft legislation

Author: Digital Frontiers Staff, DAI

In today’s international development field, practitioners and policymakers need to pay attention not just to underserved communities and their needs but also to the social, economic, and legal environments in which those communities operate. In an increasingly digitized global economy, banks, markets, schools, and even doctors’ offices are migrating to and incorporating online platforms to manage everything from online payments to medical records. Without adequate technology access and widespread digital literacy, many communities in emerging markets will continue to fall behind—on and offline—exacerbating what’s known as a “digital divide.”

The Digital Connectivity and Cybersecurity Partnership (DCCP) is a U.S. Government interagency effort led by the Department of State and co-chaired by USAID that seeks to promote an open, interoperable, reliable, and secure internet worldwide. This includes helping U.S. partner countries harness the power and opportunity of the digital economy and adopt policies aligned with international best practices.

ICT Policy as a Development Priority

For decades now, development practitioners have worked to close this digital divide but have often come up against unfavorable or underdeveloped legal and regulatory environments and/or political will that limit the efficacy and scope of their efforts. The stability, safety, and inclusivity of a country’s information and communications technology (ICT) sector are now more crucial to sustainable growth and development than ever before.

Tom Koutsky, a Senior Connectivity Policy Advisor within USAID’s Information, Technology, and Research Hub (ITR - formerly the US Global Development Lab), elaborated, “In my perspective, thinking about how the digital ecosystem works and making sure that it’s functional is a critical part of how we do our work as a development agency.”

How, then, can policymakers and development practitioners ensure that this digital transformation is open and secure, supports sustainable development efforts, and proves beneficial and empowering for all—including the most vulnerable?

“One approach is to work in collaboration with partner-country governments and industry to create policies, rules, and regulations that enable open, secure, interoperable, and reliable internet and communications networks,” said Komal Bazaz Smith, Project Director for USAID's DCCP activities at DAI's Digital Frontiers project. Bazaz Smith stressed that “development should not overlook the policies and regulations necessary to build resilient, inclusive, and democratic digital ecosystems.”

Two of USAID’s hallmark digital inclusion and connectivity activities funded under the DCCP umbrella utilize a policy development approach:

  1. Promoting American Approaches to ICT Policy and Regulation (ProICT)
  2. Advancing Timor-Leste’s Autonomous Telecommunications Landscape (ATLATL)

ProICT and ATLATL work to promote best-practices for ICT policy creation and make informed investments to develop communications infrastructure and digital markets. To achieve these goals, the projects offer technical assistance, embedded experts, and capacity-building to help partner country governments establish policy and regulatory frameworks that will foster a safe and inclusive digital economy.

ICT infrastructure, policy, and regulatory environment are essential components of development in the countries and communities where ProICT and ATLATL work. In Timor-Leste, for example, 70% of the population lives in rural areas and, as of January 2021, internet penetration was still only 45%, with fixed-broadband penetration under 1%. Access to most ICT services remains concentrated in the capital city of Dili, and rural populations continue to remain unconnected and without the necessary access or information to take advantage of ICT opportunities. ATLATL strives to reduce this digital divide through the design and adoption of ICT policies favorable to the Timorese people and their needs.

Policy Development Assistance and Respecting the Local Context  

Embedded experts with ProICT and ATLATL assist in the design, adaptation, and implementation of ICT policies. These embedded experts are knowledgeable professionals working in long-term collaboration with receptive host-country ministries, representatives, and associated stakeholders who "have boots on the ground and are actually becoming trusted advisors to national and local government officials,” said Bazaz Smith.

Through ProICT and ATLATL, USAID can provide expert firms or consultants to directly assist country governments in the introduction and application of ICT policies that can be developed to align with their own, nuanced national contexts. For example, ATLATL’s Senior ICT Policy Advisor works intimately with the government of Timor-Leste’s Information and Communication Technology Agency.

Bazaz Smith elaborated: “Through close and trusted relationships that our senior advisor has cultivated, we have seen pieces of legislation move, other ministries across the Timor-Leste government engage, and behaviors and attitudes towards ICT-related issues start to shift.”

The Senior ICT Policy Advisor and ATLATL’s team of ICT regulatory and legal experts first provided advice and proposals for expanding Timor-Leste’s national ICT policy to strengthen its Information and Communication Technology Agency (TIC) and to facilitate closer engagement with private sector stakeholders. As a result of that engagement, a new National Policy for Information and Communications Technology was finalized in August 2020.

Timor-Leste’s new National ICT Policy now serves as the foundation for developing new draft legislation and clear and concise accompanying explanatory notes in intellectual property, e-commerce, data protection, data privacy, cybercrime, as well as a draft strategy on cybersecurity.

“Many of these pieces of legislation are already advancing through the approval process, and we are in the midst of a series of government consultations,” said Bazaz Smith.” These new pieces of draft legislation were drafted by ATLATL’s team of experts in collaboration with TIC, relevant government ministries, and a local law firm to ensure every piece of legislation developed actively bolsters the strength and resilience of Timor-Leste.

Under ProICT, embedded experts have worked both in-country and virtually to develop key relationships and provide policy and regulatory recommendations and capacity-building to partner governments. In Liberia, for example, experts collected data and information from across the country to develop local, evidence-based analysis and recommendations for strengthening the Liberia Telecommunications Authority (LTA).

ProICT’s experts spent considerable time in informational meetings with LTA Commissioners and staff, where they shared their findings, presented the basis of their recommendations, and infused informal training sessions into each discussion. These discussions and informal trainings ensured that the LTA better understood and accepted the experts’ final recommendations. ProICT’s engagement with the LTA concluded after a series of capacity-building workshops, which also involved representatives from the Ministry of Post and Telecom and the Ministry of Information, Cultural Affairs, and Tourism.

Why is this important to USAID?

Building relationships between governments and policymakers is central to USAID’s DCCP work and informs the timelines for its activities.

“ATLATL is a really good example of a more long-term engagement,” said Meghan Lefeber, a Senior Economic and Private Capital Advisor with USAID. “These policy engagements are opportunities for USAID to build relationships with local ministries and regulators so that we can continue to support them through our various programming.”

Such policy engagements also lay a foundational platform for enabling economic development over the long-term.

As a part of their DCCP activities, USAID currently works with governments such as the Philippines, Liberia, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Secretariat, and Timor-Leste on various projects including drafting legislation and regulatory reforms on cybersecurity, e-governance, data privacy and data protection, intellectual property, and e-commerce.

“ProICT and ATLATL are also two really good examples of policy and regulatory-focused projects that are laying the groundwork to ensure that the digital ecosystem is growing in a way that is open and secure and inclusive,” added Lefeber. “Policy is really foundational to making sure that the digital ecosystems evolve and grow in ways that don’t leave people behind and which foster the values that we hold dear—openness, transparency, and the ability of everyone to engage.”

ProICT and ATLATL anticipate a cascade of positive impacts down the line for the countries in which they operate and positive contributions to the overall goals of the DCCP. However, Koutsky stresses the importance of beginning these efforts and outreach now. “This is the time for countries to really be thinking about their policy structures for ICT,” he said. “The costs of being offline, of being on the wrong side of the digital divide, are much higher now than they were five years ago, maybe even much higher now than they were a year ago.”

This is especially true at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has transitioned many interactions to online environments. “I think COVID has shown us more than ever before that digitization is coming,” said Lefeber. “And we need to—from a development perspective—be a part of this process and ensure that the building blocks are in place.”

Click on the following hyperlinks to learn more about DCCP and USAID’s DCCP activities.