Digital Transformation in MENA: Harnessing Internet Accessibility for COVID-19 recovery
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The Middle East and North Africa region is making huge strides in developing its digital economy. During the COVID-19 pandemic, internet use in the region grew by 11 percent, and financing directed to tech start-ups doubled, especially in the field of fintech. While the pandemic has created huge economic setbacks, investing in technology is one area where the region could define its economic recovery. However, actors and stakeholders in the region face many challenges, and are better served if they prioritize inclusive access to bring down digital divides which exclude millions from the digital economy.
Progress in digital transformation
The Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated preexisting economic hardships in the MENA region, such as high unemployment and a lagging GDP. However, it also led to a shift in the nature of work and education, making individuals more dependent on Internet connectivity and forcing regional and local actors to prioritize the digital economy. Across the region, private telecommunications companies, donors, and governments strove to make Internet access more widely available and affordable to bring the economy into the 21st century.
Despite promising advancements in the region’s digital transformation, challenges still exist. Unaffordable prices of fixed broadband and end devices, a lack of digital skills, and outdated or altogether non-existent infrastructure are among the top barriers to connectivity. Moreover, two prominent divides seem to persist: the gender divide, women experiencing more barriers than men to using the internet, and the divide between urban and rural communities in internet accessibility. Another barrier to connectivity is the lack of data centers and Internet Exchange Points (IXPs) in the region. Internet traffic in the region must go through exchange points in Europe or the U.S., raising costs for local providers and consumers and lowering speeds. Further, strict government regulations make it harder to launch online businesses or allow outside companies to register.
Initiatives through the Internet Society and Five One Labs have attempted to bridge the divide and improve connectivity and spurr local digital entrepreneurship. In Iraq, Five One Labs aims to foster interest in entrepreneurship, particularly among youth. “Over the past five years in Iraq we have really seen a blossoming of Iraq’s entrepreneurial ecosystem,” said Executive Director Alice Bosley, adding “because it is just now coming into the forefront, and I would argue that it is one of the most exciting places to keep an eye on in the region.”
Further, the Internet Society partners with the public and private sectors to establish community networks in locales where affordable Internet remains especially scarce. These initiatives also, “raise the skills that are available in the region [in] students or people who are interested in how to manage the network,” Nermine el Saadany said, Regional Vice President for the Middle East, which is a crucial component to building a sustainable network.
The path forward
Locally-led initiatives like the Internet Society and Five One Labs are doing their part to expand access and bridge the digital skills gap necessary for a better internet experience in the region. According to digital expert Manuel Langendorf, “Digital skills are still one of the barriers for people whether they are able to use the internet or not and so that means there needs to be more targeted education to make sure that everyone knows at least basic ICT skills.” Interventions in the education system and private sector training are two key solutions to bridging this gap. International e-commerce companies such as Amazon, Microsoft, and Cisco are also keen to accelerate MENA’s digital transformation, building infrastructure and enabling local actors to move ahead with projects that would increase connectivity.
Collaboration amongst the government, private sector, and civil society organizations is key to ensuring greater access to affordable Internet and digital skills development. The public sector must invest in rural communities and bridging the gender divide, as well as improving national curricula to enhance the population’s digital skills. MENA governments are also responsible for cultivating an environment that is conducive to entrepreneurship and innovation, and make cross-border collaboration less cumbersome. By engaging stakeholders across the board, MENA will continue to prove fertile for digital opportunity and advancement.
COVID-19 and Internet Accessibility in the MENA Region: Maximizing digital skills and connectivity for economic recovery
Alexander Farley and Manuel Langendorf assess the readiness of countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region to shift employment and education online, both in terms of Internet availability and digital literacy among the populace. They argue that increasing internet accessibility and improving digital skills development can build on the steps that various governments have taken during the pandemic to mitigate economic impacts to form a digitally-enabled recovery strategy.READ MORE
Middle East Program
The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform U.S. foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Read more
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