The announcement last month of a new approach by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to Africa is welcome, and significant for a number of reasons.
Africa must participate in ICANN's activities to help shape its policies, and benefit from the domain name industry (estimated at $2 billion in 2008), where it lags behind other regions, given the few African registrars, and that there are no generic top-level domain names (gTLDs) registries that are African.
Africa now accounts for only 5 of 1,019 ICANN-accredited registrars, compared to 585 (57.4 percent) for the US. The situation is worse in the case of registries, given that none of the 22 gTLD registries are in Africa, compared to 16 (72.7 percent) for North America (all US). Furthermore, many African country-code top-level domain names (ccTLDs), have relatively few domain names, compared to other ccTLDs, and gTLDs such as .com. Europe's largest ccTLD, .de (for Germany), has over 15 million domain names registered, compared to 42,000 registrations for Nigeria's .ng
Despite these challenges, Africa is on the cusp of an explosive growth in its information technology sector, especially mobile telephony, where the future of the Internet lies. According to the GSM Association, Africa is now the fastest growing mobile market, and with over 649 million subscribers last year was ranked, after Asia, as the second largest mobile market in the world. Although most subscriptions are for voice services, data services are increasing steadily, along with the explosive growth in financial services such as mobile banking and money transfer.
The ICANN decision to engage Africa is welcome because it provides an opportunity to improve on its previous dismal attitude to developing countries, Africa especially. Although ICANN sometimes holds its international meetings in Africa, and until recently had a Brussels, Belgium-based manager for its relations with Africa, it is seen on the continent more as insular, than a development partner. This is in contrast to the reputations of organizations such as the Internet Society (ISOC), AfriNIC, and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) which have a stronger presence in Africa and are more active in helping build capacity on the continent.
I recall the difficulties I had, while I was on the ICANN board, convincing ICANN to support regional Internet governance forums, where many stakeholders meet to discuss Internet development issues in Africa, including areas concerning its work. When support was provided, it was relatively paltry, and often on condition that ICANN's logo should not be included in the conference Web site or literature.
I also urged ICANN to send high-level representation to meetings such as the African Union Heads of State and Government summits. Such efforts could have increased ICANN's profile in Africa, and helped it better understand her peoples and their aspirations. Unfortunately, there never was a serious effort to reach out to African leaders, and other stakeholders on the continent.
ICANN's failure to adequately engage Africa was manifested in the outreach program for the new gTLD program. Of ICANN's 117 outreach activities between June 2008 and December 2011, only 12 were in Africa, and 11 were in Latin America and Caribbean (including South and Central America and Mexico), compared to 39 activities in Europe, 31 in the Asia-Pacific region, and 24 in North America. When I voted last October for the ICANN board to approve a $900,000 to implement the communications plan for the new gTLD program, I shared concerns about ICANN's neglect of Africa in its outreach efforts. Now that the dust has settled, it is clear our concerns were valid.
The lack of an effective outreach to Africa is one of direct causes of the very low participation of Africa in ICANN's program to increase the number of gTLDs. Of the 1,930 applications for new gTLDs, only 17 were from Africa, and 13 of these were from South Africa. In all likelihood, more outreach to Africa would have increased African participation in the new gTLD program.
Against this background, it is most welcome that ICANN kicked off its new approach to Africa with a meeting last June between its new, and first African CEO and President, and the African constituency during the ICANN meeting in Prague, Czech Republic. Following that meeting, an Africa Strategy Working Group was formed to help ICANN better engage Africa. This approach will help identify areas in which Africans can build on their own efforts to improve their engagement with ICANN. This approach is also in the spirit of ICANN's bottom-up, multi-stakeholder model, and should bear valuable fruit.
A successful engagement with Africa will help ICANN achieve its objectives and commitments (especially the 2009 Affirmation of Commitments it signed with the US government), and strengthen its relations with developing countries. Given on-going global debates about Internet governance, it is important that ICANN builds strong relationship with the developing world, starting with Africa. The alternative would be to alienate them, and force them to seek other forums where their voices would be heard, and their concerns addressed.
By Katim S. Touray, International Development Consultant, and ICT for development advocate
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