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Public should say how digital billions are spent

Governments have collected huge sums in Universal Access Funds. Murali Shanmugavalen wants the people to decide how they are used to bridge the communications gap.

We hear how developing countries are struggling to embrace the information and communications revolution because the cost of the technology is too high. In particular, the private sector tends not to serve rural communities because it is not profitable enough. What we don't hear is how some governments are sitting on billions of dollars they have collected in Universal Access Funds with the precise aim of improving access to communications for those who are not well served.

Brazil, for example, has collected a staggering 3.27 billion US dollars from private communications companies. According to the GSM Association, the body representing mobile phone operators worldwide, the money has not been spent due to different legal interpretations of the fund's objectives. India which has accumulated a reserve of 2 billion US dollars still has around 600,000 villages with no public phone.

The Universal Access Fund is an idea introduced by the United States. The objective is to provide communications access and other services – such as providing relevant content in local languages on local networks – for all citizens within a reasonable distance of their homes. Governments usually build up the fund by imposing a levy on telecoms companies and other communications providers.

In the 1990s, when the telecommunications sector in many developing countries opened up to private firms, several governments adopted the Universal Access Fund model. According to the GSM Association, 32 developing countries have begun to operate a fund with another 57 planning to introduce one.

The Ugandan government, for example, wants to increase rural connectivity and it is developing 43 projects to provide health information using information and communication technology. Chile's fund, paid for by the public sector rather than private firms, has bankrolled a phenomenal expansion in rural telecoms access with public telephones installed in more than six thousand communities benefiting more than two million people.

Most people understand "universal access" to refer solely to telephone provision but in today's context, more holistic approaches should be considered. This calls for an expansion of the Universal Access Fund's remit and for governments to rethink their strategies. Rural telecentres in many developing countries now offer local health information, or advice on crops and animal rearing. Universal Access Funds could be used to subsidise this information or to provide cheap access to computers and other ICTs.

But there is another problem. The fund's core principle is to recognise communications access as a public good and to extend services to the "digital underclass", but the money is often spent by governments without proper consultation with the public. Currently, information about the management of these funds is not available and there are few public scrutiny mechanisms in place. To ensure the money is spent effectively, governments should make their decisions more transparent.

In other sectors, such as health or education, civil society organisations in different countries exchange information in an effort to enhance public participation and to ensure governmental budgets are pro-poor and transparent. Despite the Universal Access Fund being administered in more than 30 countries, there is no proper exchange of information among governments, innovators and civil society organisations. Furthermore there is usually little coverage in the mainstream media.

With innovation and political will, this money can be put to good use. And innovation is only possible if governments listen to rural communities' needs, if they become more transparent, and if they encourage civil society organisations to participate in the decision making process.

Murali Shanmugavelan is head of our information society programme.

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