Kickstarting Africa's Efforts to Tap into the Global Digital Economy Through Sound Data Regulation

2021-10-15 16:05
Center for Global Development

Tapping into the value that cross-border data flows create has become a prerequisite for businesses worldwide. To take part in the global digital economy, countries must enact policies that seek to balance the benefits and risks created by data flows.


Mauritius has earned a reputation as a safe destination for data through its respect for privacy and confidentiality, effective but targeted local data storage rules, secure telecom infrastructure, and sound trade policies. In achieving these aims, we have strived to preserve the digital rights of our citizens while taking the steps needed to support innovation and growth.


There is a pressing need for African countries to adopt policy frameworks that promote data interoperability across the continent, streamline regulatory requirements across borders, and minimize hurdles to using and sharing data responsibly. Africa currently lags behind other regions on these measures and catching up will require political will at the highest levels of government.


Greater regional and global coordination around a practical set of rules would make it easier for the governments to effectively implement data policy frameworks and help them modify those frameworks as needed to keep pace with the quickly evolving digital economy.


Stepping stones to digital harmonization in Africa

Africa's digital transformation should be paired with efforts to harmonize digital governance in line with practical standards. The foundations of this effort have already been laid at the continental and regional levels, including: the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), which came into effect in January 2021; the African Union's Convention on Cyber Security and Personal Data Protection ("Malabo Convention"), which was adopted in 2014 and has been signed by 14 of the 55 member states of the African Union; ongoing efforts by the African Union to harmonize data protection laws in Africa; The Economic Community of West African States' (ECOWAS) Supplementary Act on Personal Data Protection,The Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) and the Southern African Development Community's (SADC) joint work on a Data Protection Model Law.


While there are multiple initiatives aimed at fostering greater harmonization of data rules at the regional level within Africa, the same cannot be said for the global level. Given the borderless nature of the digital economy, data protection is a global concern that necessitates global action. The lack of a global agreement on rules governing how data can be used and shared is a major roadblock to cross-border data sharing.


In the absence of a globally coordinated approach, countries are more likely to enact legal and trade frameworks that diverge from other countries' approaches, making it more difficult for companies to share data (even internally) across borders. They are also more likely to enact overly broad and restrictive data localization requirements that pose a barrier to trade and investment by, for example, making it harder for local companies to invest in cloud solutions that are increasingly important to achieving economies of scale. Onerous data processing laws can also make it harder for domestic firms to participate in the global digital economy.


As Singapore's Minister for Communications and Information, S. Iswaran, has said, building a strong digital economy requires both "strengthening data protection capabilities and growing trusted data flows". African policymakers need to keep these dual (and complementary) goals in mind as they nurture the continent's growing digital economy.

editor:Gu Shanshan


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