In a world dominated by rapid innovation, information and communications technology (ICT) is not only an accelerator for economic growth, it also provides on-ramps for vulnerable populations to participate in society and not get left behind. However, the potential of this type of tech can only go as far as a nation’s regulatory environment allows. A weak regulatory environment can drastically limit the benefits of ICT for a country’s economy, consumers, and citizens.

Across several regions, DAI’s ProICT and Advancing Timor-Leste’s Autonomous Telecommunications Landscape (ATLATL) policy experts, implementing activities under the Digital Connectivity and Cybersecurity Partnership (DCCP), stress that practitioners can demonstrate value in the ICT policy development process by building trusted and meaningful relationships with relevant stakeholders and beneficiaries, becoming deeply knowledgeable and respectful of local cultures, norms, laws, and challenges, and focusing their expertise on long-term capacity building that can outlast their time in country.

ATLATL (Timor Leste) (1).jpgImage: Maahid Photos.

1: Listen to the Ecosystem before Making Recommendations

A young tech-savvy population in Indonesia, a competitive telecommunications market in Liberia, and the desire for consumer protection laws in the Philippines are examples of diverse conditions that require vastly different local ICT policy approaches. ICT practitioners, which include individual policy experts to international development organizations, must realistically look at the current stage of a country’s ICT development as well as the existing policy and regulatory landscape before approaching policymakers with solutions.

For example, merchants and consumers in the Philippines use applications such as Facebook and Viber to conduct financial transactions for goods and services. Since many of these digital apps handle commercial disputes only through the app itself, consumers are left to depend on the app’s transaction policies, which may often provide limited options for financial protection. For consumers with issues such as fraudulent payments, many are unable to pursue alternative routes to recover their losses. Such instances necessitated enhanced consumer protection laws in the Philippines—a direct response to the country’s developing e-commerce market.

2: Pay Attention to Five Key Macroeconomic Drivers of the ICT Sector

Macroeconomic forces are the main driver behind an ICT market. The overall health of the macroeconomy determines demand for ICT and shapes possibilities for investment and growth in supply. Practitioners should always include a comprehensive overview of the country’s political and economic conditions when designing ICT solutions. These conditions include:

  1. The Current and Potential State of ICT Technology In-Country: Pay attention to what generation of mobile technology (2G, 2.5G, 3G, 4G, or 5G) is being used in that country. Infrastructure constraints, such as a lack of adequate, reliable electricity in some countries or an insufficient number of cell towers due to lack of telecom investment in certain communities, are other factors that will affect ICT implementation.
  2. Consumer Behavior: Recognize that a younger population that demands sophisticated technology and digital tools will shape the ICT sector in a different way than populations who lack access to essential digital services such as internet and mobile phone connections.
  3. Industry Structure: Pay attention if there is only one mobile network provider in-country or if the country has a multiplayer market. Consider if there is healthy competition between telecommunications companies or telecoms service providers and to what degree does competition benefit users.
  4. Macroeconomic Shocks: Political factors such as coups or elections, new laws, and regulations, natural or man-made disasters and similar macroeconomic shocks can create barriers or opportunities for ICT growth.
  5. Capacity and Regulations: Pay attention to the government’s stance on ICT policy. Consider if the government has the political will and ability to manage the market and the ICT sector’s growth trajectory.

3: Recognize There Is No Substitute for Deep Relationships

By leveraging local stakeholders at the onset of a project, practitioners can not only understand in-country ICT needs, ensure the local ownership of ICT policy solutions, strengthen trusted relationships with key government legislators and regulators, and utilize the country’s local language for a wider reach—they can raise awareness of, and address, emerging threats that can hinder the implementation and use of ICT. In the case where the internet of an entire country such as Liberia can be knocked offline by a single cyber-attack, development practitioners must stress the need for policymakers to recognize and engage on such ICT issues. Such concerted efforts between development practitioners and local staff working for international development organizations, local government, and community organizations are key to addressing emerging technology risks, all while navigating sensitive government structures, practices, and cultural rules.

Finally, deep personal relationships with local government officials require responsiveness and regular communication. By ensuring that stakeholders are guided through key aspects of relevant ICT policy legislation and the implications of their ICT policy choices, development practitioners will better know their partners, better identify concerns and limitations, and better implement solutions locally. Regular communications from the onset, whether in-person or virtual, can also help mitigate any concerns expressed by local policymakers. In Liberia, ProICT’s technical experts met with Liberia Telecommunications Authority staff and decision-makers on a weekly basis, taking extra time to infuse informal capacity-building sessions into each meeting. This approach not only allowed the practitioners to consistently utilize their expertise effectively, but it also fostered trust and confidence in a collective effort to improve Liberian internet and telecommunications regulations and harness the full potential of new ICT solutions.

4: Build on Best Practices for a Local Context

Implementing best practices with an awareness of local contexts will have profound implications for the feasibility of instituting a particular ICT regulatory approach. Coupled with extensive research on local ICT needs, practitioners can also use pre-assessments, focus groups, and tight feedback loops to gauge the training participants’ exact capacity level and meet participants where they are. It is then the responsibility of the development practitioners to implement contextualized training for policymakers where development experts can help frame applicable ICT policy solutions and assist policymakers in understanding security issues, particularly ones that may be imminent or probable. For example, a judicial training conducted with government representatives dealing with intellectual property can be a huge asset for a region or country plagued by copyright issues. Such training will not only ensure sustained capacity, it will also promote the scalability of ICT solutions.

Paying attention to and working within the existing laws and legal framework of a country is another critical consideration. A cyber or e-commerce law in the United States reflects a particular framework for drafting and implementation, while laws passed in another country will reflect other frameworks. For example, Timor-Leste’s civil code laws and legal structure, tied to Portuguese legal traditions and significantly influenced by Indonesia’s 24-year occupation, require practitioners to have a more nuanced and complex approach than simply instituting an existing American law and policy. In this instance, ATLATL’s e-commerce legal expert had to expand the scope of a draft e-commerce law to address validation and use of electronic transactions and related requirements due to the absence of a commercial code and related governing statutes in Timor-Leste.

Moving ICT Policies Forward

As markets are unpredictable and because capacity building requires time, flexibility during the design and implementation of any ICT policy project is essential to the long-term policy achievements intended to impact the structure of governments, the opportunities of consumers, and the lives of underserved populations. Strategies should always include understanding a country’s regulatory landscape and consumer market, establishing key stakeholder relationships with government counterparts, and balancing best practices while respecting local context. Such an approach is necessary to build in-country capacity to develop successful ICT policy and regulations and unlock the full potential of digitalization.

Insights for this piece were drawn from DAI’s Digital Frontiers comprehensive ICT Policy Learning Session on ICT policy to discuss some of the sector’s biggest successes and challenges. Attended by 14 of DCCP’s valued digital, ICT policy, and regulatory experts and DAI staff, this learning session united rich technical expertise, fieldwork experience, and years of development project knowledge through a series of thoughtful discussions on ICT policy development processes.