Covid-19 News

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The role of digitalization has become critical within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. While digitalization was embedded in many domains prior to the pandemic, the latter created what is known as ‘new normal’ conditions characterised by reduced physical contact and restricted movement. These changes rapidly increased the digitalization of transactions between and among people, pushing a new scope of tradable goods and services and fostering new areas of mutual cooperation among Southern economies, both technologically and financially. As such, this session discussed how the gradually increasing share of South-South trade, and its resilience in the face of COVID-linked disruption, can inform a thorough theoretical and empirical understanding of the nature and implications of South-South trade in building back better in a post-COVID-19 world.

It was noted that the ICT based technology and digitisation has helped southern economies to boost trade and investment. The global south-south cooperation has to be increased and multilateral cooperation in knowledge sharing and partnership brokering is needed for the overall welfare and development of the global south. New opportunities for South-South cooperation can be opened up by building regional cloud-computing infrastructure, strengthening regional broadband infrastructure and promoting regional digital payments, especially in Africa.

The panelists pointed that along with transforming the substance, patterns and possibilities of international trade, the digital revolution is also accelerating trade transactions. This revolution could unlock new efficiencies and gains for businesses and consumers. Several important challenges remain in developing countries, and particularly Africa: (1) inadequate infrastructure, such as limited broadband connectivity; (2) lack of ICT skills; (3) problematic policy and regulatory issues, which represent increasing costs to digital companies, such as onerous legal liability regimes and data privacy rules; (4) limited use and adoption by small businesses of digital technologies, such as e-commerce and online payments; (5) the traditional challenges to cross-border trade, such as complicated customs procedures and expensive logistics; and 6) national digital infrastructure and regulations that are incomplete and do not interact optimally with those of other economies. These challenges are to be jointly addressed through global south-south cooperation.

Discussions also highlighted that the battleground for achieving SDGs lies in rural Africa and rural South Asia. For realisation of SDG targets, massive investments in a range of sectors over a prolonged period of time is required. Leveraging global south-south financing and involving the private sector to achieve the SDGs at a national level in many developing countries remains to be more fully harnessed. Global south should consider a new south-south development cooperation finance architecture. The panelists said that, global south-south cooperation should be developed in Research and Development, and innovation, apart from trade. The pandemic has brought an opportunity for the countries to think and and act for sustainable solutions to build a better tomorrow.

On the panel were Ms. Bineswaree Bolaky, Economic Affairs Officer, United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA; Dr. George Kararach, Lead Economist, African Development Bank (AfDB); Myriam Ramzy & Professor Chahir Zaki, Cairo University. Dr. Hany Besada, Senior Research/Programme Advisor, UNOSSC, moderated the session. Dr. Adel Abdellatif, Director a.i., UNOSSC gave the opening remarks while Dr. Xiaojun Grace Wang, Deputy Director for Programme and Operations, UNOSSC, gave the closing remarks.

UNCTAD

Despite COVID-19 hurdles, online businesses in Zambia are clinging to their big dreams while the government strengthens the nation’s e-commerce ecosystem.

Zambia’s coronavirus lockdown shut down some more traditional businesses, but for e-commerce firms this was their chance to scale up operations.

AfriDelivery, a food delivery service with big dreams of becoming a business-to-business (B2B) e-commerce platform, recorded 100% growth in annual terms in 2020.

Afshon Wallace, the company’s founder and CEO, said it grew on two fronts – in business partners and customers – during the pandemic.

“We managed to keep delivering, from shops, restaurants, supermarkets and pharmacies while also finding more businesses to partner with. It’s been a powerful period for us, even though the growth was related to the pandemic,” Mr. Wallace said.

Meanwhile, as the tourism industry demand collapsed, another company, Voyagers Zambia – a travel agency and part of a group that offers travel, safari, insurance brokerage and car rental services – developed an online platform to distribute travel products efficiently.

The company’s director, Grant Gatchell, said tourism relief measures were limited for travel agencies, forcing the group to pivot towards car rental and transport including new products and services.

“In a way the pandemic made us reassess our offering and expand it,” Mr. Gatchell said.

Unforeseen hurdles

Despite the opportunities, the pandemic also brought many challenges and unforeseen costs for e-commerce firms. Operational costs also increased due to measures taken to protect staff.

For Afri-Delivery, exchange rate fluctuations exacerbated the situation by driving up the price of imported motorbikes, the primary delivery vehicle in Zambia, Mr. Wallace said.

Other challenges cited by e-commerce firms include poor access to the internet and electricity, and the high cost of broadband services.

Tax breaks would go a long way to support the nation’s e-commerce firms, some owners say. They also encouraged the government to enter into more double-tax treaties to reduce the cost of imported technology goods and services.

The owners also say they receive limited government support and lack appropriate forums to exchange meaningfully with policymakers, as confirmed by a recent UNCTAD survey on COVID-19 and e-commerce.

“The pandemic has compelled businesses to accelerate digital transformation processes and reinvent their business models,” said Shamika N. Sirimanne, UNCTAD’s technology and logistics director.

“However, stronger government action and close public-private cooperation are needed to improve Zambia’s e-commerce readiness,” she said.

Turning recommendations into action

UNCTAD’s e-Trade Readiness Assessment for Zambia, conducted in 2018, recommended measures across seven key policy areas.

An UNCTAD review found that by mid-2020, Zambia had implemented about 50% of the recommendations, a huge advance for the country.

The southern African nation also saw an improvement of its ranking in UNCTAD’s B2C E-Commerce Index 2020 from 125 to 120.  

The Zambian government is currently developing an e-commerce strategy using a robust, multi-stakeholder approach, and reviewing its national ICT policy.

Other noteworthy advances include:

  1. In the area of ICT infrastructure and services, Zambia’s continued emphasis on setting up communication towers across the country has boosted mobile network coverage to reach nearly 92% of the population.
  2. It revised the national energy policy in 2019 to facilitate more open access regimes, increase private sector participation, promote alternative sources of energy and cost-reflective tariffs in the pricing of services.
  3. On the trade facilitation and logistics front, it’s developing a national addressing system to enhance trade logistics and last mile delivery, as well as a national postal policy.
  4. Zambia is a signatory to the World Trade Organization’s Trade Facilitation Agreement. It uses ASYCUDA as the Customs Management System (CMS), and uses the ASYCUDA platform to  build a single window environment serving importers, exporters or customs brokers.. This reduces the transit time of goods at the border and enhances trade. Recently, the country ratified the African Continental Free Trade Area Agreement.
  5. In terms of legal and regulatory frameworks, the government is reviewing regulations to address issues dealing with e-transaction and data protection. It has also submitted a bill on cyber security to the parliament. Zambia is also reviewing its consumer and competition laws to protect consumers in electronic transactions.
  6. On the payments side, the Bank of Zambia has developed a switch to support interoperability among banks and other financial services. In response to the pandemic, it took several measures to encourage the use of digital financial services and reduce processing fees for money transfer.
  7. ICT skills education has become compulsory in schools to develop technological capacity among the youth.

Helping beyond Zambia

Besides Zambia, UNCTAD is helping other nations in which it has conducted eTrade readiness assessments – 27 to date – to turn recommendations into action.

In January and February this year, UNCTAD and its partners brought together over 270 public and private sector stakeholders from more than 20 countries to discuss how best to fast-track the implementation of the recommendations.

The participants, who included eTrade for all partners, shared experiences and explored opportunities to foster collaboration.

Supported financially by Germany and the Netherlands, UNCTAD is working with the eTrade for all partners and UN resident coordinators to ensure e-commerce is mainstreamed into national development plans and development partners’ cooperation frameworks.

UNCTAD

In years to come, we will look back at 2020 as the moment that changed everything. Nowhere else has unprecedented and unforeseen growth occurred as in the digital and e-commerce sectors, which have boomed amid the COVID-19 crisis.

Amid slowing economic activity, COVID-19 has led to a surge in e-commerce and accelerated digital transformation.

As lockdowns became the new normal, businesses and consumers increasingly “went digital”, providing and purchasing more goods and services online, raising e-commerce’s share of global retail trade from 14% in 2019 to about 17% in 2020.

These and other findings are showcased in a new report, COVID-19 and E-Commerce: A Global Review, by UNCTAD and eTrade for all partners, reflecting on the powerful global and regional industry transformations recorded throughout 2020.

At an event to release the report, UN General Assembly President Volkan Bozkir said the trend towards e-commerce is likely to continue throughout the recovery from COVID-19.

“We need to recognize the challenges and take steps to support governments and citizens as they continue to embrace new ways of working,” he said.

UNCTAD Acting Secretary-General Isabelle Durant said: “Businesses and consumers that were able to ‘go digital’ have helped mitigate the economic downturn caused by the pandemic.”

“But they have also sped up a digital transition that will have lasting impacts on our societies and daily lives – for which not everyone is prepared,” she said, adding: “Developing countries should not only be consumers but also active players and thus producers of the digital economy.”

Some benefit, others fall behind

The findings show the strong uptake of e-commerce across regions, with consumers in emerging economies making the greatest shift to online shopping.

Latin America’s online marketplace Mercado Libre, for example, sold twice as many items per day in the second quarter of 2020 compared with the same period the previous year. And African e-commerce platform Jumia reported a 50% jump in transactions during the first six months of 2020.

China’s online share of retail sales rose from 19.4% to 24.6% between August 2019 and August 2020. In Kazakhstan, the online share of retail sales increased from 5% in 2019 to 9.4% in 2020.

Thailand saw downloads of shopping apps jump 60% in just one week during March 2020.

The trend towards e-commerce uptake seen in 2020 is likely to be sustained during recovery, the report says.

But in many of the world’s least developed countries, consumers and businesses haven’t capitalized on pandemic-induced e-commerce opportunities due to persistent barriers.

These include costly broadband services, overreliance on cash, lack of consumers’ trust, poor digital skills among the population and governments’ limited attention to e-commerce.

“Countries that harness the potential of e-commerce will be better placed to benefit from global markets for their goods and services in this digitalizing economy, while those that fail to do so risk falling behind even further,” said Shamika N. Sirimanne, UNCTAD’s technology and logistics director.

One of the challenges, the report says, is that the pandemic has mostly benefited the world’s leading digital platforms.

Many solutions being used for e-commerce, teleworking and cloud computing are provided by a relatively small number of large companies, based mainly in China and the United States.

Smaller players may have gained a deeper foothold, but their market presence is still dwarfed by the digital giants, which could entrench their predominant role during the pandemic.

“The risk is that the huge digital divides that already existed between and within countries will only worsen in the wake of the pandemic,” said Torbjörn Fredriksson, UNCTAD’s digital economy head.

“The result will be even deeper inequalities that would threaten to derail progress on the UN Sustainable Development Goals,” he added.

Government responses

Most governments prioritized short-term responses to the pandemic, but some have also begun to address longer-term strategic requirements for recovery. Several governments in developing countries have intervened to protect businesses and individual incomes.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, for example, Costa Rica’s government initiated a platform for businesses without an online presence, and a smartphone app and texting service to facilitate trade among producers of agricultural, meat and fish products.

In Africa, Senegal ran an information, education and awareness campaign on the benefits of e-commerce across all segments of the population.

In Asia, Indonesia launched a capacity-building programme to expedite digitization and digitalization among micro, small, and medium enterprises.

Action points for inclusive e-commerce

The report maps out actions that should be taken by three stakeholder groups to ensure more inclusive benefits from e-commerce.

It says governments need to prioritize national digital readiness so that more local businesses can become producers in the digital economy, not just consumers.

According to the report, building an enabling e-commerce ecosystem requires changes in public policy and business practices to improve the digital and trading infrastructure, facilitate digital payments and establish appropriate legal and regulatory frameworks for online transactions and security.

“The approach must be holistic. Policies should not be made in silos,” said Ms. Sirimanne.

Then, to capture value from digital trade, digital entrepreneurship must become a central focus.

This requires faster digitalization for smaller businesses and more attention to digital entrepreneurship, including reskilling, especially of women.

Countries also need better capabilities to capture and harness data, and stronger regulatory frameworks for creating and capturing value in the digital economy, the report says.

Lastly, the international community needs to find new, bold and smart ways to work with governments and the private sector to leverage these opportunities.

“The digital divide, which was real long before COVID-19, is a challenge which can be removed through our collective efforts and international support,” Mr. Bozkir added. “E-commerce offers immense potential across the SDGs. Efforts, therefore, must be made to harness this rapidly emerging tool.”

To support UN-wide work on the topic, Mr. Bozkir announced a one-day high-level thematic debate on digital cooperation and connectivity on 27 April 2021.

This will provide a platform for high-level political statements of intent and support, and frank exchanges among UN entities, technology leaders, constituents and stakeholders, to build momentum and mobilize the international community to strengthen existing multi-stakeholder initiatives and partnerships, and support the creation of additional partnerships to accelerate implementation..

Charting the future of e-commerce

Better dialogue and collaboration are needed to identify new pathways for the digital economy.

The UNCTAD-led eTrade for all initiative, currently funded by the Netherlands, Germany and Estonia, is one such platform for doing so.

Over the past four years, the initiative has served as a global helpdesk for developing countries to bridge the knowledge gap on e-commerce information and resources, and catalyse partnership among its partners.

Since the outbreak of the pandemic, more than 30 eTrade for all partners have worked together to raise awareness on the e-commerce opportunities and risks emerging during the crisis.

They have also identified ways in which businesses in developing and least developed countries could overcome the challenges.

The COVID-19 repository launched in the fall of 2020 and the new COVID-19 and e-commerce report are the initiative’s latest collective efforts to build a sustainable digital future.

WTO

Members continued discussions on the role of intellectual property amid a pandemic and how the WTO and other stakeholders can engage to ensure secure and rapid access to vaccines and other medical products needed to combat COVID-19. At a meeting of the Council for Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) on 10-11 March 2021, members also considered the continued exemption of least-developed countries (LDCs) from TRIPS obligations and broadened their debate on the relation between IP and innovation to cover small business and green technologies.

 

Continuing their discussions held since October 2020, WTO members addressed the proposal (IP/C/W/669) submitted by South Africa and India calling for a waiver for all members of certain provisions of the TRIPS Agreement in relation to the “prevention, containment or treatment” of COVID-19. According to proponents, the objective is to avoid barriers to the timely access to affordable medical products, including vaccines and medicines, and to the scaling-up of manufacturing and supply of essential medical products.

The waiver would cover obligations in four sections of the TRIPS Agreement — Section 1 on copyright and related rights, Section 4 on industrial designs, Section 5 on patents and Section 7 on the protection of undisclosed information. It would last for a specific number of years, to be agreed by the General Council, and until widespread vaccination is in place globally and the majority of the world’s population is immune. Members would review the waiver annually until termination.

Since its submission, the proposal has been co-sponsored by Kenya, Eswatini, Mozambique, Pakistan, Bolivia, Venezuela, Mongolia, Zimbabwe, Egypt, the African Group and the LDCs Group.

At the previous meeting of the Council on 23 February, members agreed on an oral status report to the General Council reflecting the state of discussions and lack of consensus on the waiver request. The report indicated that the TRIPS Council had not yet completed its consideration of the waiver request and would therefore continue discussions and report back to the General Council.

Members reiterated their common goal of providing timely and secure access to high-quality, safe, efficacious and affordable vaccines and medicines for all, but continued to diverge on what role IP played in achieving that goal. Proponents argued that existing vaccine manufacturing capacities in the developing world remained unutilized because of IP barriers, and hence insufficient amounts of vaccines were being produced to end the pandemic. In their view, the waiver proposal represents an open and expedited global solution to allow uninterrupted collaboration in the production and supply of health products and technologies required for an effective COVID-19 response.

Citing the role of IP as an incentive for innovation to fight the current and future pandemics, and as underpinning the licensing, manufacturing, procurement and distribution of COVID-19 diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines, other delegations welcomed further engagement on the questions they had raised with regards to the proposal. They urged an evidence-based discussion on any concrete examples where IP would pose a barrier to manufacturing and access to vaccines that could not be addressed by existing TRIPS flexibilities.

The outgoing chair of the TRIPS Council, Ambassador Xolelwa Mlumbi-Peter of South Africa, said swift action is urgently required to help scale up COVID-19 vaccine production and distribution.  She called on members to shift gears and move towards a solution-oriented discussion.

The next regular TRIPS Council meeting is scheduled for 8-9 June, but members agreed to consider additional meetings in April in order to assess potential progress on the IP waiver discussion.

LDC transition period

Members also discussed a request by the LDCs Group (IP/C/W/668) to once again extend the transition period for LDC members under Article 66.1 of the TRIPS Agreement. Under this provision, LDCs are given an extended transition period to apply provisions of the TRIPS Agreement in recognition of their special requirements, their economic, financial and administrative constraints, and their need for flexibility in order to create a viable technological base. The transition period has been extended twice and is currently set to expire on 1 July 2021.

Delegations were in principle favourable to the extension. Some members expressed full support for the extension as requested (for as long as the member remains in the category of LDCs and for a period of 12 years from the date of entry into force of a decision by the United Nations General Assembly to exclude the member from that category). Other members expressed a preference for extending the period for a limited number of years, while others had additional questions on how the request for a transition period for countries that have graduated from LDC status related to Article 66.1.

MSMEs and green technologies

Continuing the theme of IP and innovation regularly featuring on the TRIPS Council agenda since 2012, the Friends of IP and Innovation (Australia, Canada, Chile, the European Union, Japan, Singapore, Switzerland, Chinese Taipei, the United Kingdom and the United States) proposed to discuss the topic of “Making MSMEs competitive in green tech” (IP/C/W/675).

The submission presents intellectual property rights (IPR) approaches for making micro-, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) competitive in green technologies and makes the case for MSMEs playing a pivotal role in ongoing technology change towards greater sustainability. Co-sponsors underlined that MSMEs account for more than 50 per cent of employment and can constitute core engines of innovation and growth. Therefore, the role of IPRs to enhance their competitiveness should be looked at closely.

There are various ways in which MSMEs can make use of the IP system to become more competitive in the field of green technologies. These range from taking advantage of international and regional IP application and registration mechanisms and using international platforms for sharing information and opportunities for partnership and collaboration to national solutions such as fast-track patenting or even on-demand support facilitated by IP offices. Through these efforts, progress towards more sustainable technologies can be accelerated, in turn fostering innovation and providing opportunities for cooperation in the green technology sector, proponents said.

LDCs and developing countries agreed on the importance of discussing this issue as access to green technology would contribute to boosting their competitiveness while respecting environmental imperatives. However, they highlighted the lack of a viable technological base, particularly in LDCs, and stressed the need to benefit from more effective technology transfer. This would not only serve to increase their levels of production but also to provide them with technology that enables the sustainable and environmentally friendly development of new products, they said.

Other issues

The meeting of the TRIPS Council was attended by a group of capital-based experts and delegates from LDC members and observers who participated in the Workshop on the Implementation of Article 66.2 of the TRIPS Agreement on 2, 4 and 5 March organized by the WTO Secretariat. Article 66.2 calls on developed countries to provide incentives to enterprises and institutions in their territories for the purpose of promoting and encouraging technology transfer to LDCs in order to enable them to create a sound and viable technological base.

On the initiation of non-violation and situation complaints under the TRIPS Agreement, and following the General Council decision of 10 December 2019 to extend the related moratorium until the 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12), members discussed whether elements of agreement could be identified in order to advance discussion towards a concrete outcome. This question concerns the longstanding discussion of whether — and under what circumstances — members should have the right to bring disputes to the WTO if they consider that another member’s action or a particular situation has deprived them of an expected benefit under the TRIPS Agreement, even if no specific TRIPS obligation has been violated.

The chair noted that there are now only eight months left before the Council is due to report again on this issue and called for discussions to focus on concrete suggestions for the Council’s recommendation to MC12, scheduled to take place the week of 29 November 2021 in Geneva.

TRIPS amendment

The chair reported that, since the last TRIPS Council regular meeting in October 2020, the Gambia had deposited on 20 October 2020 its instrument of acceptance for the protocol amending the TRIPS Agreement. Also, on 1 January 2021, the United Kingdom confirmed its continued acceptance of the protocol.

To date, 132 members have accepted the TRIPS Amendment, which entered into force on 23 January 2017, securing for developing countries a legal pathway to access affordable medicines under WTO rules. The chair encouraged the remaining 32 members to expedite action in good time before the current deadline for acceptance, which was extended until 31 December 2021.

New chair

Members elected Dagfinn Sørli, Ambassador of Norway, as TRIPS Council chair for the coming year.

WBG

When COVID-19 shut primary schools throughout Pakistan early in 2020, entrepreneur Maheen Adamjee knew she had to act quickly to save her business.

 

Dot & Line provided in-home tutoring to Pakistani schoolchildren with a network of women micro-franchisees who used their homes as teaching centers.

A national lockdown to contain the disease halted all in-person tutoring sessions. So in just two weeks, Dot & Line rewrote its business plan, created digital tools, and launched training classes to help its teachers shift to online tutoring sessions. The firm transformed itself into a digital company nearly overnight.

One year later, Dot & Line has expanded into several countries and is growing briskly, driven by demand from the Pakistan diaspora. The company’s new challenge: adding enough teachers to keep up with all the new students.

Adamjee is a great example of a start-up businesswoman responding to COVID-19 with agility, creativity, and resilience. There’s no question that the pandemic dealt a major blow to businesses. Some women-owned firms have rebounded by adopting new business models and using digital platforms to take advantage of emerging regional opportunities.  Adamjee and two other women entrepreneurs described their experiences and offered practical tips at a recent #OneSouthAsia Conversation, a series of online events on regional issues.

Even before the pandemic, barely 18% of South Asian businesses were principally owned by women – the lowest rate among global regions

Women entrepreneurs often pioneer new products and services that expand opportunities for others. But even before the pandemic, barely 18% of South Asian businesses were principally owned by women – the lowest rate among global regions. Legal, cultural, and financial barriers discourage women from starting a business.

Another hurdle: tariffs and trade barriers throughout South Asia. Both make it slow and costly for small firms to trade. 

“Within South Asia, trading is very difficult because of nontrade barriers and rules that change overnight. People prefer to trade outside the region than in it,” said Ayanthi Gurusinghe, a woman entrepreneur in Sri Lanka.

She founded a company, Cord360.com, a B2B platform that connects small buyers and sellers for products ranging from dried fruits to pharmaceuticals. Cord360.com offers training to help women entrepreneurs learn about international markets. It has been especially active in encouraging women to trade products across borders in Sri Lanka, India, and Pakistan.

The pandemic has propelled women entrepreneurs into the digital economy which has allowed them to reach across national boundaries to establish partnerships and target new customers, overcoming travel and trade restrictions. 

“In terms of the demographics, a lot of the culture and habits are the same when you look at India, or Bangladesh, or Afghanistan,” Adamjee said. “The internet blurs those borders and allows for professional relationships that could not take place previously.”


Watch the panel discussion: Celebrating the Champions for Change in South Asia: Gender Equality in Leadership:


Sairee Chahal,  founded her company, SHEROES, in 2014 as an online community for women. It now has 22 million members in India, Bangladesh, and other countries – up from nearly 16 million before the pandemic. The site offers career tips, job leads, training, legal advice, and a free counseling helpline. It also is an online platform helping microentrepreneurs sell their goods.

In India alone, Chahal said an estimated 20 million women will become microentrepreneurs over the next three years . Many will use digital platforms or e-commerce. “That would not be possible if 300 million [Indian] women hadn’t adopted the internet in the past three or four years,” she said.

However, government policymakers have not yet recognized the enormous economic potential of women who create innovative products and services that ripple through the economy . More women entrepreneurs could “have a huge impact on GDP” but they aren’t getting the kind of policy support needed, Chahal said.

The pandemic has propelled women entrepreneurs into the digital economy, allowing them to reach across national boundaries to establish partnerships and target new customers

Our discussion identified several actions to support women-led businesses:

WIPO

International patent applications via WIPO in 2020 continued to grow amid the COVID-19 pandemic’s vast human and economic toll, with leading users China and the U.S. each marking annual growth in filings.

International patent applications filed via WIPO’s Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT), which is one of the widely used metrics for measuring innovative activity, grew by 4% in 2020 to reach 275,900 applications – the highest number ever, despite an estimated drop in global GDP of 3.5%.

China (68,720 applications, +16.1% year-on-year growth) remained the largest user of WIPO’s PCT System, followed by the U.S. (59,230 applications, +3%), Japan (50,520 applications, -4.1%), the Republic of Korea (20,060 applications, +5.2%) and Germany (18,643 applications, -3.7%)
(Annex 1 PDF, Annex 1).

Beyond the top 10, other countries that saw strong growth include Saudi Arabia (956 applications, +73.2%), Malaysia (255 applications, +26.2%), Chile (262 applications, +17.0%), Singapore (1,278 applications, +14.9%) and Brazil (697 applications, +8.4%). Longer term trends point to the globalization of innovation, with Asia accounting for 53.7% percent of all PCT filing activity, versus 35.7% 10 years ago.

Use of the international trademark system dipped, but only slightly. This was expected given that trademarks tend to represent the introduction of new goods and services – both of which slowed as a result of the global pandemic. International trademark applications via WIPO’s Madrid System for the International Registration of Marks decreased by 0.6% to 63,800 in 2020 – the first decline since the global financial crisis of 2008-2009.

(PHOTO: WIPO/BERROD)

Press conference: Video on YouTube

The economic fallout from the pandemic hit demand for the protection of industrial designs via the Hague System for the International Registration of Industrial Designs. Demand fell by 15% in 2020 to 18,580 designs – the first decline since 2006.

Worldwide demand for IP rights, which help innovators and enterprises take their ideas to the market, has historically and broadly tracked global economic performance. However, growth over the past decade in the use of WIPO’s global IP services, most notably the PCT, has outperformed global GDP growth.

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Interactive charts

Charts with the latest key international IP data.

Access our interactive IP charts for 2020

International patent system (Patent Cooperation Treaty – PCT)

Top PCT filers

For the fourth consecutive year, China-based telecoms giant Huawei Technologies, with 5,464 published PCT applications, was the top filer in 2020. It was followed by Samsung Electronics of the Republic of Korea (3,093), Mitsubishi Electric Corp. of Japan (2,810), LG Electronics Inc. of the Republic of Korea (2,759) and Qualcomm Inc. of the U.S. (2,173) (Annex 2 PDF, Annex 2). Among the top 10 filers, LG Electronics reported the fastest growth (+67.6%) in the number of published applications in 2020 and as a result it moved up from 10th position in 2019 to 4th position in 2020.

The University of California with 559 published applications continues to head the list of top applicants among educational institutions in 2020. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (269) ranked second, followed by Shenzhen University (252), Tsinghua University (231) and Zhejiang University (209) (Annex 3 PDF, Annex 3). The top 10-university list comprises five universities from China, four from the U.S., and one from Japan.

Top technologies

Among fields of technology, computer technology (9.2% of total) accounted for the largest share of published PCT applications, followed by digital communication (8.3%), medical technology (6.6%), electrical machinery (6.6%), and measurement (4.8%) (Annex 4 PDF, Annex 4).

Six of the top 10 technologies recorded double-digit growth in 2020, with audio-visual technology reporting the fastest rate of growth – +29.5%, compared to 8.7% the previous year –  followed by digital communication (+15.8%), computer technology (+13.2%), measurement (+10.9%) semiconductors (+10.1%) and pharmaceuticals (+10%).

International trademark system (Madrid System)

U.S.-based applicants (10,005) filed the largest number of international trademark applications using WIPO’s Madrid System in 2020, followed by those located in Germany (7,334), China (7,075), France (3,716) and the U.K. (3,679) (Annex 5 PDF, Annex 5).

Among the top ten origins, China (+16.4%) is the only country to record double-digit growth in 2020. The U.K. (+5.1%) and Italy (+3.6%) also reported notable growth.  Outside the top ten origins, the Republic of Korea (+13.4%), Canada (+94.4%), and Denmark (11.5%) saw the strongest growth. In contrast, France (-16.3%) and Turkey (-15.4%) saw sharp declines.

Top Madrid filers

Novartis AG of Switzerland with 233 Madrid applications heads the list of top filers in 2020. WIPO received 104 more applications from Novartis in 2020 than in 2019, elevating it from 3rd position to the top spot. Novartis AG was followed by Huawei Technologies of China (197), Shiseido Company of Japan (130), ADP Gauselmann of Germany (123) and L’Oréal of France (115). L’Oréal – the top filer in 2019 – moved down to 5th position as it filed 78 fewer applications in 2020 (Annex 6 PDF, Annex 6).

Top classes

The most-specified class in international applications received by WIPO was Class 9 (computer hardware and software and other electrical or electronic apparatus, etc.) that accounted for 10.6% of the 2020 total. It was followed by Class 35 (services for business; 8.1%) and Class 42 (technological services; 7.1%). Among the top 10 classes, Class 10 (surgical, medical, dental and veterinary apparatus, etc.; +21.1%) and Class 5 (pharmaceuticals and other preparations for medical purposes; +9.2%) saw the fastest growth.

International design system (Hague System)

Despite a substantial decrease, Germany remained the largest user of the international design system, with 3,666 designs (Annex 7 PDF, Annex 7). The U.S. (2,211 designs) moved up from 6th position to become the second largest user of the Hague System in 2020. Switzerland (1,944 designs), the Republic of Korea (1,669) and Italy (1,231) are ranked third, fourth and fifth, respectively. Among the top ten origins, the U.S. (+62.7%), Turkey (+34.7%) and China (+22.7%) are the only three countries to record growth in 2020.

Top Hague filers

For the fourth consecutive year, Samsung Electronics of the Republic of Korea with 859 designs in published applications headed the list of top filers, followed by Procter & Gamble of the U.S. (623), Fonkel Meubelmarketing of the Netherlands (569), Volkswagen of Germany (524) and Beijing Xiaomi Mobile Software of China (516). For the first time a company from China is among the top five applicants. Lampenwelt GMBH of Germany –ranked tenth with 276 designs – is a new user of the Hague System (Annex 8 PDF, Annex 8).

Top fields

Designs related to means of transport (10.1%) accounted for the largest share of total designs in 2020; followed by recording and communication equipment (8.8%); packages and containers (8.4%); furnishing (7.4%); and lighting apparatus (6.9%). Among the top 10 classes, pharmaceutical and cosmetic products (+42.6%) saw sizeable growth in 2020.

Domain name disputes

Trademark owners in 2020 filed a record 4,204 cases under the Uniform Domain Name Dispute Resolution Policy (UDRP) with WIPO’s Arbitration and Mediation Center, moving past the 50,000 mark since the start of this WIPO service (Annex 9 PDF, Annex 9).  It was also a record year for WIPO Mediation and Arbitration cases involving patents, trademarks, digital copyright, and other types of disputes involving technology.

With a greater number of people spending more time online during the COVID-19 pandemic, trademark owners are taking up this WIPO service not only to reinforce their online presence, but also to offer authentic content and trusted sales outlets to Internet users across varied business areas (Annex 10 PDF, Annex 10). Representing 75% of WIPO’s generic Top-Level Domain (gTLD) caseload, .COM demonstrated its continuing primacy.

WIPO UDRP cases in 2020 involved parties from 127 countries, up from 122 in 2019. The U.S., with 1,359 cases filed, France (786), the U.K. (411), Switzerland (256) and Germany (235) were the top five filing countries  (Annex 11 PDF, Annex 11).

WIPO also offers dispute resolution services for over 75 country code Top-Level Domains, such as .CN (China), .EU (European Union) and .MX (Mexico).

Outside the area of domain name disputes, the WIPO Center in 2020 received 77 mediation and arbitration cases in different areas of IP, up 24% from the previous year’s caseload (Annex 12 PDF, Annex 12).  These WIPO procedures allow parties from around the world to resolve their cases without having to go to court.  Patent-related disputes remained the most common in WIPO’s caseload, followed by trademark, information and communications technology (ICT), and copyright disputes
(Annex 13 PDF, Annex 13).

WCO

WCO events went digital in 2020, including the WCO annual conference dedicated to technology, recently rebranded as the WCO TECH-CON. The theme of the 2020 edition[1] was dictated by the circumstances, and the 50 speakers were asked to share their experience of how technology had helped them manage the new constraints and challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic. Below are just some of the ideas gleaned from the event which attracted 1300 participants from 142 countries.

 

ACCELERATING THE USE OF TECHNOLOGY

Representing Customs, the private sector, international organizations and academia, all speakers agreed that the use of technology had accelerated since the beginning of the crisis, and that a number of lessons could be drawn from the previous few months. They echoed the conclusion of consulting firm McKinsey & Company, along with many others, who noted that “responses to COVID-19 have speeded up the adoption of digital technology by several years and many of these changes could be here for the long haul”.[2]

The pandemic has also provided an opportunity to internalize the idea of digitization, which was always an option, but not necessarily a priority, for governments and their agencies. Customs administrations have used the opportunity to advance digitalization initiatives that were already underway, as well as to instigate new technology projects to eliminate the use of hard copies and cash, for example. It has proven to be a very transformative period. In some instances, governments have made major changes and the private sector has struggled to keep up.

KEEPING OFFICERS AND CLIENTS SAFE

The pandemic has called for solutions to ensure that officers not working remotely, and the people they come in contact with, such as drivers or declarants, do not spread the virus. These solutions include the use of infrared fever measuring equipment, protective shields, and safe passage booths. Some administrations have devised a regional driver tracking system, allowing for COVID-19 test results performed on lorry drivers to be sent in advance of the arrival of the driver in the neighbouring country. Others have turned to remote monitoring tools such as drones, cameras and other devices to enable their officers to reduce physical movements and contact. It was also felt that there was an opportunity to leverage technology for the benefit of Authorized Economic Operators (AEOs), including for validating and re-validating their status in a remote manner, and supporting implementation of Mutual Recognition Agreements/Arrangements (MRAs), thus facilitating cross-border trade.

ADVANCE ELECTRONIC INFORMATION IS KEY TO EFFICIENT CLEARANCE

Systems enabling the reception and sharing of pre-arrival information are considered to be the main tools enabling Customs and other agencies to speed up clearance and provide priority passage for critical consignments.

The event highlighted the fact that small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) often do not provide Customs with advance electronic information. In some countries, it may be necessary to help SMEs identify ways of submitting information in advance and thus benefitting from faster clearance.

TECHNOLOGY IS AN INTERAGENCY COOPERATION ENABLER

The event recognized the role of single window solutions in facilitating interagency cooperation during the clearance process. It also pointed to the benefits of centralizing and sharing inspection data on a single platform.

ACCEPTING ELECTRONIC DOCUMENTS HAS BEEN A GAME CHANGER AND SHOULD CONTINUE

Many administrations decided to allow the submission of electronic certificates and permits during the pandemic, rather than the paper form. Some participants pointed out that scanned copies could be challenging to process, as optical character recognition (OCR) or Artificial Intelligence technology was needed to extract digital data. Private sector representatives expressed the need for Customs to continue maintaining such practices even after the crisis, and to work towards the digitization of all trade-related documents. The need to build a proper legal framework and develop international standards was also mentioned.

MANAGING CROSS-BORDER E-COMMERCE TRANSACTIONS

The biggest challenges were encountered with data availability to Customs and data quality, especially with the tremendous growth of e-commerce transactions where there are new and not yet clearly identified trading patterns requiring higher sophistication and accuracy of data analytics techniques for improved risk management.

IMPORTANCE OF DATA STANDARDS STRESSED ONCE AGAIN

Commercial operators should not be asked to use specific data formats and requirements every time they interacted with a public body, as this generates additional compliance costs. Participants were reminded that, to respond to this issue, the WCO Data Model (DM) had been developed as a compilation of clearly structured, harmonized, standardized and reusable sets of data definitions and electronic messages. It was intended to meet the operational and legal requirements of cross-border regulatory agencies, including Customs, which were responsible for border management. Devised jointly by Customs and the private sector, the WCO Data Model is critical for successful data exchange at both the national, bilateral and multilateral levels.

BLOCKCHAIN PROMISING BUT PACE OF ADOPTION SLOW

One of the prevailing topics of the WCO TECH-CON was the deployment of blockchain technology. It was widely agreed that this technology is very useful and could help give life to the concept of a data pipeline, which would contribute to improved risk analyses and better controls, and ultimately greater trade facilitation. However, as one speaker noted, while big carriers are investing in and backing blockchain solutions for electronic documents of title and electronic trade finance, there is a need for public blockchain platforms to onboard the small and medium stakeholders. Despite the opportunities it promised, only a limited number of Customs administrations have embarked on pilots, and even fewer on full deployment of platforms based on the technology. Harmonized regulatory frameworks and neutral blockchains were seen as conditions for the uptake of the technology.

CONNECTING SYSTEMS SHOULD BE A PRIORITY

The digital format of the information collected from various IT systems can differ. Regulatory bodies such as Customs authorities could theoretically have access to data-rich ecosystems managed by public and private entities, and be able to record the journey of a shipment along the supply chain. However, this goldmine of information is not as valuable if there is no standardized and up-to-date means for Customs to collect and interpret this data.

SHIFT TO TELEWORKING

Most administrations adapted quickly to the new circumstances, with the staff starting to work from home. Members had to increase their bandwidth and reached out to providers for support in obtaining collaborative on-line tools. Clear benefits such as reduced commuting time, in many cases more efficiency, increased possibilities for participation in on-line trainings and events were observed. However, there was agreement that inability of inspection staff to telework, potential security breaches, poor internet connection and lack of opportunities for informal discussions and networking, was a clear disadvantage, especially for officers joining the administrations for the first time.

NEED TO KEEP AN OPEN MIND

Flexibility was a word that was heard a lot during the three days of the conference: when discussing the platforms developed to collect and analyse data, when reviewing processes and workflows in the event of incidents, and when looking at possible measures to respond to a constraint, such as the need to limit physical contacts while enabling safe movements of goods and the people moving them.

The speakers supported a strong role for the WCO in continuing to be a platform for Customs multilateral cooperation and sharing of experiences on digitization. There was also an expectation that Customs should take the lead in promoting digitization not only with public entities, but also with private sector stakeholders participating in international trade.

Technology makes it possible to recalibrate procedures, training, and deployment of staff, among other things. With this in mind, the WCO Secretariat will continue to stimulate the exchange of information on the various technologies used to manage the flows of goods, people and conveyances across borders, and on progress made towards a digital supply chain. Most articles in this edition of the WCO Magazine relate to the implementation of technology, another testimony of the importance of technology for the Customs and trade community.

More information
facilitation@wcoomd.org

[1] The conference was held from 11 to 13 November 2020

[2] https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/strategy-and-corporate-finance/our-insights/how-covid-19-has-pushed-companies-over-the-technology-tipping-point-and-transformed-business-forever

eTrade for all

E-commerce is one of the five priorities of the Pacific Aid-for-Trade Strategy 2020-2025, noting its potential to narrow distances and trade costs, and to promote diversification of Pacific economies.

In this COVID-19 era, digital trade has become even more important, given its ability to sustain economic activity whilst preserving social distancing. Even when lock-downs and border closures will be lifted, new online buying and selling habits are due to stay and it is therefore essential that Pacific businesses are well-equipped to face this new digital era to avoid the risk of falling behind.

It is against this background that Forum Islands Countries, development agencies, and donor partners joined forces to improve digital trade readiness in the Pacific. At a 2017 PIFS-UNCTAD-WTO Pacific E-commerce workshop, partners concurred on the need to lay solid analytical and policy foundations as a precondition to undertake truly transformative actions.

To support this determination, PIFS and its partners have developed national and regional E-commerce Assessments, and are in the process of developing a regional E-commerce Strategy and Roadmap which will define the Pacific consensus consensus on priority regional actions to promote digital trade readiness. Focus will then shift on implementation.

A Concept Note of the E-commerce Initiative is available here.

Our Reports

National Assessments
Cook Islands Papua New Guinea (2020)
Federated States of Micronesia (2020) Republic of Marshall Islands
Fiji (2020) Samoa (2017)
Kiribati (2019) Solomon Islands (2018)
Nauru (2021) Tonga (2019)
Niue (2020) Tuvalu (2019)
Palau Vanuatu (2018)
Regional Assessments and Strategies
Pacific E-commerce Assessment (2020) Pacific E-commerce Strategy and Roadmap (2021)

 

ILO

Changes brought about by the expanding digital economy could help persons with disabilities gain more equal access to the world of work, or they could create greater barriers. A new ILO report proposes actions to ensure that the post-COVID world of work is disability-inclusive.

Advances in the digital economy, significantly accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, are creating unprecedented opportunities to build a more inclusive world of work for the more than 1 billion people with disabilities globally, a new report from the International Labour Organization (ILO) says.

However, digital barriers also threaten to aggravate existing inequalities and exclusion, unless they are countered with effective and targeted initiatives, as highlighted by the study.

The report, An inclusive digital economy for people with disabilities , was prepared by the ILO Global Business and Disability Network  (GBDN) and the Spanish disability NGO Fundación ONCE. It looks at the effects of the digital revolution on the creation of new jobs, changes to existing roles and work models, as well as online recruitment processes. It also highlights key areas for action by different groups of stakeholders, including the digital industry, academia, governments, workers and employers, and people with disabilities themselves.

The report highlights three main levers for creating a more inclusive digital labour market for persons with disabilities: ensuring accessibility, fostering digital skills and promoting digital employment.

The increase in digital work creates acute problems for those without the necessary skills or equipment, the study says, pointing out that, due to persistent exclusion, people with disabilities generally have lower levels of education and training than their peers without disabilities.

Hence, reskilling and upskilling will be key to building an inclusive future of work, alongside initiatives to foster digital employment and support collaboration between relevant stakeholders. Assistive technologies (AT) could also open up new occupations and opportunities. However, the report warns that a lack of accessible AT could create new barriers because without it many essential digital tools will not be usable by people with disabilities.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated trends already present in the world of work, including the expansion of the digital economy,” said Manuela Tomei, Director of the ILO’s Conditions of Work and Equality department. “We must ensure that we direct this trend so that it supports an inclusive future of work in which the talents and skills of persons with disabilities can contribute to the success of workplaces and societies worldwide.”

“In order to leave no one behind, the technological revolution which we are living, and which has been accelerated by the pandemic, needs to ensure an inclusive design for people with disabilities, so prevent it being a barrier for them,” emphasized Fernando Riaño, Director of Institutional Relations and Social Responsibility in the ONCE Social Group, of which Fundación ONCE is a part.

The report was published at the Zero Project conference, the largest annual disability-specific meeting, which this year was held virtually on 10 February, with the theme “Employment and ICT”. Its aim is to increase awareness of the way an increasingly digital world of work is affecting those with disabilities and identify how the future of work can be shaped to be more inclusive. It was developed within the framework of Disability Hub Europe, a project led by Fundación ONCE and co-funded by the European Social Fund.

UNCTAD

The COVID-19 pandemic has plunged the world into the worst recession since World War II. In 2020, the global economy shrank by 4.3% – over two and half times more than during the 2008-2009 global financial crisis.

Lockdowns and other preventive measures that governments have put in place to curb the spread of the virus have disrupted economic activity in ways for which societies were largely unprepared.

As social distancing and restrictions on movement became the new normal, businesses and consumers increasingly “went digital”, providing and purchasing more goods and services online.

Soon-to-be released findings from a study conducted by UNCTAD and eTrade for all partners shows the strong uptake in e-commerce wasn’t a rich world phenomenon. In fact, consumers in emerging economies have made the greatest shift to online shopping.

Latin America’s online marketplace Mercado Libre, for example, sold twice as many articles per day in the second quarter of 2020 compared with the same period the previous year. And African e-commerce platform Jumia reported a 50% jump in transactions during the first six months of 2020.

Not everyone can ‘go digital’

Businesses and consumers that were able to “go digital” have helped mitigate the economic downturn caused by the pandemic. But they have also sped up a digital transition that will have lasting impacts on our societies and daily lives – for which not everyone is prepared.

The pandemic has benefited the world’s leading digital platforms more than others. Most solutions being used for e-commerce, teleworking and cloud computing are provided by a relatively small number of large companies, based mainly in China and the United States.

Meanwhile, in many of the world’s poorest economies, consumers and businesses aren’t able to capitalize on the new e-commerce opportunties due to persistent bottlenecks and barriers, such as costly broadband services, overreliance on cash, a lack of digital skills among the population and government inattention.

The risk is that the huge digital divides that already existed between and within countries will only worsen in the wake of the pandemic. The result will be even deeper inequalities that would threaten to derail progress on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Building an enabling e-commerce ecosystem

To prevent this from happening, UNCTAD has identified three critical areas where greater efforts are needed.

First, governments need to prioritize national digital readiness so that more local businesses can become producers in the digital economy, not just consumers.

Building an enabling e-commerce ecosystem requires changes in public policy and business practices to improve the digital and trading infrastructure, facilitate digital payments and establish appropriate legal and regulatory frameworks for online transactions and security. So the approach must be holistic. Policies should not be made in silos.

Second, businesses in developing countries need to become better prepared to participate in the digital economy. This requires faster digitalization for smaller businesses, more attention to digital entrepreneurship (including reskilling), better capabilities to capture and harness data, and stronger regulatory frameworks for creating and capturing value in the digital economy.

Third, the international community – including development partners, United Nations agencies and commissions, regional economic communities, and organizations concerned with digital development – need to strengthen their collaboration with governments and the private sector to leverage the opportunities and minimize the risks of countries falling by the wayside.

Only through active collaboration can we ensure e-commerce plays a powerful and positive role in national and international efforts to “build back better”.

Need for dialogue and collaboration

Better dialogue and collaboration are needed to identify new pathways for the digital economy that take into account and leverage varying kinds of experience and expertise and avoid duplication.

One example of such a platform is the eTrade for all initiative, currently funded by the Netherlands, Germany and Estonia.Over the past four years the initiative has acted as a global helpdesk for developing countries to bridge the knowledge gap on e-commerce information and resources.

Since the outbreak of the pandemic, more than 30 eTrade for all partners have worked together to raise awareness on the e-commerce opportunities and risks emerging during the crisis and identify ways businesses in developing and least developed countries could overcome the challenges.

The initiative’s work focuses on seven policy areas identified as critical to e-commerce’s development:

  • E-commerce strategy
  • ICT infrastructure
  • Payment solutions
  • Trade logistics and facilitation
  • Legal frameworks
  • Skills development
  • Financing SMEs

Countries should redouble their efforts in these areas to turn the digital opportunities brought by the pandemic into development gains.

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