Heads of WTO member delegations today exchanged views about issues on which they can realistically reach agreements in the run-up to the 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12) later this year, and what needs to happen to make such deals possible. Fisheries subsidies, agriculture and the COVID-19 pandemic featured prominently in the discussions, with several members stressing that delivering concrete negotiated results was critical for the WTO’s credibility. The 3 May gathering was both a formal session of the Trade Negotiations Committee and an informal meeting of Heads of Delegation.
Summing up members’ interventions at the end of the day, WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said what she had heard matched what she had been told in her own consultations: “Views are coalescing around the most feasible priorities for delivery between now and MC12 — although of course there are gaps on how we get there and on the content of prospective results.”
She said three concrete deliverables stood out: an agreement to curb harmful fisheries subsidies; outcomes on agriculture, with a focus on food security; and a framework that would better equip the WTO to support efforts against the COVID-19 pandemic and future health crises.
Looking to the weeks and months ahead, the Director-General expressed hope that by July members would be able to finalize an agreement on fisheries subsidies and achieve clarity about what can be delivered by MC12, scheduled to run from 30 November to 3 December in Geneva.
On fisheries subsidies, she urged members to exercise the necessary flexibility to overcome the remaining hurdles. With ministerial involvement likely required to finalize an agreement in July, she called on delegations to work with the chair of the negotiations, Ambassador Santiago Wills of Colombia, to prepare a draft negotiating text with a minimal number of outstanding issues for ministers to resolve. “We are almost there, we can see the light at the end of the tunnel,” she said, stressing she stood ready to help members and the chair translate increased flexibility into an agreement.
Noting that for many members, meaningful outcomes on agriculture were necessary to make MC12 a success, DG Okonjo-Iweala said that the pandemic, and rising hunger around the world, made a strong case for a WTO “food security package”. Elements for a prospective package included public stockholding, the proposed exemption from export restrictions of World Food Programme humanitarian purchases, domestic support and transparency, with some delegations also raising cotton and the special safeguard mechanism.
The Director-General welcomed the view expressed by many delegations that MC12 can deliver concrete responses on trade and health. The WTO’s spotlight on export restrictions and the need to increase vaccine production volumes was gaining attention and engagement from leaders, she said.
Reporting on a 14 April event where vaccine manufacturers, international organizations, civil society and members looked at how the WTO could contribute to efforts to combat the global scarcity of COVID-19 vaccines, she said it was clear that underused manufacturing capacity existed in several developing countries.
DG Okonjo-Iweala praised members’ support to India amid the upsurge in COVID-19 cases there, which followed India’s own exports of a large number of vaccines. “That is what the WTO membership should be about — working together, supporting each other,” she said. She asked members to bring the same sense of common purpose to bear on engaging in text-based negotiations on the TRIPS waiver proposal aimed at finding a pragmatic compromise that works for all.
With regard to dispute settlement, where many members called for resolution to the impasse over the Appellate Body, the Director-General expressed hope that by MC12 members “can reach a shared understanding on the types of reforms needed”.
The General Council chair, Ambassador Dacio Castillo of Honduras, is consulting on proposals about issues specific to least-developed countries such as the G-90 proposals on special and differential treatment as well as on small economies and areas such as the e-commerce Work Programme, she said.
She noted that groups of members had signalled a desire to move ahead in areas such as services domestic regulation, e-commerce, investment facilitation, women’s economic empowerment, micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises as well as issues related to trade and climate change.
For issues not in a position to be concluded this year, the Director-General said members had called for post-MC12 work programmes on multilateral issues relating to agriculture, services, and special and differential treatment as well as in joint statement initiatives in areas including plastics pollution and environmental sustainability.
DG Okonjo-Iweala said that in the coming days, she would intensify her own outreach with heads of delegation, organizing meetings “in various configurations large and small” to support the chairs of negotiating groups in their efforts to broker compromise among members. She reiterated her commitment to ensuring adequate representation and transparency in these meetings. “Nothing will be done behind closed doors that people don’t know about,” she emphasised. She indicated that she would work closely with the General Council chair and the chairs of the negotiating bodies as well as MC12 chair Kazakhstan to conduct these meetings.
Emphasising the tight timeframe for members to resolve their outstanding differences, the Director-General said the “path to July” would involve a large number of intensive meetings aimed at narrowing gaps. “Week in, week out, this is what we will do now.”
The pandemic has, however, resulted in mixed fortunes for some e-commerce companies, reversing the profits of firms offering services such as ride-hailing and travel.
The dramatic rise in e-commerce amid movement restrictions induced by COVID-19 increased online retail sales’ share of total retail sales from 16% to 19% in 2020, according to estimates in an UNCTAD report published on 3 May.
UNCTAD released the report as it hosted a two-day meeting on measuring e-commerce and the digital economy.
According to the report, online retail sales grew markedly in several countries, with the Republic of Korea reporting the highest share at 25.9% in 2020, up from 20.8% the year before (Table 1).
Meanwhile, global e-commerce sales jumped to $26.7 trillion globally in 2019, up 4% from 2018, according to the latest available estimates.
This includes business-to-business (B2B) and business-to-consumer (B2C) sales, and is equivalent to 30% of global gross domestic product (GDP) that year.
“These statistics show the growing importance of online activities. They also point to the need for countries, especially developing ones, to have such information as they rebuild their economies in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Shamika Sirimanne, UNCTAD’s director of technology and logistics.
Table 1: Online retail sales, selected economies, 2018-2020
|Economy||Online retail sales
(% of retail sales)
Source: UNCTAD, based on national statistics offices.
Mixed fortunes for some firms
The COVID-19 pandemic has also resulted in mixed fortunes for leading B2C e-commerce companies, according to the UNCTAD report.
Data for the top 13 e-commerce firms, 11 of which are from China and the United States, shows a notable reversal of fortunes for platform companies offering services such as ride-hailing and travel (Table 2).
All of them experienced sharp declines in gross merchandize value (GMV) and corresponding drops in ranks.
For instance, Expedia fell from 5th place in 2019 to 11th in 2020, Booking Holdings from 6th to 12th and Airbnb, which launched its initial public offering in 2020, from 11th to 13th.
Despite the reduction in services companies’ GMV, total GMV for the top 13 B2C e-commerce companies rose by 20.5% in 2020, higher than in 2019 (17.9%). There were particularly large gains for Shopify (up 95.6%) and Walmart (72.4%). Overall, B2C GMV for the top 13 companies stood at $2.9 trillion in 2020.
Table 2: Top B2C e-commerce companies by GMV, 2020
|Rank by GMV||Company||HQ||Industry||GMV
|5||9||Shopify||Canada||Internet Media & Services||41||61||120||48.7||95.6|
|8||12||Walmart||USA||Consumer goods retail||25||37||64||47.0||72.4|
|9||8||Uber||USA||Internet Media & Services||50||65||58||30.5||-10.9|
|11||5||Expedia||USA||Internet Media & Services||100||108||37||8.2||-65.9|
|12||6||Booking Holdings||USA||Internet Media & Services||93||96||35||4.0||-63.3|
|13||11||Airbnb||USA||Internet Media & Services||29||38||24||29.3||-37.1|
Source: UNCTAD based on company reports.
Note: Alibaba year beginning 1 April, Walmart year beginning 1 February. Figures in italics are estimates. GMV = Gross Merchandize Value (as well as Booking Value).
Business-to-business sales dominate e-commerce
The report estimates the value of global B2B e-commerce in 2019 at $21.8 trillion, representing 82% of all e-commerce, including both sales over online market platforms and electronic data interchange (EDI) transactions.
The United States continued to dominate the overall e-commerce market, ahead of Japan and China (Table 3).
B2C e-commerce sales were estimated at $4.9 trillion in 2019, up 11% over 2018. The top three countries by B2C e-commerce sales remained China, the United States and the United Kingdom.
Cross-border B2C e-commerce amounted to some $440 billion in 2019, an increase of 9% over 2018. The UNCTAD report also notes that the share of online shoppers making cross-border purchases rose from 20% in 2017 to 25% in 2019.
Table 3: E-commerce sales: Top 10 countries, 2019
|Rank||Economy||Total e-commerce sales
|Share of total e-commerce sales in GDP (%)||B2B e-commerce sales
|Share of B2B e-commerce sales in total e-commerce (%)||B2C e-commerce sales
Source: UNCTAD, based on national sources.
Note: Figures in italics are UNCTAD estimates.
E-commerce firms perform poorly in digital inclusion
Despite e-commerce firms’ sizeable fortunes, an index released by the World Benchmarking Alliance in December last year rated them poorly on digital inclusion.
The index ranked 100 digital companies, including 14 e-commerce firms, based on how they contribute to access to digital technologies, building digital skills, enhancing trust and fostering innovation.
E-commerce enterprises underperformed compared to companies in other digital industries such as hardware or telecommunication services.
For instance, the highest-ranked e-commerce company was eBay at 49th place. Overall, e-commerce companies obtained a score of just 20 out of a possible 100.
According to the UNCTAD report, a main factor for the poor performance is that e-commerce companies are relatively young, typically founded only in the last two decades.
“These firms have been more focused on shareholders rather than engaging with a wide group of stakeholders and compiling metrics on their environmental, social and governance performance,” the report says.
Nonetheless, there are some bright spots. For instance, several e-commerce companies provide free training to entrepreneurs on how to sell online including in some cases, specifically targeted at vulnerable groups such as people with disabilities or ethnic minorities.
The COVID-19 pandemic has hit hard the economies of many African countries, and pushed many more citizens into poverty, but some countries like Rwanda and Togo have used digitization to keep their economies running.
Speaking during the launch of a Pan-African peer exchange series on the benefits of responsible digital government payments, the Executive Secretary of the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), Ms. Vera Songwe said the pandemic had a huge toll on African economies with GDP growth estimated to have dropped from 3.3% in 2019 to -2.6% in 2020. It is, however, anticipated that growth would return to 3.3% in 2021.
The ECA further estimates that about 100 million people have been pushed into poverty by the pandemic, Ms. Songwe said, adding the scars of COVID-19 were going to ‘remain with us for a very long time’.
Digitization, the ECA Chief said, presented opportunities for African countries to lift the poor out of poverty.
“Digitizing tax payments and related processes can raise additional resources for African governments to fight COVID-19 and help move countries back to growth,” said Ms. Songwe in opening remarks during the launch of the series that will see policymakers sharing challenges and successes and set a high bar for what can be accomplished on the continent through digitization of government payments.
“As economies digitalize, the benefits from digital payments and e-commerce multiply, thereby accelerating recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, sustaining development, and facilitating achievement of the sustainable development goals, through taxes and wages, among others.”
The ECA has been in the forefront, nudging African countries to turn to and accelerate digitization to not only keep their economies running, but to also respond to the rise in poverty among marginalized citizens.
Ms. Songwe congratulated Togo and Rwanda for using digitization to manage the pandemic in a way that would have been impossible if there were no digital platforms, including social protection cash payments to cushion citizens from the effects of the crisis.
Sharing her country’s experience of using digital cash transfers to citizens during the pandemic, Ms. Cina Lawson, Togo’s Postal Affairs and Digital Economy Minister, said they built a USSD platform in 10 days, and people who registered, didn’t need Internet connection to connect.
“We had 1. 6 million Togolese registering on this platform. From onboarding to receiving cash, it was all digital. If the platform deemed you eligible, you would straight away receive an SMS with the money. It takes a minute from onboarding to receiving cash,” she said.
The number of people who registered onto the platform represented about 44% of the population, and 840,000 people became beneficiaries, which is approximately 22% of all Togolese, explained Ms. Lawson.
She said the platform guaranteed transparency as transactions were traceable. An independent firm was hired to audit the transfers daily. The country is using the same platform to register citizens for COVID-19 vaccinations.
For his part, Rwanda’s Minister of State, National Treasury, Mr. Richard Tusabe, in sharing his country’s experience with digitization, spoke about the ‘Ejoheza savings scheme’, an inclusive scheme which targets both salaried and non-salaried workers and has a social component. He said about 95% of Rwandan citizens are not covered in any pension scheme hence the need for the savings scheme which came in handy during the pandemic.
“So, to capture the 95 per cent to start to save and be able to retire with dignity, Ejoheza was started in December 2018. It is also a USSD platform. The government then set up a matching fund, and when you save up to $18, the government gives you a matching equivalent,” said Mr. Tusabe.
The two ministers shared experiences, challenges, and good practices and undertook to keep learning from each other’s experiences in using digital innovations to improve the productivity of businesses and ensure positive economy-wide benefits.
In her remarks, Ms. Ruth Goodwin-Groen, Managing Director of the United Nation’s Better Than Cash Alliance, commended the two countries saying; “This is what we need. You understood what your citizens needed, and you responded quickly with responsible digital payments.”
Ms. Goodwin-Groen lauded the partnership with the ECA to launch the series, adding this was a unique opportunity for governments to convene and collaborate by sharing experiences, challenges, and key learnings from responsibly digitizing payments.
The launch will be followed by a series of three round-table workshops over the next two months for policymakers only. Each round-table workshop is specifically designed to focus on a critical aspect of digital government payment, such as Government to People (G2P) and People to Government (P2G), for example tax, pension, and health care. The final session will share insights and recommendations from the workshop participants and will be an open session.
Click here to access the series launch recording: https://youtu.be/xQDqcEqZjNk
Trade has a critical role to play in rebuilding developing and least developed countries’ economies, alleviating rising poverty and creating a greener, more inclusive future for all. This was a unifying theme that ran through three days of panels discussions and debates at the Aid-for-Trade Stocktaking event the World Trade Organization (WTO) hosted online from March 23 to 25.
Covid-19 has reversed 30 years of development gains, deepening inequalities from the household to country level and threatening to push 150 million into extreme poverty, WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala noted in an opening plenary session that also brought together leaders from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), UNCTAD, World Bank and World Health Organization (WHO).
The opportunity to take stock of Aid for Trade’s progress so far and steer its future direction comes at a critical juncture, especially for those least developed countries (LDCs) that were hit hardest by the steepest fall in global trade on record and have benefited least from its rebound. “The post-Covid recovery must not leave anyone or any country behind,” she stressed.
Here are 6 takeaways from the event:
Invest in pharmaceutical supply chains and ensure equitable access to vaccines
With just 10 countries receiving 76% of the Covid-19 vaccines administered globally by the time of the event, ensuring more equitable access is critical. Ramping up vaccine production by investing more in LDCs’ and developing countries’ manufacturing capacity would help, as would boosting trade cooperation to address supply bottlenecks and lowering regulatory hurdles to facilitate vaccine purchases.
The creation of geographically diverse medical supply chains represents an opportunity for export-oriented investment in many low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), argued Okonjo-Iweala. Finding a way to share certain intellectual property rights while incentivising research and development will also improve resilience in the face of future health crises, she added.
Speakers at other sessions highlighted a need for regulatory mechanisms to support developing countries’ integration with global supply chains as well as the free movement of skilled workers. LDCs also need support in pivoting existing manufacturing capacity to meet the needs of medical and pharmaceutical supply chains, which will additionally help their economies diversify. For example, Ethiopia, Madagascar, South Africa, and Vietnam boast robust textile industries that could help meet surging demand for personal protective equipment, noted Spring Gombe of the UN Technology Bank for LDCs.
Expand LDCs’ access to finance with innovative tools and capacity building
Identifying innovative, sustainable sources of funding is vital for LDCs’ recoveries, speakers agreed. Although Aid-for-Trade funding to LDCs has grown 13% annually since 2006, reaching $13.5 billion in 2018, the pandemic threatens to slow or reverse this trend. Some OECD scenarios envision an up to $14 billion decline in official development assistance at a time when the pandemic is widening the $1.5 trillion trade finance gap.
Solutions highlighted by the IFC included risk-sharing facilities with first-loss guarantees, and blended concessional finance, for example through the IDA Private Sector Window.
Just 6% of private finance mobilised by blended finance in 2012-2018 however went to LDCs, noted Olivier Cattaneo from the OECD. He called for a higher proportion of grant funding within Aid for Trade, more equity investment rather than loans from the private sector, plus greater focus on capacity building to help LDCs navigate the thousands of instruments now on offer.
A new series of Trade Funding Insight briefs from the Enhanced Integrated Framework (EIF) aims to help here. The EIF has also partnered with the Islamic Trade Finance Corporation (ITFC) to offer technical assistance and capacity building around trade and trade finance to financial institutions in LDCs.
Several speakers also called for debt relief, noting that plunging incomes and investments in economic stimulus are pulling more into debt distress.
Facilitate trade with supportive regulatory frameworks
The importance of eradicating tariff and non-tariff barriers, and of developing legal, regulatory and commercial environments and infrastructure that are supportive of free trade and help integrate LDCs into the global trade networks was also stressed.
LDCs need support to develop investor-friendly regulations that will help them diversify their economies and improve their export competitiveness but also ensure that local MSMEs are able to fully participate in trade opportunities, speakers argued. WTO Chair Holder Leila Baghdadi, for example, called for a relaxation of local content requirements and argued that trade restrictions ultimately result in a “tax of poor people” as they drive up inflation and increase the cost of essential goods in LMICs.
Help MSMEs benefit from digitisation and tap opportunities in e-commerce
LDCs need investments in infrastructure and skills to benefit from rapid growth in e-commerce and trade digitisation, or risk being left further behind. Henri Monceau of the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie (OIF) noted that 81% of people in LDCs lack internet access and said it would take $450 billion to close the growing digital divide.
EIF investments to date include its partnership with UNCTAD to integrate Vanuatu’s customs and postal systems to facilitate the clearance of goods for e-commerce trading partners.
Cambodia’s E-Commerce Acceleration and Go4eCAM initiatives were also provided as examples of how multi-pronged approaches – combining investments in regulations, ICT infrastructure, payment systems, digital skills and marketing – can help MSMEs in LDCs formalise and expand their e-commerce businesses.
Empower women with digital skills, mobile money and gender-sensitive policies
With millions of women and girls in LDCs and developing countries pulled out of education at the very time the pandemic was accelerating digitisation, many see opportunities for cross-border trade – such as those unleashed by the African Continental Free Trade Area – moving further out of reach. They must therefore be empowered, speakers argued.
To this end, an EIF partnership with the ITU in Burundi, Haiti and Ethiopia is working to mainstream gender perspectives in domestic policies and regulations to ensure women participate fully in the digital economy. Training in digital literacy and e-commerce skills has also been prioritised for 3,500 women-owned businesses supported by the SheTrades Commonwealth project.
To enable women to engage in digital trade, especially cross-border, their access to mobile money must also be improved. While women are 7% less likely to own a mobile phone than men in LMICs, they are 33% less likely to own a mobile money account noted Tamara Dancheva at GSMA.
International Trade Centre (ITC) figures show that women own only 15% of the world’s SMEs that export, despite them owning a third of all SMEs. They must therefore be supported into more lucrative export-related jobs and industries. Trade policies that disproportionately negatively impact women – such as tariffs on garments and apparel – must also be addressed, said Antonio Nucifora at the World Bank.
Invest in climate resilience to boost sustainability and revive tourism
Developing and least developed countries need investment and assistance to adapt to climate change, build climate-resilient infrastructure and create greener and more diversified economies. Governments must also seize opportunities to incorporate climate-friendly policies into their recovery plans, argued OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría, adding that opening trade channels will help widen the availability of environmental technologies, goods and services.
Strengthening climate resilience and environmental health, especially in remote island states, is also crucial for the sustainable recovery of LDC’s pandemic-battered tourism industries. Travel- and tourism-related trade have missed out on a broader rebound in global trade in recent months, remaining two-thirds below pre-pandemic levels in the third quarter.
Initiatives that demonstrate the link between investments in climate resilience and tourism trade include the EIF-backed Tourism Infrastructure Project, which helped revive tourism in Vanuatu by relied by rebuilding cyclone-damaged waterfronts.
Countries in tropical regions will be particularly impacted by climate change, so will need support to identify new comparative advantages, adapt production methods, diversify their economies and build respective value chains while climate-proofing existing activities, said UNCTAD Acting Secretary-General Isabelle Durant. However, “these measures do not come for free,” she stressed. With only 3% of Aid for Trade disbursements currently allocated to climate action, “we can do more.”
From 12 to 15 April 2021, the World Customs Organization (WCO) delivered an Online Regional Workshop on E-Commerce for the Americas and the Caribbean region. The workshop was organised with the financial support of the Customs Cooperation Fund of Korea and gathered more than 70 participants from 20 Member Customs administrations and speakers from the WCO Secretariat, the South America Regional Intelligence Liaison Office (RILO South America), the Universal Postal Union, the Global Express Association, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Amazon and UPS Brazil.
The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated the importance of effective and harmonised implementation of the E-Commerce FoS, said the WCO Deputy Secretary General, Mr. Ricardo Treviño Chapa, in his opening remarks. In addition to role played by e-commerce during the last decade, in providing new growth engines and in opening up global economic opportunities to micro, small and medium-sized enterprises, e-commerce proved to be a lifeline for vendors and buyers alike during the crisis brought by the COVID-19 pandemic, he added.
Opening remarks were also offered by the regional vice-chair for the WCO Americas and the Caribbean region, Mr. Werner Ovalle Ramirez, Intendant of Customs, Superintendency of Tax Administration (SAT) of Guatemala, who highlighted the importance of cross-border e-commerce for the economic development of the region and recognized the key role of the WCO in awareness raising and capacity building.
Over the four days of the regional workshop, the workshop facilitators explained the 15 standards of the WCO Framework of Standards on Cross-Border E-Commerce (E-Commerce FoS) and the tools available to support their implementation. Each workshop session benefitted from presentations by Members, partner international organizations and private sector entities. Thus, the workshop sessions provided practical examples of E-Commerce FoS implementation in areas such as use of Electronic Advance Data, data exchange with postal operators, and revenue collection including valuation, Post Clearance Audit and periodical payment issues. Other interesting topics discussed were cooperation with stakeholders such as marketplaces, fulfilment centers and free zones/warehouses, expanding the concept of Authorized Economic Operator (AEO) to e-commerce stakeholders, and the use of advanced technologies.
The participants from Member Customs administrations welcomed the opportunity to discuss how to efficiently implement the E-Commerce FoS, while the speakers from partner international organizations and the private sector were glad to contribute to this important forum.
The WTO has issued a call for proposals for this year’s Public Forum, whose theme is “Trade beyond COVID-19: Building Resilience”. Participants interested in organizing sessions at the Forum, scheduled to take place from 28 to 30 September, are invited to submit their proposals by 7 June 2021.
This year’s Public Forum will look at the effects of COVID-19 on trade and how the multilateral trading system can help build resilience to the pandemic and future crises.
Further information on this year’s theme and three sub-themes — Enhancing resilience beyond COVID-19; Strengthening the multilateral trading system; and Collective action towards sustainable trade — is available here.
Details about the format of this year’s Forum will be made available by July.
All the sessions at the Public Forum are organised by the participants. These include civil society, academia, business, governments, parliamentarians and intergovernmental organizations. Participants interested in organizing working sessions or workshops will find further details in this information note. The online application form can be accessed from the information note and should be completed no later than 7 June 2021.
The Public Forum is the WTO’s largest annual outreach event. It provides a unique platform for heads of states, parliamentarians, business people, students, academics and civil society to come together and debate a wide range of trade and development topics. See more information on previous Public Fora.
An assessment of the e-commerce ecosystem in Côte d’Ivoire will help businesses in the sector adapt to COVID-19 challenges and comply with new regulations.
UNCTAD’s eTrade readiness assessment of Côte d’Ivoire, launched on 8 April, will help the country’s e-commerce businesses better adapt to the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic and comply with new regulations, according to one of the country’s leading digital entrepreneurs.
Patricia Yao, founder and chief executive officer of QuickCash, a platform providing mobile payment services to rural customers, said the assessment would help policymakers and businesses better understand the impact of COVID-19 on the sector.
“The assessment will help us adapt the responses of the digital ecosystem in Côte d’Ivoire, taking into account the challenges and opportunities raised by the current crisis,” said Ms. Yao, UNCTAD’s e-Trade for Women Advocate for west Africa.
Progress and challenges
The assessment found that Côte d’Ivoire has made significant progress in recent years to improve access to the digital economy and e-commerce.
The country’s digital economy program is integrated into its national development plan and includes the digitalization of a series of financial as well as government services.
It also includes and the expansion of critical information and communications technology infrastructure, with the implementation of a national broadband network project.
Despite these important strides, and its relatively vibrant economy, Côte d’Ivoire needs to tackle the challenges hindering its e-commerce growth.
These include costly and limited internet access, inefficient physical addresses, low public awareness on online commerce and limited digital skills of micro, small- and medium-sized businesses to effectively engage in e-commerce activities.
“It’s important to take priority actions to accelerate digital transformation in Côte d’Ivoire and allow e-commerce players to seize available opportunities. This is especially important in the wake of COVID-19 and in an increasingly integrated west African region,” said UNCTAD Acting Secretary-General Isabelle Durant.
“The valuable recommendations of this report will provide an important framework for future policy action, with a view to accelerating e-commerce uptake in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said the country’s trade and industry minister, Souleymane Diarrassouba.
The assessment report is a product of a consultative process that brought together representatives of the government, the private sector and development partners.
Ms. Yao said the assessment’s multi-stakeholder approach would facilitate the implementation of future regulations and policies.
“By bringing all the concerned actors around the table, it will be easier to implement new measures because they have been previously discussed and agreed upon,” she said. “In the past, when new laws were adopted, they were difficult to comply with because those affected hadn’t been involved in their formulation.”
The assessment was funded by the German government and prepared in cooperation with the Universal Postal Union, International Trade Centre and Consumers International.
UNCTAD has conducted such assessments in 27 countries, fostering coordination and dialogue between various stakeholders and helping them overcome structural barriers to make e-commerce an engine of inclusive and sustainable development.
The impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on livelihoods, businesses, and trade in least developed countries (LDCs) have been pronounced. LDCs were cut off from markets when borders closed in March 2020. They lost significant export income due to canceled orders. Their tourism industry was brought to a halt and their economic activity suffered a similar stagnation. Their business ties were severed by a lack of connectivity.
This picture of gloom has manifested more gravely for women entrepreneurs who suffered from the distortions in the trade ecosystem arising from the Covid-19 pandemic.
Trade ecosystem under Covid-19
Business and trade rely on a vast ecosystem involving various stakeholders. For women traders and entrepreneurs in LDCs, the ecosystem will include different participants along the value chain such as suppliers of raw materials, cooperatives, transporters, warehouse managers and airlines, to mention a few. Elements such as customs procedures, banking systems, Internet connectivity are equally vital.
Following Covid-19 disruptions, women entrepreneurs had to devise means to continue doing business while navigating the complexities that arose from closed borders and lockdown orders. Traditional models of doing business involving physical movement of persons to facilitate transactions were no longer viable and e-commerce and digital trade were catapulted to the fore as the most viable means of trade.
Digital literacy remains low in LDCs, especially among women, and the general ignorance about benefits accrued from digital trade is high. Internet connectivity is very expensive. IT infrastructure are not well distributed and as such, once women return to their homes in rural areas, they are unable to continue engaging online. Studies confirm that Internet penetration rates globally are 48 per cent for women, compared to 58 per cent for men. But as more people in developing countries start using the Internet, the digital gender gap is actually growing. In LDCs, only 14 per cent of women use the Internet, compared to 24 per cent of men.
Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, sales via digital and online platforms were almost non-existent. Following the pandemic that grounded businesses to a halt due to restrictions on movement, a Jumia e-commerce platform and UNDP partnership was conceived to connect women vendors to online consumers.
Many of the women vendors had little formal education and limited, if any, exposure to online platforms for business transactions. However, their response to the initiative was overwhelming. The initiative started by working with vendors in five markets, but within three weeks, two more markets joined. Each market includes more than 700 women across the agricultural value chain, from producers to wholesalers, retailers and exporters. The introduction of digital platform allowed women to continue earning an income even during the hardships of lockdown.
But not all the women who could have benefited from the opportunity have a smart mobile phone. According to the 2020 Mobile Gender Gap Report, women across low- and middle-income countries are eight per cent less likely than men to own a mobile phone, which translates into 165 million fewer women than men owning a mobile phone.
Simple solutions such as ensuring that digital platforms embrace the use of local languages will provide a level of trust for women to gain interest in connectivity. Almost all women traders subscribe to an association or business membership group. The members of these groups will usually possess varying levels of exposure to information technology, with younger women more proficient compared to older groups.
Hybrid strategies combining new digital approaches with traditional approaches should be harnessed and escalated to address present day challenges, particularly for women.
Lillian Olok of Yaa Oils Uganda used the downtime to strengthen her relationship with her customers. She increased communication via WhatsApp and e-mail which kept the orders coming. She did not see a decline in demand for her cold-pressed shea butter, sold in bulk. In the past year, she gained new customers in DRC and Kenya, all via word-of-mouth from her happy customers. She currently exports to Rwanda, Kenya, DRC, Japan, UK and Canada.
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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Members elected Dagfinn Sørli, Ambassador of Norway, as TRIPS Council chair for the coming year.
Displaced people face many challenges when integrating into the labor market in their host communities. They are also more likely than the host population to be employed in sectors that are highly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, such as manufacturing, accommodation, and food services. And they are mostly employed informally, and thus have no job security or access to social safety nets during the COVID-19 related economic downturn.
So what can be done to help displaced people during this difficult time?
One solution is turning to digital technology. Digital technology can support labor market integration of the displaced during the pandemic, while taking into account the lessons learned on how jobs interventions need to be adapted for that population. Here are three examples.
1. Digital cash transfers and virtual public work programs
Due to the often unplanned nature of their flight, many displaced people lose access to their assets such as land and livestock without being able to sell them beforehand. They must also pay for their journey to safety, and have no income for a prolonged period. The pandemic puts them at additional risk of further depleting any remaining assets, which can hamper self-employment and entrepreneurship. Liquidity constraints can also prevent the displaced from searching for (better) jobs and force them to work under hazardous conditions.
Cash transfers, labor-intensive public works, or cash for work can help. To allow for implementation during lockdowns and social distancing, digital financial transfers like mobile money can be used to transfer the money to beneficiaries. In addition, compared to handing out cash, this has the added value of increasing financial inclusion. The work undertaken for cash for work or public work programs can be adapted to COVID-19 not only by taking social distancing into account within existing activities but also by developing virtual activities (such as digitization of physical assets or printed documents). Remote work offers opportunities for displaced people also beyond public works.
2. Virtual training and psychosocial support
Displaced people — for example farmers forced to move to urban areas — often lack skills or certifications required in the new labor market. Training can help them acquire the skills needed in the host labor market.
During the pandemic, training interventions can be implemented virtually if infrastructure allows. The content of the training should be adapted to actual economic opportunities where displaced people live and the sectors they are allowed to work in. Training should also be combined with further support to address the multiple obstacles the displaced face. Early evidence confirms that IT and language training (adapted to different levels and geared toward labor market entry) are particularly promising.
In addition, some of the displaced may benefit from psychosocial support to increase their employability and overall well-being. Different forms of therapy have had significant positive effects on the mental well-being of displaced populations, and they can be implemented in environments with few professional counsellors and psychotherapists, for example through lay counsellors with limited training. Emerging evidence shows that web-based psychosocial interventions can be effective, facilitating their implementation during the pandemic and beyond.
3. Digital platforms for networking
Displaced populations often lack social networks in host countries that could help them integrate into the labor market. Also, interaction and exchange between host and displaced population are particularly important to foster social cohesion and reduce social tensions. Restrictions due to the pandemic make it even more difficult to maintain and build up such networks and interactions. Virtual formats and platforms can be explored for community meetings, mutual support, and joint social activities to promote exchange and help displaced people build up networks during these times. Establishing contacts as well as joint groups between the displaced and their hosts on social messenger services and social media can promote joint flow of information and communication.
Providing access to digital infrastructure is key
To be able to implement these digital solutions, the displaced and their hosts need access to the internet. There are several barriers, including availability of the digital infrastructure, affordability of services, and access to electricity to charge devices. Plus, refugees often lack the identity documents needed to access mobile services, including mobile money. While most displaced people in urban areas have the opportunity to access mobile coverage, those living in rural (often camp) settings are more likely to have no connectivity. Notably elderly and illiterate populations might also need additional support when using digital tools for the first time.
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. #OneSouthAsia Conversation, a series of online events on regional issues.Adamjee and two other women entrepreneurs described their experiences and offered practical tips at a recent
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.
“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.
“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. 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,. 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:
- Targeted government support for women businesses, including reforming discriminatory laws and policies, boosting the creation of e-commerce platforms, and encouraging training and mentoring. Policymakers should monitor and measure the impact.
- Women entrepreneurs organize regionally.
- Women’s participation in government.
- Target lines of credit and other forms of finance to women-owned businesses.
- School textbooks showing women in a variety of roles.
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 ).
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.
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.
Charts with the latest key international IP data.
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 ). 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 ). The top 10-university list comprises five universities from China, four from the U.S., and one from Japan.
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 ).
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 ).
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 ).
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 ). 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 ).
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 ). 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 ). 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 ).
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 ). 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 ).
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 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”.
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.
 The conference was held from 11 to 13 November 2020
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.
|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)|
|Regional Assessments and Strategies|
|Pacific E-commerce Assessment (2020)||Pacific E-commerce Strategy and Roadmap (2021)|
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.
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.
The European Commission, together with the Organization of Africa, Caribbean and Pacific States (OACPS), has signed a new initiative of €14.5 million with the United Nations Capital Development Fund (UNCDF) to unlock the potential of digital finance to benefit more than 600,000 women, youth and entrepreneurs across African, Caribbean and Pacific countries.
“Today more than ever, digital technologies have a central role to increase access and usage of affordable financial products and services that meet people and business needs -as well as accelerate economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic. This is why, as reflected in our EU Strategy with Africa, we want to join forces with Africa to foster a digital transformation that also helps us close the digital gender divide,” said Jutta Urpilainen, Commissioner for International Partnerships. “If we want to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, digital solutions are key to create more jobs and improve basic services such as health and education.”
“Our work responding to COVID-19 in 2020 showed that access to digital finance and infrastructure was a major determinant of how resilient societies and businesses were in the face of the shocks caused by the pandemic”, said Henri Dommel, UNCDF Director of Financial Inclusion. “This partnership with the EU will boost the response to the pandemic and economic recovery of ACP countries using digital finance as a tool to reach the last mile.”
Mobile money is the provision of financial services through mobile technologies. It allows for the paying of bills and receiving money by the use of mobile apps. Mobile money also creates new opportunities for businesses and individuals as it grows in all regions of the world, both in urban and rural communities. Nevertheless, there is a long way to go as 1.7 billion adults remain unbanked, especially women and youth. This represents 46% of adults in the developing countries.
Thanks to this EU funded initiative, UNCDF will support key policy reforms for digital transformation as well as create inclusive financial services tailored to the needs of women and youth, including innovative savings products and credit.
The joint action will be implemented in different countries in Africa (Gabon, Niger, Malawi and Ethiopia) as well as in the Caribbean (Trinidad and Tobago and Eastern Caribbean States) and in the Pacific region (Vanuatu, Samoa, Timor Leste, Tonga and Fiji).
This initiative is fully in line with the recent launch of the new Digital 4 Development Hub, aimed at building strong ties across the globe to make the digital revolution an opportunity for everyone.
Ana PISONERO HERNANDEZ (+32 2 295 43 20)
Gesine KNOLLE (+32 2 295 43 23)
For the public: Europe Direct by phone 00 800 6 7 8 9 10 11 or by email
United Nations Capital Development Fund (UNCDF)
The coronavirus global health crisis is severely harming livelihoods and sending hundreds of millions into poverty. Although economic recovery appears far off, the crisis has also encouraged incentives for economic transformation, demonstrating the immediate benefits of financial inclusion. In spite of the progress made in the past ten years, supporting digital finance remains critical for governments and individuals to create a conducive ecosystem for economic recovery and to provide a tangible response to coronavirus.
Although much is still unknown of the socioeconomic consequences of the coronavirus on women and youth, the disease is especially harmful to those who generally earn less, save less, hold more insecure jobs and, therefore, have less capacity to absorb economic shocks. The situation for women and youth in Least Developed Countries (LDC) is likely to deteriorate faster than in more developed countries.