Electronic commerce is booming but mostly for high income economies, speakers said at the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), which is holding a weeklong event on digital trade. Technical assistance is needed for developing countries to hop on the e-commerce train, they said, as UNCTAD launched a platform designed to help developing countries navigate the arcane of electronic trade.
On 25 April, UNCTAD launched its “eTrade for all Online Platform” during one of the sessions of its “E-Commerce Week.” Finland, Sweden, South Korea and the United Kingdom financially contributed to the project. Several developing country ministers praised the platform. Another session presented the work of the Group of 20 on the digital economy.
UNCTAD’s E-Commerce Week is being held from 24-28 April.
The online platform is at the heart of the “eTrade for all,” a “global initiative that helps developing countries to unlock the potential of e-commerce,” launched in July 2016, according to UNCTAD.
UNCTAD Secretary General Mukhisa Kituyi underlined the opportunity represented by booming e-commerce but also the fact that the windfall is mostly benefitting developed economies.
Shamika Sirimanne, director UNTACD’s Technology and Logistics Division, said the platform is not just another website, but a resource that works on most electronic devices, and allows users to learn and share with partners and peers. It is just the beginning of a long journey, she said. She described the platform and said countries can learn about trends and best practices, and be informed of upcoming e-commerce events.
Khurram Dastgir Khan, minister of commerce in Pakistan, said e-commerce should be inclusive, and emphasised the timeliness of the platform. It will help build local knowledge, and e-commerce tools, he said, underlining the importance of public-private partnerships.
For Cambodian Commerce Minister Pan Sorasak, the lack of access to relevant and pertinent information is among the key barriers to developing countries making use of e-commerce.
Finland Ambassador Terhi Hakala said the development of e-commerce can have a positive impact on the economy and a driver for job creation in the developing world. Despite the spread of the digital technology, enormous gaps still remain, she said.
Capacity building is needed in several areas, she added, such as regulatory framework and payment solutions.
United Kingdom Ambassador Julian Braithwaite said the digital economy can only strive through a free and open internet. A common understanding of e-commerce-related issues is essential to develop an international trade agenda, he said. The UK said it would continue its financial participation in the new financial year, while Finland committed to the next two years.
Kyong-Lim Choï, ambassador, South Korea, said the platform has unique feature and tools to meet the particular needs of global e-commerce stakeholders. E-commerce provides new opportunities to developing countries and small business owners, he said, adding that traditional manufacturers are now selling products all over the world. However, he stressed the fact that e-commerce cannot grow if consumers do not trust the internet.
Susana Malcorra, Argentina minister of foreign affairs, said Argentina is determined to have a successful World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference in Buenos Aires in December. “When people wonder about trade and the future of WTO … we should discuss the WTO of the future, and e-commerce is an essential part of the WTO of the future,” she said.
There is a need to find a way to put e-commerce on the table in Buenos Aires, she said, and have a potential WTO mandate to work on the issue.
A World Customs Organization (WCO) representative said the organisation focusses on cross-border transactions, and underlined challenges linked to the rise of e-commerce, talking about a “tsunami of small packages.”
The WCO is working on four key areas, the representative said: trade facilitation, safety and security, revenue collection, and measurement and analysis of volume.
G20 Roadmap for Digital Future
Another session of E-Commerce Week, also held on 25 April, was presented by Germany, current president of the G20, and focused on the outcome of the G20 Trade and Investment Working Group.
According to Gunther Grathwohl, counsellor at Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy, the G20 has a work programme on the digital economy. The programme is articulated around three main themes: global digitalisation, digitalisation production for the future, and encouraging transparency.
There is a need to create investment-friendly environments, increase consumer protection, and reach a common understanding on policy issues, he said.
G20 ministers meeting in Dusseldorf on 6 and 7 April agreed on a roadmap for joint policies for a digital future, he said. The roadmap includes targets such as connecting all people around the world to the internet by 2025, and the creation of similar international norms and standards worldwide.
Grathwohl said the digital economy can contribute to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, but added that a strong online consumer protection is necessary and consumers should be informed in a comprehensive way when they use the internet for commercial purposes. The digital economy can also help bridge the gender divide, he said.
Stormy-Annika Mildner, B20 sherpa and head of the Department of External Economic Policy, Federation of German Industries, said e-commerce has an important role in the B20. The B20 represents the entire G20 business community.
There is an increasing digital cross border data flow, she said, and for many companies, digital trade is a “huge opportunity for development and inclusiveness.”
However, some hurdles remain, she said, naming in particular the lack of information on relevant laws, payments and taxes, and intellectual property rights. The B20 recommends to accelerate and invest in capacity building and put greater focus on digital trade and digital literacy, she said.
Mildner too said the next WTO Ministerial Conference should set a mandate for WTO to talk about digital trade and rules, so that uncertainty in the market can be removed. Also privacy is very important and a key requisite for credibility, she said, there is a need for a free flow of data across borders.