DG Okonjo-Iweala: E-commerce has emerged as major force in global economic output, trade

DG Okonjo-Iweala: E-commerce has emerged as major force in global economic output, trade

The WTO and the international community have a collective responsibility to help members harness the full potential of the digital economy for economic growth, job creation and trade diversification, said Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala at a workshop held at the WTO on 1-2 June on e-commerce. At the event, WTO members heard from international organisations on their work on various e-commerce topics and on programmes aimed at helping developing economies benefit from digital trade.

The workshop was held under the Work Programme on E-commerce as a follow-up to the 12th Ministerial Conference decision to reinvigorate the Programme, particularly regarding its development dimension.

The workshop provided an opportunity for WTO members to exchange views with international organisations on cross-cutting issues under the Work Programme identified by members in the past few months. In particular, the workshop looked at work carried out at the international level on consumer protection, the digital divide, the moratorium on imposing customs duties on electronic transmissions and legal, regulatory frameworks on e-commerce.

DG Okonjo-Iweala noted that members are engaging substantively on broad e-commerce-related issues with a development focus. “These discussions are important to better understand the challenges and opportunities of digital trade,” she said.

DG Okonjo-Iweala noted the dramatic growth in services delivered across borders via digital networks. The WTO estimates that global exports of digitally delivered services grew by 8.1% per year between 2005 and 2022, much higher than the 5.6% growth registered for goods exports.

The DG said: “In 2022, the value of exports of these services, which cover everything from streaming games to consulting services provided by video, reached USD 3.82 trillion — worth 12% of total goods and services trade, up from 8% a decade earlier. With the comparatively slow recovery of tourism and other services requiring cross-border movement of people, digitally delivered services have increased their footprint in global services trade. Last year represented 54% of total global services exports.”

The Director-General highlighted the role of e-commerce in driving growth and trade as well as in creating jobs for women and young people. She stressed that development-related challenges are preventing some members from fully maximizing the benefits of digital trade.

“Many countries are still lagging behind — be it because of poor connectivity, outdated physical and digital infrastructure, inadequate digital financial services, deficiencies in digital literacy and skills, weak legal and regulatory frameworks — or any combination of these factors,” she said.

In her opening remarks, Ambassador Athaliah Lesiba Molokomme, General Council Chair, said WTO members have noted the need to improve cooperation with other intergovernmental organisations. She said: “Such cooperation could assist members in identifying gaps and opportunities as well as in providing relevant information, including on available technical assistance and capacity building.”

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) spoke about work carried out at the international level on online consumer protection, including guidelines and recommendations. The World Bank, the International Telecommunication Union, International Trade Centre and UNCTAD highlighted initiatives carried out to address the digital divide in developing economies and least-developed countries.

In addition, OECD and UNCTAD spoke about the moratorium on customs duties on electronic transmissions, underlining recent studies and ongoing research in this area. The final session looked into ongoing work in supporting the development of regulatory and legal frameworks for e-commerce, with presentations from the World Customs Organisation, UNCTAD and the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law.

The full programme of the workshop is available here.

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