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Digital tokens could transform the economies of the Middle East and North Africa – if the governance keeps up

Abdulla Bin Touq
Minister of Economy, Ministry of Economy of the United Arab Emirates | Mirek Dusek
Head of Europe, Eurasia and the Middle East, Member of the Executive Committee, World Economic Forum

The Covid-19 pandemic has been a disruptor like no other and its economic and social consequences are expected to outlast the health emergency.

As reported by the IMF, the Middle East and North Africa GDP contracted by 3.1% in 2020, putting the region’s already fragile resilience under pressure. Governments have taken unprecedented fiscal efforts to protect their private sectors and to mitigate the consequences of the pandemic.

Some examples are the $27 billion stimulus plan that the United Arab Emirates has deployed to facilitate lending, the $61 billion support package targeting the private sector or Egypt’s $6 billion economic relief plan focusing on Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) and consumer liquidity.

In this context, the World Economic Forum’s Regional Action Group on the Middle East and North Africa, a community of over 70 leaders from private and public sectors, has been working under the guiding framework of the 7 Principles for Stakeholder Capitalism to develop ideas that could tangibly transform the post-pandemic future of the region.

Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) have been severely affected by the pandemic both on the supply and on the demand side. The substantial loss of revenue, coupled with a drastic drop in capacity, has dramatically affected their ability to function properly and has created a large liquidity shortage for their operations, meaning many SMEs face closure.

In the UAE alone, SMEs constitute over 50% of the country’s non-oil economy, and contribute to about 54% of the private-sector workforce. The pandemic has also exacerbated the pre-existing hurdles for bank lending to SMEs, such as cumbersome registration and legal procedures.

In such a critical scenario, we have been studying together with Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution UAE, the Dubai International Finance Centre and the Dubai Financial Services Authority, the deployment of digital assets (also called asset tokenization) as an alternative to investments for SMEs to jump-start their post-COVID recovery.

How does asset tokenization work?

Asset tokenization (tokenization) concerns digital tokens that can represent either financial assets like stocks or bond, or non-financial assets such as real estate, land, or art on a blockchain network.

These “digital assets” may represent only a part of the underlying asset – otherwise known as a “fractional share”.

Tokenization therefore has three main functions: to facilitate access to capital for issuers, to facilitate access to investments for investors, and to enable the fractionalization of assets.

It is this last concept of dividing assets into smaller components (in this case represented by tokens) that offers the game-changing ability to distribute assets among multiple individuals who could, as a result, have a partial ownership over the underlying assets and gain benefits proportional to their ownership stake.

Traditionally fixed, illiquid assets such as real estate or fine art could be broken down and represented as tokens. Fractionalizing the underlying asset could bring new investment opportunities and liquidity. The benefit is lower barriers relating to minimum investment requirements and geographies, opening up a global pool of capital.

‘Security Token Offering’ – a win-win exchange, managed through blockchain

A pilot around asset tokenization, which was publicly announced during the session “Implementing Stakeholder Capitalism in the Middle East and North Africa” at the Davos Agenda 2021, has the dual purpose of helping SMEs with their financial woes and providing a more standardized and accessible approach to funding, allowing companies to reach a wider range of investors.

For private and smaller-range investors, who traditionally might have faced challenges in investing in SMEs, they benefit from being able to provide funding in exchange of tokens. The tokens that investors receive can then be listed and traded on emerging digital asset exchanges, similar to trading securities on a traditional exchange.

The process is called a Security Token Offering and is created, allocated, transferred, and managed through its life cycle on the blockchain platform, where digital tokens are both issued and exchanged.

The system could integrate and manage the needs of a range of organizations, including: issuance platform and investment banks, courts and arbitrators, regulators, custodial and non-custodial exchanges, and third-party digital asset custodians. The blockchain network acts as a safe marketplace where all of these parties meet.

The benefits of tokenization

  • Tokenization could help SMEs receive the capital needed from a wider range of investors and, on the other side, allow investors to diversify their portfolios.
  • Thanks to the traceability of the process, based on the use of blockchain for both creation and trading of the tokens, banks and financial institutions could effectively receive the collateral required and verify the underlying legal processes.
  • Its versatility could allow tokenization to be applied across different sectors, from real estate to investing in fine arts, to restructuring debts.
  • Tokenization has the potential of revamping the current financial market infrastructure by creating new and more effective financial platforms and by addressing existing market shortcomings. It could help for example in addressing limited retail investor KYC/AML verification and in streamlining reporting and compliance for issuers.
  • It could ensure that SME financing processes are secure, transparent, auditable, and integrated with other digital channels such as e-KYC/AML for investor onboarding.

The challenges of tokenization

  • A lack of harmonized regulations across jurisdictions could undermine the interoperability of the technology. Since regulations can vary significantly from one jurisdiction to another, this could be a limiting factor for both the creation and trading of tokens.
  • Inadequate regulation could leave space for potential consumer protection concerns that could affect end-users, investors, and the broader economy.
  • It is unclear how the tokens will be linked to the physical assets they represent and what kind of governance structure they will rely on. For instance, while investing in fine arts, if a painting is divided into multiple tokens and is owned by more than one investor, who acquires the painting and what happens if that painting gets stolen? Or if we consider an apartment unit which is divided into multiple tokens, there is little incentive for the owners of the tokens to bear the cost of the apartment maintenance and rent collection?
  • It’s important to address some of the main questions related to smart contracts, as well as other possible ramifications of tokenization, such as industry disruptions and potential instability in a hyper-liquid market. Given that this is a new technology, there is not enough evidence to confirm its effectiveness and, while we are confident of its potential, the pilot could also show that the technology would be too costly or complex to be implemented.

What next for tokenization in the Middle East and North Africa?

While we look at tokenization as a positive means to help SMEs in their post-pandemic recovery, we are also aware that those efforts need to be complemented by upgraded economic policies that can help turn this opportunity into tangible results for SMEs and the wider economy. Part of this effort is also the crypto assets legislation approved by the UAE Securities and Commodities Authority as a first important step in creating the right regulatory environment for tokens.

We are also confident that the pilot run by the UAE will inform the potential scalability of the tokenization process across the region with concrete economic results. And to fully realize the potential there is an urgent need for economic authorities across the region to upgrade existing regulations or craft new ones to enable a transparent and efficient use by investors and SMEs.

For example, addressing existing regulatory fragmentation across the region, would be a steppingstone to use tokenization to address industry disruptions and the lack of stability that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the markets.

We are confident that if used widely across the region and if coupled with the right economic policies, tokenization can create a safe environment for trade, and it could accelerate the region’s economic integration, which is estimated to add $230 billion per year to regional GDP. It would also enhance the region’s resilience and digital readiness for its post-pandemic future.

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UNCTAD

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.

Consultative process

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.

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.

WEF
  • Global tax policy on digital services has to be multilateral – and should be more carrot than stick, Josh Kallmer, Zoom’s Head of Global Public Policy and Government Relations has said.
  • He was speaking at the World Economic Forum’s Global Technology Governance Summit hosted by Japan.
  • The OECD is making progress on agreeing a set of principles to revolutionize the taxation of multinationals, as well as better taxation of the digital economy.
  • Zoom profits soared in 2020, as working from home became the norm in the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Some European OECD countries have already implemented Digital Services Taxes – and the US has set out plans for a global minimum corporation tax.

Zoom chief Josh Kallmer has called for a multilateral rethink of tax policy, that recognizes how much the world has become digitized, but also encourages new, smaller innovators.

He said: “We’d really like to see a multilateral solution with all the players at the table leaning into the idea that the way the economy is now, it demands answers to these questions. We want to avoid the unilateral approaches that so many markets are taking.

“This debate is thinking about tax policy as a stick, that may be unfair, it has an important role to play. But is there a way potentially to look at tax policy as a set of carrots, ways to encourage activity we want to encourage, like innovation and actual physical investments in certain markets.

“That’s a conversation that Zoom would be very eager to have. We’re committed to the growth and development of markets around the world and working with governments to get there. We want to find creative, coordinated, multilateral ways of getting there.”

‘Multilateralism at stake’

“If there were ever an issue that was fundamentally international, where the cross-border interdependence was so undeniable, it’s this,” Kallmer added, during a session on Taxing Digital Value.

“Ultimately, whether you’re looking at revenue or income, there’s a fixed amount of money in the world and we have to have a principled, coherent, consistent way to determine how to allocate taxing rights with respect to that.

“And it’s not just the global tax system that’s at stake, it’s the concept of multilateralism, the concept of cooperating together to meet the challenges that we all face now.”

In the past year, Zoom has arguably become one of the world’s biggest digital companies.

With COVID-19 lockdowns forcing stay-at-home orders across the globe, working from home became the norm and use of the communications tool skyrocketed as meetings went virtual.

Sales leapt by 326% to $2.6 billion in 2020, seeing profits go from $21.7 million in 2019 to $671.5 million in 2020.

From Zoom’s perspective, Kallmer said it was also important that digitization was viewed “as a whole” in discussions on tax.

“Certainly there are some companies that are very significant players, but we’re dealing with a larger phenomenon where it’s not just internet platforms, but services companies of all kinds providing services across borders digitally, often with no physical place of business, so it goes beyond a small group of admittedly very important countries.”

Digital Services Taxes in Europe
Digital services taxes have been implemented in parts of Europe.
Image: KPMG-Tax Foundation

Digitization has changed the playing field

In the last two decades, the notion of ‘permanent establishment’, of a physical place of business as the anchor for allocating taxing rights, has “lost some of its utility”, he added.

“It’s still an important concept and fixture in the set of international tax norms, but there is certainly an appreciation within Zoom and across the global tech sector as a whole that digitization has legitimately changed the playing field and that governments have legitimate questions about how to respond.”

Earlier this week, the US treasury announced plans for a global minimum corporation tax, which has been backed by the EU.

The OECD has already been working on a two-pillar global taxation scheme for some time, with two pillars that address taxing companies where they make profits even if they do not have a physical presence there.

The second pillar of the OECD scheme, reports Reuters, is to establish a global minimum tax rate, which could apply to all companies, so that governments do not compete with each other offering lower taxes to attract large multinational firms.

Kallmer, the former Executive Vice President, Policy, Information Technology Industry Council (ITI), said there are some very real competition-related, and in the US, anti-trust related questions happening in the global economy, in the technology sector and other settings.

“From Zoom’s point of view, as still a relatively small company, in a relatively competitive environment we’re following those issues, we care about the outcomes of those discussions.

“We all agree the economy has changed in ways that make re-examining global tax issues appropriate. But we may have some differences on how to get there.”

Challenges and shared problems

Kallmer highlighted key challenges in the tax debate, including the prospect of double or multiple taxation.

“If you don’t have clear rules of the road agreed among countries that are essentially battling over the same quantity of revenue or profits, you have the very real prospect of that happening.”

There’s a potential penalty for small innovative companies, as some Digital Service Taxes don’t have minimum revenue thresholds, he said.

“So you have small companies, many of whom don’t make a profit for many years, who could potentially be within scope and taxed on revenue that is not part of an overall profit-making effort.”

Administration and implementation are also factors: “It’s no small feat, even for a relatively large company, to re-engineer their financial reporting to comply with greatly varying rules from market to market, so there’s a deadweight loss there, that occurs.”

He said his final point goes beyond tax to how we tackle all shared global problems. “When individual markets depart from a multilateral approach, it affects the larger global environment as well, it affects trade policy… it’s reasonable to expect that it would affect things like how we fight climate change, truly shared problems that we need to be working together to address.”

Watch the full session on Taxing Digital Value here.

  • Global tax policy on digital services has to be multilateral – and should be more carrot than stick, Josh Kallmer, Zoom’s Head of Global Public Policy and Government Relations has said.
  • He was speaking...
UNCDF

On 16 March 2021, the UN Capital Development Fund (UNCDF) and the United Nations Office of South-South Cooperation (UNOSSC), funded by the India-UN Partnership Fund, partnered to digitalize utility payments and thus drive digital and financial inclusion for many of Zambia’s underserved customers. Both organizations aim to work with Zambia’s Ministry of Finance (MOF) to increase the availability and usage of utilities for women and youth, in particular.

 

Utilities, such as water, energy and sanitation, are essential services but in many parts of Zambia, these services are not easily accessible for various reasons, including the mode of payment available. Utilities are primarily paid for in cash, which can pose limitations for women and young people as they often do not have control over household finances. Digitalizing utilities payments can bring immediate benefits to customers, such as:

  • increased affordability of the service(s);
  • increased penetration utility services, making them more widespread;
  • improved quality of life;
  • improved livelihoods by empowering customers with digital and financial skills that can be used in the growing and inclusive economy of Zambia.

 

The project, which will be implemented over the next 13 months, will accelerate the development and financing of inclusive digital payment solutions in the utilities sector. This project is timely and was well-received by the government of Zambia as it will directly address specific aspects of Zambia’s National Financial Inclusion Strategy (NFIS) that are considered of ‘high priority and high impact.’ These include:

  • Designing and launching simplified products for underserved consumers through mobile based channels and others;
  • Migrating Government-to Persons and Persons-to-Government payments from cash to digital platforms.

 

The MOF and UNCDF will collaborate to develop workable digital channels and leverage existing digital payments solutions to reach more customers with the services they need. Because utility services are essential, a well-developed digital utilities sector will be a vital tool and will play a pivotal role in advancing digital and financial inclusion, especially for women and youth. Digital payments have proven to lower the cost of providing financial services to low-income people and marginalized communities, while increasing the safety and convenience of using savings and payments.

 

UNCDF, the technical assistance provider, will work with MOF, the implementing partner to design an environment where financial service providers (FSPs), FinTechs and Regulators will collaborate with the Ministry to test and implement new solutions for utility payments, particularly water.

 

Mr. Adel Abdellatif, Director, Ad Interim (a.i.), United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation (UNOSSC) says, “The India-UN Development Partnership Fund exemplifies South-South cooperation at work. Collaboration between Zambia’s Ministry of Finance and the Government of India to support building digital financial inclusion in Zambia demonstrates that countries with similar development challenges can cooperate to solve and overcome those challenges. UNOSSC is proud to manage the India-UN Development Partnership Fund which is rapidly implementing demand-driven projects across the South.”

 

“Digital payments for utilities are no longer a “nice-to-have” but a “must-have” service. Through this project, we envision strengthening existing digitalizing efforts within the utilities sector, with the objective of using utility payments as a catalyst for including Zambians who are unbanked. In addition, digitalizing utilities creates opportunities for seamless customer experiences, reduces dependency and cost of cash payments, enables faster transfer of payments and reduces collection and operational costs for utility providers. This initiative will also have a focus of supporting government to create an enabling environment towards the digital transformation of Zambia.” says Isaac Holly, Country Lead for UNCDF.

 

The Ministry of Finance in Zambia commented that, “In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, digitalization of payments for services in the utility sector and other sectors makes it more convenient, cost effective and safe for service delivery which is critical in arresting the spread of the pandemic. In this context, the Government has continued to implement the National Financial Inclusion Strategy which, among other things, seeks to migrate Government-to-Person (G2P) and Person-to-Government (P2P) payments and improve outreach and adoption of digital financial services. The partnership with UNCDF will, therefore, complement Government efforts in improving livelihoods of all Zambians, especially the vulnerable groups of society (women, youth and children).”

 

With a specific focus on women and youth, the project aims to enhance youth and female participation in the market, resulting in poverty reduction, improved livelihoods and economic growth. Working with the MOF in this sector also provides further opportunity to enhance UNCDF’s vision to build inclusive digital economies. The increased usage and adoption of digital utilities is expected to spur market players to expand to additional geographies around the country, thus allowing more equitable distribution of services and consequently an increased investment in the digital sector. This brings benefits to all those who are digitally included and allows them to participate in the digital economy.

 

The India-UN Development Partnership Fund recently pledged support for an initiative to create a climate disaster risk financing framework for Fiji.

 

About UNOSSC

The United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation (UNOSSC) promotes, coordinates and supports South-South and triangular cooperation globally and within the United Nations system. It manages the India-UN Development Partnership Fund at the request of the Permanent Mission of India to the United Nations in New York. The Office engages a wide range of partners toward achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals, and to foster self-reliance in developing countries according to their national aspirations and values.

 

About UNCDF

The UN Capital Development Fund makes public and private finance work for the poor in the world’s 46 least developed countries (LDCs). UNCDF offers “last mile” finance models that unlock public and private resources, especially at the domestic level, to reduce poverty and support local economic development. The UNCDF financing models work through three channels: (1) inclusive digital economies, which connects individuals, households, and small businesses with financial eco-systems that catalyze participation in the local economy, and provide tools to climb out of poverty and manage financial lives; (2) local development finance, which capacitates localities through fiscal decentralization, innovative municipal finance, and structured project finance to drive local economic expansion and sustainable development; and (3) investment finance, which provides catalytic financial structuring, de-risking, and capital deployment to drive SDG impact and domestic resource mobilization.

On 16 March 2021, the UN Capital Development Fund (UNCDF) and the United Nations Office of South-South Cooperation (UNOSSC), funded by the India-UN Partnership Fund, partnered to digitalize utility payments and thus drive digital and...

WEF

Every time you make an electronic payment, whether from your mobile, online, or with a card, that transaction passes through multiple systems. Each of them plays a role in processing that payment and forms part of the sequence of checks and balances that exist between payer and payee.

It can be a long, complex and costly chain of connections, with each taking a small fee from every transaction. Typically, it involves a series of banks or other large payment processing businesses who keep track of the money on its journey from A to B. Identities are verified, creditworthiness is established and sums of money are accurately reconciled between accounts.

Without such processes, how could trusted payments take place? Enter blockchain, which has the potential to disrupt that process completely. And not just for payments, but other forms of transaction including the flow of goods and information around the world.

Blockchain can seem complicated and a little impenetrable, which is ironic as one of the core tenets of this technology is its openness and transparency.

How does blockchain work?

Blockchain allows consumers and suppliers to connect directly, removing the need for a third party such as a bank.

There are some fundamentals to understanding blockchain, including the notion of a distributed ledger. Using cryptography to keep exchanges secure, blockchain provides a decentralized database, or “digital ledger”, of transactions that everyone on the network can see. This network is essentially a chain of computers that must all approve an exchange before it can be verified and recorded.

Consulting firm Deloitte explains it as follows: “You (a ‘node’) have a file of transactions on your computer (a ‘ledger’). Two government accountants (let’s call them ‘miners’) have the same file on theirs (so it’s ‘distributed’). As you make a transaction, your computer sends an email to each accountant to inform them … the first to check and validate hits REPLY ALL, attaching their logic for verifying the transaction (‘proof of work’). If the other accountant agrees, everyone updates their file.”

In theory, it could be completely open on the public internet, or blockchain can be used within defined networks – there are different configurations for different use cases. In the latter configuration, the data pertaining to a transaction will be stored, simultaneously on the dozens, or hundreds, or thousands of computers within that defined network. That data will update in close to real time, so that anyone on the network can see everyone else’s entries.

Instead of having to outsource the idea of being able to trust in a transaction to banks and other intermediaries, blockchain puts trust out in the open by making everything visible. And because it is open and distributed, no single party on the network can exert undue control or influence on the ledger – or anyone attached to it.

It has a long way to go, though, before it really becomes part of the mainstream. Concerns around trust and regulatory compliance are among the top reasons for its slow adoption, according to the data journalism organization, Statista.

the different causes preventing people from adopting blockchain globally
The barriers to blockchain.
Image: Statista

More than money and bitcoins

Although cryptocurrencies depend on blockchain and are frequently cited as how blockchain works, they are far from being its only application.

It can be used to record and track the ownership of a photographic image or a piece of music or a patent for a new gadget. It can even be used to track the provenance of food – from farm to plate – and medical supplies, including vaccines.

IBM describes blockchain as: “A shared, immutable ledger that facilitates the process of recording transactions and tracking assets in a business network. An asset can be tangible (a house, car, cash, land) or intangible (intellectual property, patents, copyrights, branding). Virtually anything of value can be tracked and traded on a blockchain network, reducing risk and cutting costs for all involved.”

Through its Food Trust network, IBM is working with businesses from the length of the food supply chain, including Carrefour, Nestlé and others. On the Food Network website, Chris Tyas, Global Head of Supply Chain for Nestlé, says: “People want to know, quite rightly, where ingredients they give to their baby have come from. We wanted a product in which trust meant something.”

“You are building a halo effect – ‘If I can trust Carrefour with this chicken, I can also trust Carrefour for their apples or cheese,’” Emmanuel Delerm, Carrefour’s blockchain project manager, told the news agency Reuters in 2019.

 

Every time you make an electronic payment, whether from your mobile, online, or with a card, that transaction passes through multiple systems. Each of them plays a role in processing that payment and forms part...

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