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WTO
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Members discuss TRIPS waiver, LDC transition period and green tech role for small business

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LDC transition period

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

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

MSMEs and green technologies

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

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

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

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

Other issues

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

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

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

TRIPS amendment

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

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

New chair

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

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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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