Trade data for 2020 confirm growing importance of digital technologies during COVID-19

ICT services grew to almost 14% of total services’ exports worldwide in 2020, while the long-term upward trend in digitally deliverable services trade rapidly accelerated.

COVID-19 has provided a strong impetus for businesses and individuals to adopt digital tools, helping to drive a 6% increase in worldwide exports of ICT services, according to an UNCTAD technical note on the pandemic’s impact on trade in the digital economy, published on 21 October.

The value of ICT services’ exports worldwide reached $676 billion in 2020 as the usage of communications services, computer services and software were boosted by the lockdown restrictions implemented in many economies.

This took digitally deliverable services to nearly 64% of total services exports, as they contracted relatively little against the backdrop of an unprecedented decline in total services trade.

However, while these shares increased across all regions, the pandemic-related acceleration in digitalization risks further exacerbating digital divides, with least developed countries (LDCs) being left further behind.

“Low levels of digitalization and eTrade readiness are hampering the ability of LDCs to engage in digital trade at a moment when it has suddenly become even more important,” said Shamika N. Sirimanne, UNCTAD director of technology and logistics. “It underscores the need to boost the capabilities of those trailing in digital readiness to catch up in the digital economy.”

UNCTAD offers a range of technical assistance and capacity-building to support countries in engaging with and measuring their performance related to e‑commerce and the digital economy.

Digital delivery gains traction

Meanwhile, exports of the wider category of digitally deliverable services – those that can be delivered remotely over ICT networks such as the internet – fell by $58 billion to a value of $3.17 trillion worldwide.

Nevertheless, digital technologies appear to have played an important role in supporting broader international trade and economic activity in 2020.

While total services exports declined by 20% (an unprecedented drop since records began in 1990), worldwide exports of digitally deliverable services fell by only 1.8%. This reflects an increasing reliance on digital delivery to continue services’ trade despite restrictions on movement implemented due to the pandemic.

With ICT services exports increasing and digitally deliverable services exports holding relatively steady in 2020, their share in the greatly reduced overall services exports increased significantly across all regions.

Worldwide, digitally deliverable services went from below 52% of services exports in 2019 to almost 64% in 2020, while ICT services grew from 10% to almost 14%, a marked acceleration of the long-term trend (as shown in the chart below).

Regions fared differently within this overarching picture, however. While the export share of digitally deliverable services increased in all regions and there was a 14-percentage point increase across developing regions, the increase was only 10 percentage points in Africa and 6 percentage points in LDCs.

ICT services’ export share increased markedly less in LDCs compared to other regions – rising just 0.74 percentage points compared to 3.3 percentage points globally.
Global ICT and digitally deliverable services exports, 2005-2020 and 2019-2020 As a percentage of total services exports
Global ICT and digitally deliverable services exports

Source: UNCTAD based on UNCTAD digital economy statistics (unctadstat.unctad.org).
Note: ICT services unavailable for “Developing regions (M49)” and “Asia and Oceania”.

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