For a digital economy that leaves no one disconnected

Written by 
Isabelle Durant, Deputy Secretary-General of UNCTAD

The ultimate outcome of the technological revolution is uncertain, but it is up to us, policymakers at national and international levels, the private sector and civil society to ensure that the new digital world generates development for all and that it leaves no one behind.

I am convinced that e-commerce and the digital economy create major opportunities. Potential benefits for developing-country companies range from greater efficiency to gains from increased variety of choice and greater predictability for all players, as well as lower costs and prices. It also has the power to encourage women entrepreneurs.

E-commerce has the potential to be a real booster for millions of young people in Africa or in Latin America, for example. The beauty of digitalization is that it can connect local businesses with markets. It can also connect populations with services, which would definitely help people in isolated areas where services are still too often a luxury.

However, these gains are not automatic. Digitalization also raises challenges and may, if adequate measures are not put in place, increase the divide between developed and developing countries. Current gaps in connectivity and e-commerce readiness, between and within countries, imply that benefits are not equally distributed. There is also a lack of the robust infrastructure in developing countries needed to enable entrepreneurs to develop their e-business without being dependent on the giants of the digital age.

We have become more interconnected than ever. That is a fact. The world as we know it is becoming one. It is our common responsibility, at this turning point in time, to make sure it is indeed one, not only on paper, so that no country, no populations miss the digital train.

We need more action to help businesses in developing countries build their capacity and take advantage of the new infrastructure and technologies, so that they can produce and sell more online. However, infrastructure alone is not enough. Unless people have affordable access to these technologies, have the skills to use the productively and trust them more, connectivity will have limited impact.

UNCTAD recognizes the increasing divide and marginalization that come with this rapidly evolving sector, and understand that unless adequate steps are taken, the divide will only get wider. Member States continuously request UNCTAD to increase its work on these issues and assist developing countries in this regard.

Through collaboration with Member States, in 2016 we were able to launch the eTrade for all Initiative, with 28 partners and the aim of improving the ability of developing countries, particularly the least developed ones, to harness and benefit from e-commerce. Member States also decided to create the Intergovernmental Group of Experts on E-commerce and the Digital Economy, increasing discussion on the development dimensions, challenges and opportunities of e-commerce.

Events such as the ongoing World Summit on the Information Society Forum 2018 encourage discussions worldwide and help find solutions that will contribute to the betterment and benefit of developing countries. The same goes for UNCTAD’s E-Commerce Week, from 16 to 20 April, which offers a space for different stakeholders to discuss key challenges and opportunities arising from digital platforms, and to develop concrete actions to draw the maximum benefits of e-commerce for developing countries.

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