DG Azevêdo: Global cooperation on digital economy vital to unlock trade benefits for women

Electronic commerce has great potential to boost the economic empowerment of women but only if the right conditions are in place to unlock these benefits, Director-General Roberto Azevêdo said at a workshop on Women in Digital Trade held at the WTO on 1 July. Recent commitments relating to the digital economy and women’s participation in trade at the latest G20 leaders meeting in Osaka signal the growing importance of these issues, he said. This is what he said:

DG Azevêdo: Global cooperation on digital economy vital to unlock trade benefits for women

DG Azevêdo: Global cooperation on digital economy vital to unlock trade benefits for women
Ms. Pamela Coke-Hamilton (Director, Division on International Trade and Commodities, UNCTAD),
Ladies and gentlemen,

Good morning – and welcome to this workshop on digital trade and gender. It is great to have you all here with us today.

At the outset, I would like to thank the European Union, Senegal, and Trinidad and Tobago for organizing this event, as well as all of the speakers joining us for this important discussion.

Today’s workshop is the fifth in a series of discussions sparked by the Buenos Aires Declaration on Women and Trade.

The aim remains to promote women’s economic empowerment by tackling barriers that hamper their participation in global trade.

As part of these efforts, members have been working to improve their understanding of the issues. Since Buenos Aires, thematic workshops have been held on a range of specific topics to share best practices and national experiences.

Today, we are continuing to develop the conversation, looking specifically at how digital trade can offer new opportunities for women.

This conversation is clearly in tune with the broader global debate.

I have just returned from the G20 leaders’ meeting in Osaka, where these issues were high on the agenda. You may have seen the Osaka Declaration on the Digital Economy, signed by 24 world leaders, in support of international rule-making in this area and further progress at the WTO.
G20 leaders also pledged their strong support for women’s empowerment at the Summit. Clearly digital economy and women’s economic empowerment reinforce each other.

This is very encouraging – and I think we have to recognise the scale of opportunity that the digital economy provides, especially for women, small and medium enterprises, and other more excluded groups, like rural communities in developing and least developed countries.

It can be transformational in helping to tackle trade costs and help many more join global trade flows.

E-commerce platforms have already made it easier to connect buyers and sellers worldwide, opening new opportunities for companies to tap into global markets.

We are also seeing these new technologies incorporated in trade rules. Digitalizing customs procedures is a key provision of the Trade Facilitation Agreement. Similarly, the Government Procurement Agreement also encourages the use of e-procurement tools.

There is no doubt about the potential of these new technologies to promote economic benefits, when accompanied by appropriate complementary policies.

But on the flipside, this potential can only be fully realised if we are prepared to agree on new rules and practices for the digital economy. If we do not, then the outcome could be fragmentation and a proliferation of technological regulations.

This would mean higher costs and higher barriers to entry. And this would also mean that many, including women entrepreneurs, could be excluded from the opportunities that the digital economy offers.

We can’t let this happen.

We also have to get the basics right and ensure fair access to connectivity.

At present, big gaps persist. The International Telecommunications Union reports that the proportion of women using the internet is 12% lower than the proportion of men. This gender gap widens to around 33% in least developed countries.

Research also shows that in Africa, over 40 per cent of women are not able to effectively engage with digital tools for personal and professional activities.

This is very concerning. We have to ensure that everybody can benefit from this digital revolution. We know that tackling these gaps could unlock enormous potential.

For example, according to a McKinsey report, the e-commerce market in Indonesia is booming. It is projected to grow up to eightfold from 2017 to 2022, from $8 billion up to $65 billion. This can facilitate many opportunities for women’s economic empowerment. Women-led businesses generate up to 35 per cent of online revenue, compared with 15 per cent in offline retail.

Globally, reports estimate that enabling internet access for 150 million women would contribute an estimated US$ 13-18 billion to the annual GDP of 144 developing countries.

This is clearly very positive. But this is not only about the economic issues. It is also about building the more inclusive world we all wish to see.

Today’s workshop aims to shed light on all these issues – and to explore how digital trade can offer these opportunities for women and women-led businesses.

Throughout the day you will look at a number of issues and fields where further work could make a big impact.

This includes capacity building initiatives. They can be an important tool to help address gender digital literacy gaps.

There are some good initiatives already being implemented. For instance, the EIF and UNESCAP are partnering to provide such training to women in South Asia.

The programme aims to improve women entrepreneurs’ knowledge, to expand their businesses through exports and participate in value chains using e-commerce platforms.

The role of the Aid for Trade initiative in removing obstacles that women face when trading is another topic that merits much deeper discussion – and which will be brought into sharp focus in the course of the week, during the Global Review.

Of course, there are many more aspects where we could take action. It is great that during this workshop we’ll have a chance to hear directly from some women entrepreneurs about their stories, the challenges that they face and ways to overcome them.

The world is changing at a fantastic pace. There’s no denying that.

I have no doubt that international cooperation has an important role to play in ensuring that the rise of the digital economy continues to be an engine of inclusive economic development.

So let’s keep working to that end. Thank you. I wish you a very productive discussion.