7 December 2021
Event Charts Path to Greater Inclusiveness in E-commerce Discussions
Photo credit: Rodion Kutsaev/Unsplash
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E-commerce discussions at the WTO are taking place under one of several JSIs launched at the Eleventh Ministerial Conference in 2017 by groups of WTO members.

Event participants suggested ways to address the constraints faced by developing countries and LDCs to effectively participate in these negotiations.

Diplo Foundation, the International Trade Centre (ITC), and CUTS International, Geneva, convened an online event to explore ways to enhance the participation of developing and least developed countries (LDCs) in World Trade Organization (WTO) trade discussions and negotiations on electronic commerce (e-commerce).

The session titled, ‘Promoting Inclusiveness in E-commerce Negotiations Through Capacity Building,’ took place as part of the virtual Trade and Sustainability Hub, hosted by the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) from 1-3 December 2021.

E-commerce discussions at the WTO are taking place under one of several “Joint Statement Initiatives” (JSIs) launched at the WTO’s Eleventh Ministerial Conference (MC11) in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in December 2017, by groups of WTO members, with other initiatives covering topics such as investment facilitation for development (IFD), services domestic regulation, and micro-, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs). A Joint Declaration on Trade and Women’s Economic Empowerment was also launched on that occasion. 

Marilia Maciel, Diplo Foundation, moderated the discussion. She highlighted a digital commerce course, offered by Diplo Foundation and partners, which, for five years, has built the capacity of developing countries and LDCs to participate in e-commerce negotiations.

Nicholas Frank, Australian National University, presented a study mapping the evolution of global e-commerce governance based on an analysis of membership trends in trade agreements containing e-commerce provisions. He said the global e-commerce network is polycentric, with several interconnected hubs, and its regionalism and fragmentation are waning. Noting that the network is dominated by high- and middle-income economies, Frank identified Asia-Pacific and the EU as two central clusters, with the US and China currently playing a peripheral role.

Yasmin Ismail, CUTS International, Geneva, indicated that only four LDCs are currently participating in the JSI on e-commerce. She said many members from low-income countries, Africa, and the Middle East are missing from these negotiations due to capacity and resource constraints.

Ismail highlighted the complexity of the talks, with more than 50 sub-themes, of which only around 20 have been touched upon and only six reached a “clean text.” As negotiations move to more challenging topics, she said, finding compromise will become increasingly difficult. At the same time, she warned, many delegations from developing countries and LDCs have not had the opportunity to choose what is best for their development and elaborate policy positions. Among capacity constraints, she cited: small delegation size, where one person is often in charge of all trade issues; the lack of combined expertise on a range of technical and policy issues; and challenges reaching alignment with capitals.

Quan Zhao, International Trade Centre, pointed to a gap between perceived importance of the topic and the level of developing country participation in rules-making processes. He said technical, business, and policy knowledge would help developing countries and LDCs contribute proposals to the JSI process and analyze existing ones. Among factors affecting effective participation, he mentioned: human resources constraints; limited capacity of agencies to support negotiations; and the lack of effective coordination mechanisms in capitals. Zhao also urged private sector organizations to channel their views to policymakers.

Africa Kiiza, Hamburg University, outlined efforts to introduce e-commerce in the second phase of African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) negotiations, and stressed the importance of synchronizing “what is happening in the WTO” and AfCFTA. Kiiza said African countries need support with:

  • understanding the “contestations” of e-commerce, such as data governance and big data;
  • promoting competitiveness of e-commerce products;
  • digital trade taxation; and
  • tackling the digital divide, where 75% of Africa is offline, and broadband penetration is at just 4%.

Speaking as a practitioner working for a major e-commerce provider, Jacob Ninan, Kottackal Business Solutions, offered some observations from the field. He identified four “foundational pillars” of e-commerce: the people; the platform; a policy framework; and the planet. At the local level, Ninan pointed to the need to enable manufacturing for e-commerce, leverage access to data, and provide access to the digital ecosystem to MSMEs. He said countries need to develop robust regulatory mechanisms and policies to ensure consumer protection and maintain a level playing field.

In ensuing discussion, participants addressed, among other issues, proposals submitted to the JSI on providing capacity-building and technical assistance, and the legal shape of the JSI outcome.

The Trade and Sustainability Hub was timed to coincide with the WTO Twelfth Ministerial Conference, which has been postponed indefinitely due to COVID-19-related travel restrictions. [IISD Trade and Sustainability Hub] [SDG Knowledge Hub Sources]

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