UNCTAD eWeek 2023: Unveiling the Potential of a Connected Tomorrow (Day-1)

CUTS Daily Bulletin #1, December 4-2023 


In the opening session of the United Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) eWeek, the challenges facing developing countries in the wake of worsening climate change were highlighted as necessitating factors for innovation, sharing of scalable good practices and the need for taking actionable steps. Contributors in this session made calls to shape the future of the digital economy. The growth of the digital economy and AI continues to unleash great potential but only 15 per cent of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will be achieved by 2030.

It was noted that data access and infrastructure are not yet meeting growing needs. This necessitates an urgent call to action. The digital economy must be a bridge, not an obstacle. However, there is a need to reduce carbon footprint and safeguard data confidentiality. Furthermore, it was noted that the regulatory framework must safeguard the security of digital economy users.

The role of UNCTAD in promoting sustainable development on several fronts was discussed. One of these roles included aligning policies with the needs of participating member countries. Several takeaways from this session were as follows:

  • Adapt policies and strategies to the digital economy;
  • Control the dominance of the market and knowledge by a few players;
  • Utilise digitisation as the key to achieving the Millennium Development Goals;
  • Ensure a practical, job-creating digitised economy;
  • Update tools, instruments and frameworks to meet future challenges;
  • Shape the world for the digital economy, ensuring AI is a public resource;
  • Implement bottom-up approaches;
  • Preserve and make knowledge publicly useful; and
  • Align AI with SDGs.

As noted in the discussion, the risks people face in the digital economy should be addressed through practical activities. Digitisation should be human-centric. It was noted that Africa has embraced technology and that digital tools do not have to be the same. The challenges facing women and young people are enormous where the digital divide and poor access to finance are the major challenges. Furthermore, it was suggested that standards be made fair to all in addition to addressing the challenge of legislation and infrastructure.

On the panel were: Isabelle Kumar, Rebeca Grynspan, Amina Mohammed, Birame Sock, H.E Febrian A. Ruddyard, Benedikt Wechsler,  Jovan Kurbalija.
– Reporting by Peter Maundu

Fast-tracking a Digital Economy Future in Developing Countries

UNCTAD’s capacity-building work on e-commerce and the digital economy shows that many developing countries face challenges in digital policymaking due to limited readiness among policymakers and insufficient data and international support. UNCTAD’s eTrade Readiness Assessments’ Implementation Review 2023 highlights major achievements and efforts undertaken by developing countries, especially least-developed countries, as well as the multifaceted challenges lying ahead for them to be able to engage in and benefit from e-commerce and the digital economy.

Key factors include strong political leadership, governance and cooperation mechanisms, implementation arrangements, policy coordination, and development partner synergies in fast-tracking the digital future of developing economies. These are central elements for governments to harness the benefits from the implementation of integrated and inclusive e-commerce policies to accelerate economic growth and job creation.

Several developing countries and regions have benefitted from UNCTAD’s eTrade Readiness support and similar support from other development partners, including eTrade for all partners in the past five years. Still, additional capacity-building development solutions are essential to support these countries’ understanding of the many complex issues around e-commerce, including those discussed within global and regional fora. This session offered an opportunity to learn from developing country ministers, development partners and the private sector on current challenges, good practices based on recent work and lessons learned from the third UNCTAD Implementation Review.

The average share of people shopping online in developed economies is about 10 times higher than in Least Developed Countries (LDCs). Only one-third of people in LDCs use the internet partly due to high connectivity costs. Less than half of the population has access to 4G networks that can more efficiently support digital trade. The share of LDCs in global exports of digitally offered services has declined since 2010 along with their total share in services trade.

Though the digital economy offers unparalleled opportunities but also poses formidable challenges, particularly for developing countries. Developing countries encounter several hurdles to digital transformation. According to the 3rd Implementation Review, the main hurdles include limited policymaker readiness, lack of relevant data and statistics, and challenges related to policy coordination and governance. UNCTAD has been supporting developing countries in accessing their digital capabilities and using that knowledge to design and implement strategies to expand digital trade and e-commerce. Furthermore, capacity building is the key to understanding and addressing the complex facets of e-commerce and digital trade. 

UNCTAD has developed an e-trade development tracker, a new online tool, to enable countries to better coordinate and monitor the digital implementation process. 

Mauritania has developed a National Digital Transformation agenda that runs from 2022-25 providing the foundations for the development of e-commerce. However, though digital transformation is put at the forefront of Mauritania, the country faces numerous challenges. While 44 per cent of the transactions are done through e-wallets, their usage is limited only to the cities.

Secondly, people find it difficult to trust e-commerce and online platforms due to security concerns. Logistics and infrastructure need to be more developed in the country to support online services. It was highlighted that the country requires more simplified, seamless and harmonised regulatory taxes around e-commerce and its activity for the smooth functioning of the platforms. The country also faces a digital literacy gap and fragmented markets that hinder the growth and development of e-commerce platforms.

Additionally, Cambodia has witnessed a rapid growth of e-commerce in the last five years, especially during the pandemic. This led to Cambodia formulating some policies and initiatives for the development of e-commerce. These initiatives include an e-commerce strategy to analyse the development of the sector and a digital economy and society policy framework for 2021-35. Cambodia has also enforced certain laws for the protection of consumer rights and data. 

The role of the UN Office of Legal Affairs,  United Nations Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL) is to propose model laws and conventions that allow for mutual recognition of transactions across borders. A country that has enacted its e-commerce laws based on UNCITRAL’s model law is accepted by other countries as well. Like the electronic signatures, and electronic communications convention, UNCITRAL has developed a model law on electronic transferable records, also known as paperless trade. Another initiative of UNCITRAL is on digital identity and trust services. UNCITRAL recognises the identity granted by other platforms like eBay, Amazon and Facebook. This promotes mutual recognition, interoperability and seamless trade among countries.

The session highlighted the importance of engagement of private sectors, business owners, young technologists, policymakers and relevant stakeholders for the smooth implementation of e-commerce and online platforms. 

On the panel were: Pedro Manuel Moreno, Deputy Secretary-General,  UNCTAD; H.E. Mohamed Abdallahi Louly, Minister,  Ministry of Digital Transition, Innovation and Modernization of Administration, Mauritania; H.E. Sithembiso G. G. Nyoni, Minister of Industry and Commerce,  Ministry of Industry and Commerce, Zimbabwe; H.E. Massandjé Toure-Litse, Commissioner for Economic Affairs & Agriculture,  ECOWAS Commission; H.E. Prasith Suon, Ambassador & Permanent Representative,  Permanent Mission of the Kingdom of Cambodia to the WTO and other International Organisations in Geneva; H.E. Marchel Gerrmann, Ambassador for Business and Development, Director Sustainable Economic Development Department,  Ministry of Foreign Affairs, The Netherlands; Anna Joubin Bret, Secretary and Director of the International Trade Law Division, UNCITRAL; Lennise Ng, Co-founder and CEO & eTrade for Women Advocate, Borong (formerly known as Dropee), Malaysia; and Isabelle Kumar, Former News Anchor,  Euronews.

– Reporting by Deepmala Ghosh

E-Commerce and Sustainability: An Overlooked Nexus

The session was organised by eTrade for All, the Brazilian Centre for International Relations (CEBRI) and CUTS International Geneva. The panellists noted that developing countries need to go digital to achieve their development goals. It was noted that 95 per cent of businesses in developing countries are micro-small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) and that their role and contributions cannot be ignored. The panellists noted that the carbon footprint of the digital economy cannot be ignored as the use of AI is increasing rapidly on a global scale.

E-commerce is energy-intensive, so sustainability must include environmental and development aspects. While the exchange of goods and services is necessary, the issues of e-commerce, trade and the environment have not been well considered, especially as they are discussed in silos.

Several reasons were put forward to explain the importance of e-commerce. One is that sustainable development is a priority. Another is that e-commerce continues to grow increasing the volumes of goods delivered every day.  During their discussion, the panellists noted that people should be concerned about e-commerce, particularly those in developing countries and LDCs, for several reasons.

Firstly, there is a need for optimisation of the resources. Developing better infrastructures and deployment of greener technologies are necessary to manage the future of the digital economy. It was noted that there was a need to think beyond the environment. In this case, issues such as poor working conditions in developing countries need to be addressed. The need to deepen and broaden the dialogue on e-commerce, the environment and sustainable development was also discussed. A proposal was made to create a task force to help in filling the data and information gaps in developing countries. It was noted that coercive rules may not produce the best results.

In his presentation, Pradeep S Mehta, Secretary General of CUTS International, noted that the developmental dimension of sustainability is being ignored. The potential of e-commerce to create jobs and strengthen social cohesion is slowly being eroded. He warned against creating regulations that could kill innovation. He insisted that e-commerce must be considered as a whole and not just from an environmental point of view. Despite the disadvantages associated with e-commerce, it is imperative not to overlook its advantages rather, these should be recognised and established as essential pillars.

On the panel were Victor do Prado, Senior Fellow at Brazilian Centre for Interlatio al Relations; Yasmin Ismail, Programme Officer, CUTS International, Geneva: Wei Guo Tang, First Secretary (Economics) at Singapore; H.E. Matthew Wilson, Ambassador at Barbados, and Valerie Picard, Head of Trade at International Chamber of Commerce.

– Reporting by Peter Maundu

Regional Cooperation for Safer Online Consumer Markets (UNCTAD)

People across the globe who are buying things online from other countries can sometimes face unfair tricks from sellers. Two big challenges requiring global teamwork are online shopping and making sure products are safe. When things are bought from distant places, safety becomes an international worry. Different countries are working together in national and international regions to make online shopping safer for everyone.

The session highlighted cross-border e-commerce, recognising that it is a crucial factor in fostering a safe and reliable online consumer market. For this, the creation of regional cooperation on online consumer product safety is the need of the hour. This cooperative approach is seen as a catalyst for international cooperation in matters of product safety, primarily highlighting the positive aspects of product safety at the national level and the potential benefits of sharing these at the regional level. A solid legal framework, not only at the national level but also at the regional level must be implemented which is essential for effective consumer protection.

The importance of harnessing technology is a significant factor in ensuring product safety. The e-surveillance crawler at the European Commission demonstrates the potential of technology in monitoring and enforcing product safety standards.

The session highlights international cooperation is deemed essential in enhancing consumer safety while minimising trade barriers. Implementing appropriate policies that promote both trade and safe consumer products can boost consumer confidence. This, in turn, can lead to more favourable conditions for sustainable economic development. The role of regional initiatives also improves online consumer market safety. Regional trade agreements worldwide are increasingly considering cooperation in consumer protection.

In-depth research conducted by UNCTAD in 2020 identified specific initiatives in various continents, including Africa, the Americas, Southeast Asia, and Europe. This highlights the concerted efforts being made at a regional level to address the challenges associated with unsafe products and the lack of information surrounding cross-border products and services.

The session also reflected the steps taken by the European Union to protect consumers from dangerous products sold online. Two key initiatives in this regard are the Digital Services Act and the General Product Safety Regulation (GPSR). The Digital Services Act, which came into force last year, applies common rules to all digital companies offering their services in the EU. This ensures that consumers are protected regardless of the platform they use to purchase products. Under the GPSR, all products placed on the market must be safe, and there must be a responsible person who can be contacted in case of safety concerns. This regulation aims to ensure that consumers can have confidence in the safety of the products they purchase online.

The panellists emphasised the emphasis on international cooperation, information sharing, and collaboration among organisations and authorities are highly encouraged for proactive measures to safeguard consumers in online markets through strict regulations and inter-regional cooperation. Enhancing consumer safety beyond legal obligations is encouraged through initiatives like the product safety pledge. Coordinated actions, enforcement, and regional cooperation contribute to effective market surveillance and product safety.

On the panel were: Khalid Al-Siyabi, Market Regulation and Market Monitoring Manager at Oman Consumer Protection Authority; Isabelle Pérignon, Director for Consumers at DG Justice and Consumers, European Commission; Teresa Moreira, Head of Competition and Consumer Policies at UNCTAD; Willard Mwemba, CEO at COMESA Competition Commission; Arnau Izaguerri, Legal Officer at Competition and Consumer Policies Branch

Turbocharging Digital Transformation in Emerging Markets

Unleashing the Power of AI in Agritech

The session was organised by the International Trade Centre (ITC) and Wageningen University & Research. The week-long event convenes in a global context. Day one of the session focussed on how AI revolutionises agriculture by empowering farmers with advanced data analytics, predictive modelling, and automation. It enhances operational efficiency, resource allocation, pest management, and planting strategies while reducing the sector’s carbon footprint. However, farmers in emerging markets face challenges like limited access, digital literacy, high costs, infrastructure issues, and data concerns.

The session started with how AgriTech solutions play a crucial role in efficiently managing limited agricultural resources, such as water, fertilisers, and pesticides. By leveraging sensors and data analytics, farmers can precisely determine the optimal quantity of resources required, reducing waste and minimising environmental impact. It was pointed out that the agricultural sector faces various risks, including adverse weather conditions, pest outbreaks, and market volatility.

AgriTech solutions offer early warnings, disease and pest detection, and real-time weather information, enabling farmers to make informed decisions and implement preventive measures. It can boost productivity, enhance farmers’ livelihoods, decrease food waste, and promote sustainable agricultural practices, aligning with the nation’s objectives of achieving food security and agricultural sustainability. The panellists deliberated upon how generative AI, a subset of artificial intelligence involving machines creating novel content, holds promise for revolutionising the AgriTech sector and preparing it for the future.

Further, how technology will play a crucial role in the kind of services delivered to the farmers, for example, advisory services in the form of fertilisers and chemicals to use which is generally based on traditional knowledge. Bringing AI will help farmers in this area. The need for a robust ecosystem and good technology combined with data will result in effective farming techniques. The need for an algorithm to recognise crops will help in increasing productivity with the help of AI. A business model which deals with monetisation of services and affording good technology and making it available for the farmers is important.

The example of Mexico was discussed whereby the government has allowed agro-industrial companies to take advantage of technology to generate higher yields on their crops, reduce the use of fertilisers and monitor, control and manage their crops with greater efficiency and quality.  It was discussed that the industry’s significant challenge lies in making technology accessible to all producers. The cost of a satellite for monitoring truck journeys can be a lot covering installation, steering wheel, antenna, and staff training. It was highlighted that Mexican agricultural products, spanning avocado, tomato, blackberry, green chilli, raspberry, lemon, beef, and octopus, are consumed in 164 countries, presenting a potential market of 1,353 million people, as highlighted by Elizabetta Demartis.

In the end, the panellists made recommendations and suggestions for bringing in AgriTech. Susanne Emonet highlighted the importance of cross-organisational collaboration whereas Benjamin Kwasi Addom focussed on the need for combining AI with the human workforce since AI is only a  tool to enhance efficiency.

On the panel were: Benjamin Kwasi Addom, Adviser, Agriculture & Fisheries Trade Policy at Commonwealth Secretariat (CS); Elisabetta Demartis, Digital for Development Expert | Agritech and Entrepreneurship at Jengalab; J Sjaak Wolfert, Senior Scientist/Theme Ambassador Digital Innovation in Agri-Food at Wageningen University & Research; Martin Labbe, Tech Sector Development Coordinator at International Trade Centre; Susanne Emonet, CEO at Farmer Connect; and Hamza Arab, Intern at International Trade Centre
– Reporting by Arima Pankaj

How can Sandboxes Spur Responsible Data-Sharing Across Borders?

At a time of increasing data localisation measures, digital protectionism and fragmentation, agile and rights-respecting approaches to data-sharing are needed more than ever. This session discussed how to measure and leverage creative solutions within sandboxes for data, especially in developing countries along with how to design effective sandboxes for data that foster trust and benefit all.

In the session, it was discussed that the pandemic has underscored the significance of cross-border collaboration and cooperation. However, it has also heightened risks and mistrust, often stemming from a lack of clear and accurate understanding of the data. A regulatory sandbox proves valuable in iterating policies and facilitating stakeholder engagement, contributing to risk management in a controlled environment. Utilising this approach, we can foster global collaboration on technical and policy solutions to address the multidimensional and cross-border challenges of data governance.

Panellists highlighted the growing concerns about national security that have compelled countries to adopt a more protectionist approach to cross-border data flow and governance, potentially leading to adverse consequences. In this context, a sandbox is a valuable tool for exploring and developing effective regulatory mechanisms. It can assist in minimising regulatory uncertainty and enhancing collaboration among different stakeholders by facilitating dialogue and building consensus.

One panellist emphasised that a one-size-fits-all approach can stifle the growth of cryptocurrencies and crypto trade. The policy should be well-equipped to address advancements in digital financial services. A sandbox approach can be instrumental in minimising potential harms and developing optimal regulatory frameworks.

Transparency is crucial for building trust, and it can be achieved through engaging a diverse set of stakeholders, including civil society, government, academia, and technologists. This engagement reinforces responsible data-sharing practices. Implementing a regulatory sandbox approach enables the assessment of market entry and market costs, thereby reducing innovation expenses and ultimately benefiting consumers.

On the panel were: Linda Bonyo Founding Director, CEO,  Africa Law Tech; Uyoyo Edosio Principal ICT4D Expert,  African Development Bank (AFDB); Lorrayne Porciuncula Executive Director,  Datasphere Initiative; Timea Suto Global Policy Lead Digital Economy,  International Chamber of Commerce (ICC); Melody Musoni Digital Economy and Governance Policy Officer,  ECDPM; and Lucas Costa dos Anjos Postdoctoral Researcher,  Sciences Po.
– Reporting by Asheef Iqubbal

Connecting The Unconnected: Towards a More Inclusive Digital Economy

Globally,  a staggering 2.7 billion individuals remain devoid of Internet access. As the interconnected sphere revels in the marvels of advanced technologies facilitated by the Internet — ranging from artificial intelligence to the metaverse — the unconnected populace finds itself excluded from daily socio-economic prospects. 

This session, organised by eTrade for all, ISOC, AheriNet Community Networks (Kenya) and Rhizomatica Community Networks (Mexico) discussed the success stories and learnings from communities across the world. The panel emphasised the vital role of community networks in bridging the digital divide, promoting an inclusive, community-centric approach while acknowledging challenges tied to telecom infrastructure deficits and emphasising the necessity for sustainable and innovative models.

At present, communities are embarking on endeavours within the expansive global market, actively founding their digital enterprises. The panellists underscored the importance of laying the groundwork for community networks. This encompasses comprehensive initiatives, such as training communities to install antennas, construct their towers, and facilitate the utilisation of unlicensed spectrum resources.

The panellists also underlined the pivotal significance of acquiring new skills and unleashing the untapped potential of the youth. It is imperative to emphasise that community members access the internet not merely as consumers but as creators, actively engaged in crafting digital content. This creative process should be characterised by inclusivity, interactivity, and a cohesive force that unites diverse communities.

The panel highlighted community-based, non-profit initiatives in India and Mexico. In India, notable instances include the Prime Minister Wi-Fi Access Network Interface (PM WANI) Scheme and community networks in Assam’s tea gardens. These initiatives not only facilitate digital access and banking services but also contribute to preserving cultural heritage, language, and food habits. The panel underscored the importance of networks managed by civil society organisations in tribal regions for connecting indigenous communities.

In Mexico, the model involves revenue-sharing, bolstering local communication systems, operating mobile networks and the internet as a shared resource. It extends coverage to underserved areas, offers affordable services for indigenous and rural communities, and stimulates local economies. This includes generating income, fostering regional trade, encouraging savings, and establishing local cooperatives. The initiative also promotes access to, production, and dissemination of local content, complemented by digital literacy and inclusion strategies, ultimately aiming to support community projects and enhance community life.

On the panel were: Marian Pletosu, Empowerment Programme Advisor at Internet Society, (moderator); Osama Manzar, Founder & Director of Digital Empowerment Foundation in India; Kgopotso Magoro, Founder, Mamaila Community Network in South Africa; and Carlos Francisco Baca Feldman, General Coordinator at Techio Comunitario and Training Coordinator in Rhizomatica, Mexico.
– Reporting by Krishaank Jugiani 

Connecting Women at the Margins: Smart Partnerships Accelerating Inclusion in the Digital Economy

This session was organised by eTrade for all, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the International Trade Centre (ITC), Enhanced Integrated Framework (EIF) and GSMA. Speakers discussed the challenges facing women and girls in the digital economy. They noted that women are less likely to own a mobile phone, which digitally and financially excludes them. Furthermore, even those who own a mobile phone do not have access to the internet. Panellists noted that in cases where cash transactions are preferred to digital transactions, women entrepreneurs are not motivated to own a mobile phone.

All participants insisted that women need smartphones with internet access to run their businesses smoothly. The panellists noted that it has become difficult in today’s world for anyone to function without a mobile phone with a good internet connection. However, some women choose not to have a mobile phone for safety reasons.

The panellists spoke of the need to empower girls and women through partnerships. It is necessary to involve more women in the decision-making process, as this is one of the ways of reducing the digital divide between men and women. It is also imperative to equip women with digital skills. Training women in digital marketing has improved their lives and livelihoods since women do not have the same opportunities for training and skills development as men. Their decision-making power is limited.

Participants cited examples of successful collaboration between organisations, local leaders and family members that have produced good results in Kenya, Zambia and Haiti in terms of women’s digital empowerment. Calls were made to create a better business environment for refugees, including issuing them with identity documents that would allow them to trade freely. It was revealed that some businesswomen face a major challenge: lack of access to the market and digital skills.

In attendance were Nyawa Naomi, CEO at Namayo Jewellery, Zambia; Boru Hilkano, Refugees Empowerment through Market Initiatives (REMI) at International Trade Centre; Francis Cubahiro, Director of Infrastructure and ICTs, Ministry of Communication, ICT and Medias at Burundi EQUALS Focal Point; Aichatoun Toure, Community Leader, founder and CEO at Codesign, Mali; Sylvia Poll, Head of Digital Society at International Telecommunication Union and Pipa McDougall, Senior Advocacy Manager, Connected Women at GSMA.
– Reporting by Peter Maundu