E-Commerce and the Digital Economy

Middle East and North Africa Trade Forum: WTO Work Programme on Electronic Commerce

At this meeting, delegates from Middle East and North African missions to the WTO discussed developments under the Work Programme on Electronic Commerce 2017 (WPEC) and efforts for its reinvigoration. In particular, consideration was given to recent develompents under relevant WTO regular bodies, as well as the two draft ministerial decisions on the subject put forward by some members ahead of the 12th WTO ministerial conference.

Yasmin Ismail, Programme Officer at CUTS and co-author of the publication, gave a presentation summarising its findings, which consisted of two elements: i) an overview of the level of activity, proposals and discussions in the WTO bodies to reinvigorate the Work Programme on Electronic Commerce as per the mandate of the ministerial decision of December 13, 2017 (WT/L/1032) and the General Council Decision adopted on December 10, 2019 (WT/L/1079), and ii) mapping of the key issues and the interests of developing countries and LDCs, discussed under the programme.

Based on the published Note, the presentation highlighted that the Council on Trade in Services (CTS), unlike other Bodies, had the Work Programme on Electronic Commerce as a standing agenda item and witnessed a significantly higher level of activity with four submissions, including from developing and developed countries. Members’ submissions to the CTS stimulated engagement and sharing of national experiences among the Members, particularly ones that tackled data flows (S/C/W/382) and the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on businesses and consumers (JOB/SERV/296/Rev.4). It was also noted that In the Council on Trade in Goods (CTG), the discussions focused on revenue losses due to the rise of digital products and the high costs of small parcels for developing countries and LDCs.

As for the Committee on Trade and Development, the Work Programme on Electronic Commerce had a dedicated agenda item in ten out of its 12 meetings post-MC11; however, Members’ engagement and discussions were limited. A recent submission by India and South Africa to the CTD on “Global Electronic Commerce for Inclusive Development” (WT/COMTD/W/264) proposed guiding questions for Members to address and is expected to generate more discussions in future CTD meetings. On the other hand, the Council for TRIPS continued to be the WTO body to address WPEC the least among the four. Only four out of 16 of the Council’s meetings had WPEC on the agenda. A submission by South Africa (IP/C/W/665) suggested guiding questions to address the issue of Technology Transfer. It broke the Council’s silence and is expected to generate more discussions in future meetings.

A mapping of key issues discussed in the four WPEC councils was presented. It showed that development issues, represented in the digital divide, capacity building, technology transfer and small and medium enterprises, were common issues in the discussions of the four bodies. Covid-19 impacts, the digital divide and data, were the most discussed topics. It was highlighted that developing Members’ and LDCs continued to request dedicating the Work Programme on Electronic Commerce as a standing agenda item in the various WTO bodies. Finally, in the run-up to the MC12, the presentation pointed to two draft ministerial decisions WT/GC/W/831/Rev.5 and WT/GC/W/838/Rev.2 under consideration. The former is co-sponsored by a large group of developed and developing countries and uses similar language to previous Ministerial decisions with no mention of ‘reinvigoration’ of the Work Programme. The latter is co-sponsored by India, Indonesia and South Africa and emphasises ‘reinvigorating the Work Programme and the inclusion of ‘development-related issues under it` but does not mention the moratorium.

The floor was then opened for discussions and feedback. Delegates thanked Ismail and Mwangi for an elaborative Note and comprehensive publication and that they found it quite useful for their preparations for MC12. They also thanked Ismail for the presentation, highlighted observations, and pointed out their expectations from the Work Programme on Electronic Commerce post-MC11, including more submissions and intense discussions to offer solutions and address the developing countries’ and LDCs` concerns and challenges that were not met. They indicated that their priority is to build their national e-commerce ecosystems by adopting the necessary regulations and enhancing their infrastructures. They should approach the development partners for the needed assistance for the purpose. Hence, it is important for the Work Programme to continue and ensure it addresses their challenges and concerns and supports their national interests.

Other points made by the delegates included:

  • They recognise the importance of e-commerce as well as the opportunities it offers. Yet, they face a number of challenges related to both the hard and soft infrastructure as well as financing and skills etc which they have pointed out for redress through the work programme.
  • There seem to be different objectives of WTO Members. Those who are far advanced are aiming for rules whereas countries like LDCs, who are behind are looking for time and support to catch up.
  • It will be good to have e-commerce as a standing agenda item on all the four bodies, and make the WPEC the main vehicle in the WTO to discuss e-commerce. It will be even more important to gain the engagement of developed countries in the MPEC discussions which is not always the case.
  • Revenue loss due to the moratorium on electronic transmissions is the main concern for many developing countries and LDCs.
  • It was also mentioned that the JSI process is moving towards the development of rules and developing countries should not ignore it.

Rashid S. Kaukab concluded the meeting by suggesting a coordinated approach between developing Members and LDCs for putting forward more submissions as well as questions to the submissions by developed countries that reveal their concerns in the four WTO bodies working on WPEC and persuade the developed countries to engage. He thanked the delegates for their participation and positive feedback and expressed his appreciation for their continued collaboration. He further stated that CUTS Geneva staff would remain in touch with them for future Trade Negotiator’s Forum informal meetings.