E-Commerce and the Digital Economy

Promoting inclusive data policy through capacity building

This session organised by DiploFoundation, the International Trade Centre and CUTS International, Geneva reflected on ways to build the capacities of developing country players in policy discussions on data flows. The three organisations have been partnering for several years on delivering a digital commerce online course to geneva delegates and capital-based policymakers.

The moderator started with introductory remarks on how data is becoming paramount for negotiators, not only because it is a driver of innovation, but also because it is key to digital industrialisation. It was highlighted that in recent years, specific provisions for data and data flows have made their way into Regional Trade Agreements (RTAs), which poses certain challenges to developing countries with limited capacities to identify their interests in data-related negotiations.

Panelists also discussed the capacity challenges faced by trade negotiators from developing countries, partly rooted in digital divide and structural inequalities between countries. It was noted that such digital divide could exist at different levels. The first level is connectivity (i.e. “access to access”), as exemplified by Africa where about 70 per cent of the population still remains offline. Besides connectivity, inequalities in accessing knowledge represent another level of divide. When it comes to data and data flows, a third level of digital divide is unequal “access to opportunities” in owning and leveraging data. That is, firms with data advantage have an upper hand when it comes to decrypting and satisfying their consumers, giving them a competitive edge in the market. Hence, issues governing the flow, use and protection of data have attracted increasing interest in regional and global negotiations.

At the same time, 52 per cent of Least Developed Countries (LDCs) still lack national legislation on data protection (43 per cent in the Asia Pacific, and 63 per cent of small island developing countries). According to speakers, such policy gaps may underpin capacity gaps in these countries, as policy formulation processes help build understanding of national interests, opportunities and needs. In fact, it was noted that among the 38 developing countries participating in negotiations under the e-commerce Joint Statement Initiative- only two or three had submitted proposals or were actively participating. This is suggestive of their limited capacities to engage in e-commerce and data-related negotiations.

The discussions also stressed on the importance of conducting country-specific analysis to identify the needs of small businesses, so as to effectively cater to them in negotiations as well as targeted capacity-building activities. According to a panelist, data-related debates should consider how to build local productivity and data capability in order to help firms move into higher-level segments of digital services value chains. Finally, it was emphasised that capacity building activities provided to trade negotiators and policy-makers on e-commerce and data issues need to be holistic, targeted and objective, with overall sustainability in mind.

On the panel were Rashid S. Kaukab, Executive Director, CUTS International, Geneva; Anita Gurumurthy, Executive Director, IT for Change; Quan Zhao, Trade Policy Officer, International Trade Centre; and Alison Gillwald, Executive Director, Research ICT Africa/the University of Cape Town. The session was moderated by Marilia Maciel, Head of digital commerce and internet policy, Diplo Foundation.

Reporting by Yasmin Ismail