UNCTAD’s e-commerce week puts spotlight on bridging digital divide

Illustration image. (Credit: Unsplash)

It was not surprising that much of the 2022 e-Commerce Week hosted by the United Nations in Geneva this week took place online.

After more than two years of the Covid-19 pandemic, the event, themed “Data and Digitalization for Development” was hybrid. It highlighted the global effect of the coronavirus on digital transformations.

Hosted by the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), this year's session emphasised data and cross-border data flows looking at their role in economic and social development.

Covid-19 has been the accelerator pedal for e-commerce as home-bound people have turned to digital platforms to shop online.

Maimuna Tarishi, Tanzania's Ambassador to the UN in Geneva, and president of UNCTAD's trade and development board, who opened the event, said: “I know many have been waiting for the past two years that have been characterised by the Covid-19 pandemic and during which we have seen digitalisation accelerate”.

“And as more digital data has been flowing on the Internet, it has reminded us of the inequalities and the digital divide that hampers our ability to derive inclusive and assessed sustainable development gains from digital transformation,” she added.

With more goods and services sold online each year, digitalisation’s significant effect on world trade and its governance came to the fore.

Indeed, e-commerce will figure on the agenda of the World Trade Organization's Ministerial Conference to take place in Geneva from 12 to 15 June.

Coming a long way since its first edition in 2015, UNCTAD’s annual eCommerce Week now is firmly on the calendar as the leading global forum for decision-makers, experts, leaders, and key stakeholders from all backgrounds, including the private sector and civil society.

This year, some 88 participating countries were involved at various levels, even if just listening, during the week with a packed schedule and speakers. Good governance and development, global and regional trade negotiations on e-commerce and what is at stake for development were topics.

Partnering with the private sector

A highlight was an UNCTAD-led eTrade initiative forging a new UN-private sector relationship. On April 25, the International Chamber of Commerce enrolled as UNCTAD's principal private-sector counterpart.

“By partnering with ICC, we will better leverage a global network of businesses and resources that are active on the ground to help us boost our support and assistance to developing countries for greater impact,” said UNCTAD secretary general Rebeca Grynspan.

The relationship will enable regular and strategic engagement of micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) across all sectors as they are all affected by the increased digitalisation in developing and developed countries.

ICC secretary General John Denton said: “We look forward to working as a trusted partner to UNCTAD and governments to tackle key bottlenecks to digital development, driven by our overarching commitment to enable trade as a driver of peace, prosperity and opportunity for all.”

Representing more than 45 million companies in over 100 countries, ICC is the world's biggest business organisation. The collaboration will link the private-sector and ensure effective interaction between global businesses and eTrade for all.

eTrade for all

The eTrade for all initiative was launched in 2016 with 14 partners to make e-commerce and the digital economy more inclusive.

UNCTAD says that global share of online retail sales climbed from 16 per cent in 2019 to 19 per cent in 2020, persisting in 2021.

Yet, while digitalisation offers immense potential, it also poses challenges to people and businesses, and not everyone has harnessed the potential of digital opportunities.

Only 27 per cent of people in the least developed countries (LDCs) use the Internet. And while up to eight in 10 Internet users shop online in developed countries, that figure is less than one in 10 in most LDCs.

Many small businesses in developing countries cannot go online due to digital ecosystem weaknesses in their countries.

E-commerce also poses other issues. Government ministers, CEOs, heads of UN agencies, and renowned thought-leaders debated some of these throughout the week, including that digitalisation is “not ecologically neutral”.

Gerry McGovern, author of the book World Wide Waste, asked if participants knew every time they download an email, they contribute to global warming. Every tweet, search, or check on a web page creates pollution.

He warned that digital is physical and not green, and while digitalisation has many economic benefits, its environmental effect is often overlooked.

“We are killing the planet through the use of technology,” said McGovern, citing the 120 trillion spam emails sent every year, creating 36 million tonnes of CO2 emissions.

About 3.6 billion trees would need to be planted every year to offset the pollution.