Intergovernmental Group of Experts on E-commerce and the Digital Economy, seventh session

Statement by Rebeca Grynspan, Secretary-General of UN Trade and Development (UNCTAD)

Intergovernmental Group of Experts on E-commerce and the Digital Economy, seventh session

06 mayo 2024

Let me start by congratulating Ambassador Daunivalu and Ambassador Davaasuren for their election of Chair and Vice Chair of this meeting. We are fortunate to be in such good hands. Thank You.

Let me also thank Ambassador Sabri Bachtobji for his very able chairmanship.

Excellency, Ms. Cham Nimul, Minister of Commerce of Cambodia,

Excellency, Mr. Mohamed Abdallahi Louly, Minister of Digital Transition, Innovation and Modernization of Mauritania,

Ms. Shamika Sirimanne, Director of the Division of Technology and Logistics.

Distinguished Delegates and experts,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

This seventh session of the Intergovernmental Group of Experts on E-commerce and the Digital Economy meets under the theme of “Building digital readiness: From assessment to implementation”, a theme whose importance cannot be overstated.

These are, your excellencies, difficult times.

We confront a world where critical tides have begun to retreat. Many here need no reminder of the cascading crises we have gone through – the pandemic, climate change, the cost-of-living crisis, the increase in interest rates that have deepened debt vulnerabilities in so many countries, the rise of war, and its impact on development and on the trade routes that feed and enrich the world.  

The stark reality is that we are not ready for this world. And yet, we must.

Your excellencies,

In today’s world, increasingly to be ready means to be digital. Or to be, as we say in our organization, UN Trade and Development, to be digitally ready. Now, what does this mean? It means many things.

First, being ready means having access. Without the internet, and before that without electricity, we can never be ready. This is why the digital divide, born of circumstance and geography, is one of the starkest inequities of our time. In the past 10 years, 3 billion more people started using the Internet. However, still in 2023, only 27% of people in low-income countries use it. Average bandwidth in least developed countries is only 20% of the global average. As a result, even as digitally delivered services continue to grow while overall trade falters, the share of LDCs in global exports of digitally deliverable services has declined since 2010.

You know we have said that we see weak growth in developing countries. And this weak growth is based on weak investment and weak trade. And when we look at trade itself, what we see is that trade has gone down for the first time in many months last year. In value, trade has gone down and in volume it has been stagnant. But services have gone up. Services are rising in a way that is more resilient. That is the good part. So, services are aligned. It is trade that is very weak.

If we are not ready for digital, countries won’t be able to take advantage of this opportunity to achieve sustainable growth; this is more important than ever, especially because of irregularities in growth in the international economy.

Second, being ready means having skills. Two generations ago, knowing how to read and write was an advantage. Today it continues to be an advantage. But now, we need to know how to navigate the internet, talk with an AI chatbot, and capture and process data. These hard skills are hard enough, but the soft ones are the hardest. I am talking about the skill of thinking critically, of being safe online, of being able to discern fact from fiction in a world awash with information and disinformation.

Third, being ready is about empowerment. It's about going from passive to active, from consumer to creator, from market-taker to market leader. We have been saying in UNCTAD, when we met with ambassadors in New York, at the Digital Compact, that it is not just to access the internet but also to be on the production side of it, not only the consumption side of it.

I remember some years ago when we were talking about the penetration of the Internet in different geographies, that in Latin America, penetration of the Internet was very strong. It was one of the highest in the world, but productivity didn’t go up because digital did not go to the production side. It went only to the consumption side. We need the production side too. Benefits from productivity can grow the economy, so this is important.

It means creating a level playing field for SMEs in the developing world, so they can compete in a market concentrated in a handful of digital titans. A market, however, that is as huge as its potential. In 2021, e-commerce market sales amounted to around 23 trillion dollars, 20% of them international. This is about the size of the US economy.

Fourth, to be ready is to be resilient. The pandemic was perhaps the most expensive lesson we could ever pay for in terms of the value of digital technologies for crisis response. From social safety net payments to classrooms, from telemedicine to remote working, in the digital world, life can and indeed does go on even when everything else goes into the dark.

Finally, to be ready is about values. We are at a historic opportunity, with this year’s Summit of the Future and the Global Digital Compact, to ensure that the digital world reflects our best aspirations as a global community. Digital readiness demands we shape the digital world according to our human values, not that it shapes us according to the whims of the market, the addictiveness of social media apps, or the ease with which it can power over us.

Your excellencies,

UN Trade and Development is at the forefront of helping countries be ready for the digital world. So far, we have worked very hard, alongside our partners, to create over 35 national and regional eTrade Readiness Assessments since 2017, a tool designed to support developing countries in mapping and navigating their digital and e-commerce ecosystems. We are very proud of how we have been supporting developing countries.

eTrade Readiness Assessments are a good start. But let's be honest – assessments alone will not change the world. The world is in trouble not due to a lack of papers or journals or brilliant ideas to solve our problems – what is lacking is political will, economic resources, and the leadership required to want change and persevere until seeing it unto completion. Put simply, we do not face a challenge of design. We face a challenge of implementation. And this is what this session is about.

Before I close, allow me simply to say a couple of things about implementation. I know what it is to be in government. I know what it is to work in a ministry challenged by scarce resources and funds, competing priorities, and the discontinuity caused by operating in crisis mode. And in preparation for this session, many of you have shared some anecdotes of the challenges you have faced in implementing our eTrade readiness assessments.

From this, three key lessons stand out.

The first lesson is the need to establish mechanisms for inter-ministerial coordination and effective interaction with non-governmental stakeholders. A digital revolution will never take place in a silo. Here, let me be very clear. The risk with the lack of coordination is not that change will not take place; trust me, change in the digital arena is unstoppable. The risk is that change will only take place in some areas but not in others. As I always say, the problem with rapid change is that not everything changes at the same speed. This creates lags and tensions, which can create instability and inequality. This is why coordination is key.

Not only coordination, the Global Digital Impact calls precisely for coordination, also within the UN. We had this meeting with the UN Secretary-General to talk about bringing the system into a coordinated platform where we co-create. We also need Science to inform us and we need strong development funds. This is what the Global Digital Compat is about.

Second, is the need for robust monitoring tools capable of tracking progress, enhancing accountability, and evaluating the impact of e-commerce initiatives, over time. Communication, especially the communication of our success, is a key part of mandate delivery. If we do not show our progress, if do not track it, we are vulnerable to being cancelled, or postponed, or downsized. Especially today, we always need to keep a keen eye on how we can and should be perceived.

The third lesson, lastly, is the need to find champions. Change, especially within a bureaucracy, needs champions. We often think of government as ‘faceless’; well, change is never faceless. In my lifetime, I have met many brilliant and inspired policymakers, busy working, busy leading, busy taking part in what is commonly known as state building. Their battles might not have made the news, might not have brought them fame, might not have made it into the history books – but let me tell you, these battles did take place! They had to champion their ideas, fight for them, and never give up. There are many such champions here today. I am eager to hear from you, and for you to hear from each.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I encourage all delegates to make full use of the coming days of deliberations. Share your challenges openly. Celebrate your hard-won victories. Let this be a space for honesty, innovation, and a fierce determination to make 'digital readiness' a reality for all.

The agreed policy recommendations you form here hold immense power. They will shape the work of our Trade and Development Board. They will inform global debates, including the Global Digital Compact, a chance to forge the future we want. Let's make those recommendations bold, actionable, and rooted in the needs of the people we serve.

The road to digital readiness won't be easy. It demands the relentless coordination, constant evaluation, and the unwavering resolve of champions. But remember, the champions are in this room. You are the policymakers, the experts, the leaders who understand the stakes. Change begins with us.

UN Trade and Development stands ready to support you. We'll continue providing the research, the capacity-building, and the spaces for the dialogue needed to translate these plans into tangible impact. Together, we can build a digital world that is human, inclusive, and above all ready for the future.

Now, let's get to work! Thank you.