What is at stake for developing countries in trade negotiations on e-commerce?

The case of the joint statement initiative

Digitalization has greatly affected the world of trade in the past two decades with more and more goods and services being sold online. Like in previous technological revolutions, the benefits will be immense, but they will not materialize through a smooth, cost-free process. The net outcome will depend on policies undertaken at both national and international levels to build the capabilities needed for countries to take advantage of these transformations.

The current COVID-19 pandemic has further accentuated the shift towards electronic commerce as people and businesses have gone online to cope with various lockdown measures and travel restrictions. The crisis has also shed light on the significant digital divides that characterize the world, both between and within countries, raising concerns that the digital shift will result in widening divides and inequalities.

Governments are giving increasing attention to the treatment of electronic commerce in various trade agreements. Given that countries are at very different stages of e-trade readiness and give different priority to various trade policy objectives, their responses to the evolving landscape vary considerably.

A significant number of members of the World Trade Organization (WTO) have chosen to engage in the Joint Statement Initiative (JSI) negotiations on electronic commerce, while many developing countries have chosen not to, preferring to first build their regulatory and institutional capacities and safeguard their policy space to pursue development objectives in this fast-evolving area.

Whether developing countries are party to these negotiations or not, the outcome will have implications for the governance of various dimensions of e-commerce and for the multilateral trading system as a whole. There is therefore a need for developing a better understanding of the possible implications of the ongoing e-commerce negotiations and binding commitments that may result therefrom.

This report aims to provide evidence that can help the developing world acquire better understanding on the implication of the ongoing JSI negotiations in the WTO to their development prospect. By focusing on the development implications of aspects that may be covered in a possible negotiation outcome, it seeks to offer valuable inputs that can help countries assess various options for harnessing e-commerce for sustainable development.