Sixth session of the IGE on E-commerce and the Digital Economy: How to Make Data Work for the Agenda 2030

Statement by Rebeca Grynspan, Secretary-General of UNCTAD

Sixth session of the IGE on E-commerce and the Digital Economy: How to Make Data Work for the Agenda 2030

10 May 2023

Your Excellency, Sabri Bachtobji, Ambassador of Tunisia and Chair of this Intergovernmental Group of Experts,

Your Excellency, Kemvichet Long, Ambassador of Cambodia and Vice-Chair-cum-Rapporteur,

Your Excellency, Febrian Ruddyard, Ambassador of Indonesia,

Your Excellency, Ambassador Amandeep Singh Gill, Secretary General’s Envoy on Technology,

Shamika Sirimanne, Director of Digital Technology and Logistics at UNCTAD,


Distinguished Delegates,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Welcome to UNCTAD. This Group of Experts offers a unique platform for member States and other stakeholders to discuss how to ensure development gains from the digital economy. The topic of this meeting – how to harness data for sustainable development – is extremely timely.

The 2030 Agenda was ambitious when it was adopted in 2015. There was momentum. There were clear targets. There were shared means to achieve them. Today, that ambition, that momentum, those targets, and crucially those shared means to achieve them – need re-engagement and renewed commitment.

Years of global systemic shocks have put the 2030 Agenda of Sustainable Development on life-support. So let me say this in the strongest terms I can: The greatest systemic risk of this century is a possible failure of Agenda 2030 and the SDGs.

We need urgent and collective action, using all tools at our disposal. But time is running out.

Data-driven digital technologies are an important tool to help in this titanic objective. They can be a source of hope if we can harness them to close and not widen inequalities.

As I have said many times before, the countries that will succeed in the 21st century are not those that are big, or those that are rich, but those that are fast. It’s like that joke we tell in Costa Rica. Two men meet a tiger in the middle of the jungle. One of them quickly turns around and starts getting ready to run. The other one says, “Why run? We will never outpace the tiger.” And then the first one replies, “That’s ok. I only need to outpace you!”

In many ways, the story of data-driven digital technologies for development feels like a race between ever-growing problems (ever-faster tigers) and ever-more powerful technologies (ever-faster runners).

Think back again about 2015, when world leaders approved the 2030 Agenda, which as a matter of fact only mentioned the word “digital” once – when noting the need to bridge the digital divide.

Since 2015, the number of Internet users in the world has increased from 3 billion to 5.3 billion. The number of mobile broadband subscriptions has surged from 3 billion to almost 7 billion. And global internet protocol traffic – a proxy for data flows –tripled from 46,000 to 150,000 gigabytes per second.

In the process, we have gone from a world where digital data is mostly shared by text (Facebook), to a world where data is mostly shared by image (Instagram), to a world where data is now mostly shared by video (TikTok and YouTube). And these are still early days in the data-driven digital economy. With the spread of 5G, the growing number of Internet of Things devices and greater use of AI, data and data flows will continue expanding rapidly.

In the meantime, our global society has already left behind trillions of terabytes of data, which are now feeding the strongest artificial intelligence software in the world. ChatGPT for example, which has taken the world by storm since December, trained itself on 570 gigabytes of text data – around 300 billion words, with 100 trillion parameters. In barely six months, AI is already disrupting education, job markets, even art. Some, indeed, are arguing that AI is evolving too fast, with important threats for bias and inclusivity, and even global peace and security – something we have to take very seriously.

Your Excellencies,

It is clear that the real problem is not that the technologies to save the 2030 Agenda are not available. The problem is that they are not accessible, especially where they are most needed, in the Global South, on the frontlines of sustainable development.

About 60 per cent of the world is connected to the internet, but only 20 per cent of people in least developed countries are connected to the internet. While in some countries, 80 per cent of all internet users already shop online, in many developing countries this figure is less than 10 per cent. Further, within countries, there are significant divides between rural and urban areas, as well as between men and women.

These divides are even starker in terms of who can benefit from the data-driven digital economy. There are particularly two countries that stand out: the United States and China. Together, they account for half the world’s hyperscale data centres, the highest rates of 5G adoption in the world, 94 per cent of all funding of AI start-ups, 70 per cent of the world’s top AI researchers, and almost 90 per cent of the market capitalization of the world’s largest digital platforms.

As we argued in the 2021 Digital Economy Report, data is deepening already existing digital divides. This is especially the case in terms of what we call the “data value chain”. Raw data is mostly meaningless unless it is aggregated and processed into digital intelligence – which can later be monetized for commercial purposes or used for social objectives. And vice versa, there cannot be digital intelligence without raw data. Adding value to data is what contributes to moving up in the development process.

That said, some countries in recent years have proven the concept of turbo-charged development through data-driven digital technologies. India in particular stands out in this area. A recent IMF paper shows how India, through its India Stack program for digital public infrastructures, has been able to formalize its economy, adding almost  9 million new taxpayers in the last five years; has been able to make digital payments almost universal, with digital transactions now making almost 70 per cent of all transaction volume; has been able to open almost 500 million bank accounts in both urban and rural areas; and has been able to lower data costs by 90 per cent.

These digital infrastructures have set stage for a massive flourishing of the digital economy in India, which is now growing two and half times faster than overall economic growth in the country. UNCTAD is happy to support India’s G20 Presidency in the area of data for development that I am partnering with Amandeep also in the UN effort and we were also proud knowledge partners with Indonesia’s G20 presidency last year, on the subject of cross-border data flows. We will continue that work.

Your Excellencies,

To multiply the potential of data-driven digital development, the world needs effective digital governance. This is critical for promoting responsible and ethical use of digital technologies, protecting individual rights, and ensuring that the benefits of digitalization are accessible to all.

In our latest Digital Economy Report, we called for a more balanced approach to global data and platform governance to enable data to work for people and the planet. This requires, for instance, agreeing on definitions and taxonomies for establishing terms of access depending on the type of data; dealing with data as a public good; and increasing international cooperation on competition and taxation. Currently, we have a global data governance system split in three, with some countries relying on the private sector, others on the state itself and others in the centrality of citizens.

There is an urgent need to develop a more balanced approach to global data governance so that data can work as I said for people and the planet. The goal should be to enable data to flow as freely as necessary and possible, while being able to address these development objectives.

To ensure an inclusive process with representation of all developing countries, the United Nations needs to play a key role.

Such a global effort would need to build on existing initiatives in the UN and beyond, which should indeed be multilateral, multisectoral and multi-stakeholder to be meaningful.

In his report, Our Common Agenda, the Secretary-General proposed the creation of a Global Digital Compact. The consultation process on the Global Digital Compact is currently ongoing. I greatly appreciate that Ambassador Gill, the Secretary-General’s Technology Envoy, is here today with us, leading that process.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The issues at stake are multifaceted and complex. There are very few easy, tried, and tested solutions available. That is why there is a need for innovative thinking to enable more effective policymaking, with the involvement of all stakeholders, at both national and international levels, so that data will work for the Agenda 2030.

The agreed policy recommendations that I trust you will be able to produce will serve as a valuable input not only to the UNCTAD Trade and Development Board, but also to the SDG Summit in September.

I invite all delegates to make full use of the coming three days of deliberations. I wish you every success in these coming meetings.

Thank you very much.

Thank you, Mr. Chair.