For Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba, e-commerce has gone beyond being a platform and represents what the future holds. "E-commerce is not a new way of doing business; e-commerce is the business because 90% of business will be online by 2025," he said. He foresees that the global economy will be largely driven by a myriad of small companies mostly from developing countries instead of being driven by 6,000 multinational companies as we see today. In this way, e-commerce will unleash tremendous opportunities for young people and women, leading to truly inclusive global trade, he said.
In an e-commerce session co-organized by the WTO and the World Economic Forum, Mr Ma stressed the need for rule-making at the WTO so that all e-commerce activities can be regulated by one set of rules. At the same time, rules and policies must leave flexibilities as technological innovation will always be faster than policy development. Policy space is imperative for providing some latitude for innovation and for continuing to push boundaries, he said.
Blockchain technology, one of the core new technologies identified by the 2018 World Trade Report as critical for future trade, generated intense discussions in many sessions, such as “Will technology help developing countries have easier access to trade finance”, co-sponsored by the Mission of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the WTO Secretariat. Mohammad Q. Haqjo, Ambassador of Afghanistan to the WTO and Chair of the WTO Working Group on Trade, Debt and Finance, asked participants to explore ways to use Blockchain as a promising solution to closing the trade finance gap that currently prevents women and small businesses in developing countries from participating fully in global trade.
Vinay Mandonca, from HSBC, confirmed that Blockchain technology can result in more loans being released by banks as it can provide more quality and timely information and allow the bank to go beyond the usual risk assessment exercise. Some speakers also pointed out that Blockchain helps to build trust between buyers and sellers, a vital currency in global trade.
Emmanuelle Ganne, Counsellor at the WTO, highlighted some of the obstacles facing the application of Blockchain technology to the banking system - for example, incorrect information in the Blockchain, data privacy issues, communication between different Blockchain platforms and different standards applying to various blockchains. Once these questions are answered, she said, “blockchain technology has the potential to foster the emergence of new business models, it will allow SMEs to have more trade finance, and the good news for women and SMEs is that they do not have to build a platform by themselves, they just need a mobile phone to connect and trade.”
For Peggy Hicks, from OHCHR, the new approach hinges on thinking out of the box and embracing key human rights principles of equality, non-discrimination and participation. At the heart of this, she said, is the fundamental right to work with new technology. “Technology is essential to the livelihood of the community,” she stressed at an “Africa goes digital” session. Only when government and business work together to put ICT infrastructure where it is most needed by the resource-poor people and when every single entity ensures the representation of women can the new technology serve the cause of digital equality and gender equality, she said.
In Africa, governments are looking at how to harness digital power for inclusive development at various levels. David Luke, from the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), said that apart from some very small steps in certain countries, the African continent is considering a common approach on e-commerce in future strategies. At the international level, the African Group is engaging in discussions at the WTO on the e-commerce initiative.
The WTO´s relevance in the new digital era was repeatedly alluded to by a number of participants. A strong voice of support was heard particularly from least-developed countries at the session entitled "Towards an inclusive trading system: Integrating smaller developing and least-developed countries". Uganda's Ambassador Christopher Onyanga and Nepal´s Ambassador Deepak Dhital reaffirmed the importance of robust multilateral rules which are vital for stimulating business activities and promoting cross-border trade among developing countries.