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EIF and partners take steps towards supporting a digital future for the poorest countries

Distinguished representatives of International organizations, the public and private sector and high-level politicians gathered in Geneva to attend a special session, chaired by H. E. Mr Daniel Blockert, Ambassador of Sweden to the WTO and Chair of the EIF Steering Committee, on Assessing eTrade Readiness of the Least Developed Countries. The special session was focused on discussing the status, gaps and recommendations in fostering ecommerce development in the LDCs.


H.E. Mr Pan Sorasak, Minister for Commerce of Cambodia kick-started the interesting panel discussions highlighting the fact that Cambodia was the first country to have undertaken a e‑trade assessment through UNCTAD with the support of Sweden. While recognizing their support, H. E. Mr Pan Sorasak also acknowledged the support of the EIF in building Cambodia's ability to maintain a pro-poor policy and steady economic development, including in the e-commerce sphere. Emphasizing Cambodia's ambitions in the field of e-commerce, he remarked,"Cambodia has become more than a frontier market when it comes to new investments in e-trade."


His sentiments were broadly shared by H.E. Mr Lekey Dorji, Minister for Economic Affairs of Bhutan, who also noted that Bhutan was the second country to benefit from e-Trade Readiness Assessment conducted in November 2016 by UNCTAD with Sweden's support. As a measure of Bhutan's technological progress he remarked that "Television and internet services were introduced in the country only in 1999. As a latecomer, we can take advantage of more cost-effective economics and adopt new IT standards." He also appreciated the support of the EIF for their e-commerce project, which, he said, was "coming at the right time" to support the country's burgeoning e-commerce industry.


Mr Ratnakar Adhikari, the Executive Director of the Executive Secretariat for the EIF, spoke about the incredible potential of the digital economy and the remarkable growth of e‑commerce as a global phenomenon. He went on to clearly link the necessity of e‑commerce in LDCs with the vital role of the EIF in supporting the enterprise and the institutional capacity building that underpins it. In particular, the EIF undertook to improve competitiveness in Bhutan – the first EIF project to include an e-commerce component. "Over 50% of the EIF analytical studies have set priorities aimed at improving Information Communication Technology", Mr Adhikari said, while further highlighting the work that the EIF is undertaking in developing digital productive capacity including in supporting the establishment and operationalization of trade online portals in Lao PDR, Lesotho, and Malawi as well as marketing small-medium operators through the Solomon Islands Visitors Bureau online portal.  Looking to the future, the EIF is preparing for readiness assessments in Liberia and Samoa.


The panel also benefitted from the presence of two private sector stakeholders: Mr Fernand Matendo, the CEO of the Burundi Shop and Ms Shomi Kaiser, Advisor and Founder Member of the e‑Commerce Association of Bangladesh. Mr Matendo called attention to the opportunities waiting to be taken up and the regulatory and infrastructural obstacles impeding e‑commerce implementation, while illustrating key growth opportunities like the synchronization of ecommerce platform in Burundi as well as the regional platforms to connect the East African Community. His account was parallel to that of Ms Dorothy Ng'ambi Tembo, Deputy Executive Director, ITC. Turning to the problem of corruption, Ms Tembo argued that "E‑commerce is more often transparent".


Despite the challenges presented include the huge digital divide, great optimism was expressed for the efforts to be taken for LDCs to go online. The panel was unanimous in its belief in both the benefits and the necessity of digitisation and e-commerce in particular. H.E. Dr François Xavier Ngarambe, Rwandan Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the UN and other International Organizations in Geneva, aptly encapsulated the issue when he said "How can we afford to pay for this as a small, not very rich country? The answer is also a question: how can we afford not to? It is just a question of surviving".


This was echoed by the donors and development partners on the panel. Ms Shamika N. Sirimanne, UNCTAD Director of the Division on Technology and Logistics, noted that "we have heard about trains leaving the station…there is urgency for us to make sure that the LDCs do not lose out of the benefits this enormous technology brings to SMEs." Similarly, Mr Günter Nooke, BMZ Personal Representative for Africa to the German Chancellor was keen to emphasise "not only the great potential …but above all how to turn that potential into reality". Mr Nooke reiterated his government's strategic commitment to Aid for Trade and Africa during its presidency of the G20.  As part of its "Marshall Plan for Africa", Mr Nooke illuminated the central importance of developing the digital economy as a driver of growth.  Furthermore, he was clear in stating that Germany "regards the EIF as a very valuable tool to LDCs so they can use trade as a driver for their own development."


Mr Nooke also brought the audience's attention to the value that the Federal Republic of Germany places on the involvement of women and girls including through the #eSkills4girls agenda. Bridging the digital gender divide was also emphasized by both H.E. Ms Anusha Rahman Khan, Pakistan's Minister of State for Information Technology and Telecom, and Ms Shomi Kaiser, Adviser and Founder Member, e-Commerce Association of Bangladesh (e-CAB), underlining the importance of gender integration into the e‑commerce agenda and to their work. Ms Kaiser providing the private sector perspective also emphatically restated the panel's commitment to women's opportunities in the field of ecommerce. She also highlighted Bangladesh's remarkable exponential growth in the ecommerce sector with revenues expected to top US$1.3 billion by 2021.


Dr Ngarambe and Ms Tembo were equally clear that the e-commerce agenda was fundamentally inclusive, with Ms Tembo advocating for "ensuring the unconnected are connected". H.E. Ms Rahman Khan gave an impassioned defence of the power of e-commerce to lift the most vulnerable out of poverty and give opportunities and confidence to people's lives.  She spoke at length on the programmes on digital literacy, whose recruitment was focused on girls from the poorest backgrounds, whose education had often been cut short by other commitments.  She captured the sentiments of the entire panel and audience with her remarks that "The future is digital. It is no longer part of the economy – the digital is the economy". 


In summing up, H.E. Mr Blockert underlined the challenges facing LDCs in accessing the benefits of e-commerce, from lack of capacity and connectivity to overbearing regulation and inadequate logistics. He underscored broadening the visibility of the impact e‑commerce has on trade and development, especially through the eTrade Readiness assessments that provide the necessary entry points for LDCs to have a holistic view of their national eTrade agenda. He welcomed the assistance from Germany, the EIF and Sweden in supporting these assessments and facilitating a pathway to a digitalized economy in the LDCs. More importantly, he also called for support for implementing the assessments, for which assistance through the EIF was available to the LDCs and through partners' resources as part of the eTrade for All Initiative. Going forward with a view to achieving the common goal of eTrade for All, the panellists looked to deepening ties with new and existing partners, continuing dialogue and the focussing of resources on to the growth-engine of e-commerce.


 Notes to editors:


The EIF is a multi-donor trust fund, which provides coordinated financial and technical support to build trade capacity in all 48 LDCs and three graduated countries. The EIF is the only global Aid for Trade programme exclusively designed for the LDCs and is, therefore, uniquely placed to assist countries to develop sustainable trade strategies, which have a positive impact on people's lives through the promotion of private sector development and job and income opportunities. The EIF is recognized under Goal 8a of the Sustainable Development Goals.


For further information, please contact: eif.secretariat@wto.org or visit our website www.enhancedif.org