Statement from Civil Society Organizations working on eCommerce for Development, on the Africa eCommerce Week and Outcomes
Electronic commerce, and digital trade and technology more generally, can stimulate development, generate jobs and help build sustainable livelihoods. However just like previous changes in technology and trading patterns, for developing countries to benefit, they need the right policies and institutional support, both domestically and internationally. This conference has well highlighted the opportunities of e-commerce for African entrepreneurs, but the primary challenge is to harness digital industrialization for structural transformation of the continent. Nearly all digital trade is currently dominated by a few global players from the United States and China through platforms that are not simply disrupting and re-organizing economic activity but leading to digital domination. In order to trade, we have to produce. If we expand digital trade without first improving our productive capacities, as well as closing the digital divide through improvements in our physical infrastructure as well as interconnectivity, we will be simply opening our economies even further to imports from outside the region. Thus, further liberalization in the digital sphere, without the necessary domestic investments to improve productive capacities, will destroy jobs, decimate micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs), and distort development. These threats from premature digital liberalization to our economic sovereignty and future development prospects will be greatly amplified if the rapidly evolving digital economic space is governed by rules that were developed by transnational corporations (TNCs) for their own profit-making around the world, as they are proposing in the World Trade Organization (WTO) discussions on e-commerce. There should be no negotiations on e-commerce in the WTO. As the African Group said in the WTO, they “will not support any ideas for negotiating rules, or move in a direction on developing rules on e-commerce. We believe it is entirely premature.” Instead of digital liberalization leading to further digital colonialism, what we need for the structural transformation of the region in line with Agenda 2063: The Africa We Want vision is a jobs- and development- focused digital industrialization strategy. Digital industrialization indicates the need for policies to prevent big international corporations controlling our data and to use our data in the public interest; to develop and support domestic digital businesses and platforms; to strategically promote domestic MSMEs including through technology transfer; to promote inclusion in the digital economy through full employment policies; to ensure proper taxation and investments to close the digital divide; to advance consumer welfare and privacy through data protection; to ensure public interest regulation of the digital economy and break up platform monopolies; and other pro-development strategies. Much of this can be accomplished through domestic policies that should be developed with appropriate stakeholder input, as well as through regional integration; but policy makers require sufficient policy space to do so; restricting that space is the clear aim of plurilateral efforts currently under discussion in the WTO.