Digital impacts on sustainable development

17 Apr 2018 11:30h - 13:00h

Event report

[Read more session reports from the UNCTAD E-Commerce Week 2018]

This session addressed the impact and role of digitisation for the achieving of the sustainable development goals (SDGs). The speakers were introduced by Mr Mohammad Qurban Haqjo (Ambassador and Permanent Representative of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to the World Trade Organization (WTO)) who considered that the world is increasingly affected by the use of digital platforms. This creates new opportunities as well as posing some challenges, especially considering that the persistence of digital divides heightens the risk of worsening the inequalities. The session focused on efforts at the local and global levels to ensure that ‘the evolving digital economy brings about the inclusive future we want’.

Dr Mukhisa Kituyi (Secretary-General, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD)) officially opened the session by considering that the digital economy is evolving rapidly thus creating job opportunities. It is up to government leaders to create a digital environment that can benefit all sections of society at large. He highlighted that, in accordance with the Istanbul Declaration and Programme of Action (IPoA), it is the governments’ task to encourage activity online and ensure an inclusive digital environment for all sections of society. Kituyi also warned against the risks and abuses of digital platforms that can turn out to be monopolies misusing users’ data. He concluded by considering three possible ways-forward: a closer look at the areas in which inclusivity needs to be maximised; upgrade information and communication technology (ICT) skills for students and teachers, and finding innovative financing solutions.

Mr Pan Sorasak (Minister of Commerce, Cambodia) considered that modern technology has quickly developed and scattered around the world. This has impacted positively on the global economy as it has translated into new opportunities for jobs and employment. For example, young Cambodian entrepreneurs are being creative in using social media platforms as businesses in order to advertise their services. Digitalisation is benefiting small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) in their competition with bigger groups, as classical business barriers can be broken down thanks to technology. He pointed out that digital platforms are particularly of use to SMEs vis-à-vis the achievement of goal 8.3 which pushed for the promotion of ‘development-oriented policies that support productive activities, decent job creation, entrepreneurship, creativity and innovation […]’.

Ms Khoudia Mbaye (Minister for the Promotion of Investment, Partnerships and the Development of State Teleservices, Senegal) considered that ICTs are catalysers of innovation and sustainable development. She then focused on the current challenges faced by Senegal vis-à-vis digitalisation. First, the digital gap between the countryside and urban areas, and the gap between rich areas and poor ones need to be reduced. Digitisation is slow, not only in terms of Internet access, but also in relation to the fact that linguistic barriers still exist when content is available. Second, there is the necessity to develop appropriate infrastructure that can facilitate communication and transactions between companies and customers and among businesses. She concluded by stressing the importance of a ‘holistic’ approach towards the digital economy which combines regulation, education, and capacity building.

Mr Wilson Tarpeh (Minister for Commerce and Industry, Liberia) addressed two main issues. On the one hand, he considered how e-commerce can be leveraged to promote entrepreneurship. He affirmed that in Liberia, e-commerce is a promise of economic growth and positive social impact. He maintained that e-commerce is a ‘vehicle for sustainable development’. E-commerce offers important opportunities for small companies already limited by poor infrastructure and the war. On the other hand, he also addressed users’ scepticism. He affirmed that consumers are still hesitant to move away from the traditional model of shopping. This can be solved by government policies developing computer literacy programmes.

Ms Amelia Kyambadde (Minister of Trade, Industry and Co-operatives, Uganda) explained to the audience the crucial impact that laying optic cables has had on Uganda and its mainly agricultural economy. She stressed the essential role of the government in developing and implementing targeted policies, allowing for entrepreneurship and creativity to flourish. She also explained that the government’s actions should be two-fold. On the one hand, governments should focus on the creation of the right institutional framework enabling the development of the digital policies. On the other hand, the government should also invest significantly in infrastructure development, namely transportation services, optic cables, and mostly education. She concluded by affirming that government action is paramount for the creation of soft and hard infrastructures functional to the development of a digital economy.

Mr Brijesh Agrawal (Co-founder, IndiaMART) brought a practitioner’s viewpoint to the discussion. He illustrated the strategy of his digital platform as a successful example of an entrepreneurship enabler. He affirmed that currently 10 million SMEs are connected through the platform and that their overall revenue counts for 0.4% of the entire Indian GDP. He explained that the secret of such success is due to a strategic combination of the adoption of and access to digital development innovations. For example, he maintained that through this approach access costs to the Internet can be reduced. Moreover, through a combination of selective taxation and finance intervention, businesses’ compliance to the existing regulations can also be achieved. He concluded by considering the relationship between digital platforms and sustainable development. He said that we should carefully consider whether investments are targeting digital/physical goods or services because we can only ‘channelise the opportunities well if we know the areas we would need to build our nation on’. 

Ms Amanda Long (Director General, Consumers International) considered that ‘this is an important time for us, consumers’ because in order for e-commerce to truly benefit us all, we need to look at e-commerce as a system and not as a mere sum of trade transactions. She stressed the fact that we need to focus on the right environment for technology to thrive, namely access to high quality and stable Internet connections and an inclusive Internet, otherwise the risk is that through a lack of connectivity we become second-class citizens. She further explained that ensuring trust leads to consumers’ engagement which is crucial to the success of the digital economy. She concluded by suggesting a few principles for an inclusive Internet:

  • Involvement of multiple voices and opinions at the creation and development stages of the technology rather than after
  • Focus on specific problems and opportunities in order to develop the appropriate regulatory framework
  • Fight the misconception stating that careful design and safeguards can hold back progress

Mr Daniel Crosby (Partner, Chairman of Business for eTrade Development, King & Spalding) considered that digital platforms for digital purposes are not new and that the existing challenges pertain how to maximise the outreach and minimise the costs for businesses. He stressed the importance of the right balance between power and innovation and responsibility (e.g. consumer protection). He wished for governments to also include digital platforms when discussing the digital economy and in particular to:

  • Listen to the business sector and practitioners’ views
  • Develop public and transparent policies
  • Assure legal certainty through the creation of specific regulations

Mr Ricardo Meléndez-Ortiz (Chief Executive Officer, International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development (ICTSD)( concluded the session by considering the importance of the international community’s support in targeting existing digital divides. He considered that due to the particular nature of digitisation (which combines big data and artificial intelligence), a combined approach of national and international action is needed in order to achieve the ambitious 2030 development agenda. 


By Marco Lotti