In 2018, G20 digital economy ministers had their second meeting, this time in Salta, Argentina. The digital economy is a relatively new area of work for the G20 but likely to gain importance. At Salta, ministers agreed to promote policies and actions that will catalyse digital transformations and contribute to bridging all forms of the digital divide. This commitment is timely and badly needed.
The ministers’ declaration rightly links the possibilities of the digital economy with the 2030 Agenda. In fact, the significant transformations expected from increased reliance on digital technologies among people, businesses and government institutions can be expected to influence every Sustainable Development Goal, sometimes enabling achievements, sometimes hampering them.
Today, we all appreciate the role of the digital economy as a wave that is transforming what we do and how we do it. But we have to be aware of the possibility that a laissez-faire approach to the digital economy can bring its own problems, as it did with globalisation: for more than 30 years too many of us thought that markets could just fix themselves – this has given globalisation a bad name and made many citizens around the world rightly angry. A similar challenge exists for the digital economy. This is why purposeful action must address certain key contradictions and dichotomies.
Up the digital ladder
While we see hyper-digitalisation in some parts of the world – illustrated by the growing role of automation, big data, artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things and three-dimensional printing – in other parts of the world billions of people have not even started to climb the first rung of the digital ladder. Our responsibility to help those who remain totally unconnected to the internet, both fixed line and mobile, becomes our collective challenge.
Likewise, important work is being done in developed countries to assess the need for policy adaptations in view of digitalisation. For example, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development launched its Going Digital project in early 2017. This valuable initiative considers the need for new and adapted policies in competition, consumer protection, industry, innovation and entrepreneurship, insurance and pensions, financial markets, fiscal affairs, science and technology, statistics, education, employment, social affairs, public governance and trade. It is an impressive list.
A similar, holistic approach must also be used in developing countries. All developing countries need access to relevant forums so that they can also engage in a similar dialogue. Many concerns of the least developed countries, a constituency that is important for sustainable inclusion and development, may remain unaddressed unless they have a place at the table.
To this effect, I want to express my strong support to the commitments made by the G20 ministers to promote policies and actions that catalyse digital transformation, leaving no one behind.
First, we need to address international development cooperation. As of today, only 1% of all Aid for Trade funding globally relates to information and communications technology (ICT). It is important that the growing importance of ICT-related services and the digital economy should also be reflected in forms of development cooperation. Similarly, multilateral development banks currently dedicate less than 1% of their total funding to ICT-related activities, and a mere 4% of this is related to policy development.
We can say we are at work, but many development partners who are going digital at home remain analogue in international cooperation.
Second, we need to work together to raise general awareness of the broader implications of digitalisation for sustainable development. António Guterres, secretary general of the United Nations, recently launched the High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation. We hope that this leads to more consensus on the challenges related to digitalisation, and greater policy coherence in addressing them.
Third, we need to boost capacity-building and technical assistance in the many policy areas that determine the readiness of countries to engage in and benefit from the digital economy. At the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), we are currently undertaking a series of policy assessments with least-developed countries to enhance their readiness to benefit from e-commerce. These assessments include suggestions on potential partnerships for financial and technical assistance. We hope that this will enable countries to formulate more clearly their needs vis-à-vis potential donors. The eTrade for all initiative, which is led by UNCTAD, makes it easier for developing countries to find the necessary financial and technical assistance to strengthen their readiness.
But as noted by the G20 ministers, much more still needs to be done. The future is digital. Let’s make sure no one is left behind.