TWN Info Service on WTO and Trade Issues (Dec18/12)
21 December 2018
Third World Network

United Nations: More questions than answers at Africa e-Com event
Published in SUNS #8821 dated 20 December 2018

Geneva, 19 Dec (Chakravarthi Raghavan*) - The Africa e-com week, organised and held at Nairobi, Kenya (from 10 to 14 December) by the technology division of the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), appears to have aroused more questions than answers to development and public policy issues posed by African States and digital experts from African Civil Society.

According to an UNCTAD press release (with link to unedited version of the "Nairobi Manifesto"),  more than 60 sessions were organized by international organizations, civil society, governments and the private sector. In all there were seven main track sessions at E-com week based on the seven e-Trade for all pillars.

Over and above the open sessions, including seven main track sessions on the seven e-Trade for all pillars, participants said there were many other sessions on specific policy issues of relevance to e-commerce and the digital economy. Some of these sessions were closed, open to invitees only.

Some of the topics covered included the growing role of digital market places; implications of algorithmic bias and algorithmic discrimination in the digital economy; trade policy implications of digitalization at regional and global levels; youth innovation; the role of tech hubs; employment implications; and building online trust.

Among African Union (AU) members, Nigeria is the only African country who signed onto the joint ministerial statement on e-com at MC11 in Buenos Aires in December 2017. Cote d'Ivoire and Senegal are said to be interested but have not committed to rules at the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

Kenya, the host country for the event, has never gone on record to say they are interested in E-com rules. The overwhelming majority of African states, as stated by them at the WTO, remain opposed.

Judging by messages and notes on various sessions, received by SUNS from CSOs and African official participants, the event as a whole may have solidified opposition of most African States to any e-commerce negotiations, and rules on it, at the WTO.

The Africa E-commerce Week was organised by UNCTAD with EU and German funding, and purportedly also co-sponsored by the African Union. However, according to several participants, there was sparse attendance at the event of African trade negotiators (whether Geneva or capital-based). This, some African officials said, could be partly due to the event overlapping with an African Union meeting, as also lack of promised financing for delegates from Geneva familiar with the issues, or their capital-based trade officials.

The promised EU-German funded financing for such delegations, some African officials said, had been used to get capital-based delegates from Information Technology ministries, who were not fully aware of efforts to negotiate trade rules.

According to several participants, though the AU was labelled and branded as a co-sponsor, no AU official was at the dais or was a speaker at the opening panel. According to some participants, only one AU official attended the event. In total, they said, there were four African Geneva-based WTO negotiators and about four African Geneva-based delegates covering UNCTAD at the event.

At one plenary session that was organized by UNCTAD, UNECA and AU, there was no AU official on the panel! Instead, a high-level government official from the EU was invited to speak on the panel. When asked by several participants why the AU was not present on that panel, the AU representative, present in the audience, said that he had not been asked! Only at the final session, was an AU official at the dais.

According to some CSOs, when participants and member-states enquired at Geneva weeks before the event about UNCTAD's collaboration with the AU in organizing the event, the response of UNCTAD officials was rather sketchy, if not evasive, and provided few details. Those who enquired were told that the AU Department of Infrastructure and Energy was directly involved. However, when asked the same question at the Nairobi event, the CSOs said, UNCTAD responded that the AU Department of Trade and Industry was directly involved.

When member states followed up directly with Addis Ababa (AU secretariat) about these assertions from UNCTAD, African participants said there were strong objections from UNCTAD about these queries. Furthermore, they said, officials contacted at the AU were not aware of their association in the event as co-sponsors.

Several African participants and member states also questioned the inclusion of the AU in the outcome document named "Nairobi Manifesto". They claimed that any statement by the AU had to undergo a procedure, and this had not been done in this instance. This was confirmed by the AU official who was at the dais at the closing ceremony. He indicated that the AU has its own internal processes and member states are only permitted to endorse positions and documents through established rules and procedures.

Digital CSO experts at the meeting said the "Manifesto" co-signed by the EU is very much aligned to the EU agenda on digital trade liberalization. While there was little or no participation by AU member-states on any of the main panels, the EU, on the other hand, featured on every main panel.

There was also a noticeable absence of Geneva-based trade negotiators at the event because, according to the member states, donors closed off support to them despite many briefings in Geneva about the EU funding support.

Instead, the funding was used to bring in capital-based representatives mostly from ICT Ministries, who are not closely following the Geneva discussions on e-commerce and may not be aware of the e-commerce proposals of the developed countries, who wish to launch the negotiations on e-commerce early next year.

Participants at the Nairobi event said that contrary to briefings in Geneva by UNCTAD to the African Group, the Manifesto was not "negotiated", but presented for the first time during the closing ceremony. There was no discussion or negotiation on the Manifesto, nor was the floor open to members to comment.

Participants cite UNCTAD as saying that the Manifesto is based on the main track/open sessions. It was not clear whether the outcomes from the closed sessions trickled into the Manifesto. However, the outcomes from the parallel sessions in which CSOs, African Members and other stakeholders participated did not find itself in the Manifesto.

[* Chakravarthi Raghavan is the Editor Emeritus of the SUNS.]