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Tech trade innovations take centre stage at the WTO forum

A man tries out a giant iTab smartphone during a trade exhibition

A man tries out a giant iTab smartphone during a trade exhibition

Roberto Azevedo, the World Trade Organisation (WTO) director-general, says the organisation should set a more sustainable and inclusive path towards better global trade by 2030, writes JOSEPH OLANYO from Geneva.

Azevedo made these remarks during the opening plenary of the 2018 Public Forum last week in Switzerland. He underlined the importance of modernizing and adapting the rules of global trade in order to manage the major social and economic challenges ahead of technological change.

“We can’t put progress on hold until we are ready. We have to start talking now. We have to get involved,” Azevedo said.

Azevedo’s remarks kicked off a three-day discussion at the WTO regarding the future of trade and how to make it more sustainable and inclusive.

The Public Forum is the WTO’s largest annual outreach event, providing a unique platform for parliamentarians, leading global businesspeople, students, academics and non-governmental organizations to come together and debate on a wide range of WTO issues, and on some of the major trade and development topics of the day.

100 sessions

More than 2,500 participants have registered to attend this year’s forum, the theme of which is “Trade 2030.” 

More than 100 sessions have been scheduled to examine what sustainable trade will look like in 2030 and beyond, with sub-themes focusing on sustainable trade, technology-enabled trade and a more inclusive trading system.

The WTO director general noted that the rapid changes taking place today, from the emergence of new technologies to growing environmental risks, are challenging the way people think about trade. He said with proper policies in place, the technological revolution could help fuel significant trade growth.

At the same time, new technologies, Azevedo said, are expected to create substantial churn in the global jobs market, with tens of millions of jobs lost and created in the coming years.

“More and more trade will be happening through digital platforms,” Azevedo said. “New ways of delivering products will come on stream. New kinds of services will be created. So, we have to ask – is the global trading system that we have today equipped for that new environment?”

“I believe that the fundamental principles still apply, as enshrined in the WTO agreements: the importance of clear rules, openness, cooperation and non-discrimination,” he said.

Whether the current system of rules is enough to manage this change is still an open question, Azevêdo added.

Keynote speakers at the opening plenary stressed the importance of innovation and flexibility in adapting to the new global trading environment, and putting proper policies in place to allow innovation to flourish and facilitate the achievement of sustainability and inclusiveness.

Erik Solheim, the executive director of UN Environment Programme, underlined the important role of trade in supporting sustainable development, including trade’s role in contributing to the sharp reduction in global poverty and promoting the expanded use of renewable energies and technologies. 

“Last year, we had more electricity coming onto the global grid from solar alone,” noted Solheim. “Could that happen without trade?  No. It may have started in California and Germany, but the enormous markets of China and India took it to such a scale that solar can now compete on price with coal everywhere in the world.”

“That’s a change that would have been impossible without trade.”

Jack Ma, the executive chairman and co-founder of the Alibaba Group, a world leader in global e-commerce, outlined a rosy forecast for trade – one driven by e-commerce, small businesses and services. He urged the audience to have confidence in the future. 

“Let’s stop worrying about the future,” he declared. “You may not have the solutions, but young people have the solutions.  You don’t have the solution today, but you’ll have the solution tomorrow.”

The year 2030, he predicted, would see a substantial increase in the amount of business conducted online, greater involvement of small businesses in e-commerce and more consumer-to-business transactions.

Made in internet

“Today we see Made in China or Made in Switzerland. 2030 will be Made in Internet,” he declared.  “All these things will fundamentally change the way we do trade, but for sure most businesses will benefit. We will create a lot more jobs than we expected.”

Laura Behrens Wu, the CEO and co-founder of Shippo, a multi-carrier shipping platform, said one of the big advantages from the new world of trade will include lower entry costs for entrepreneurs and removing geographical boundaries to trade.

“It’s easier than ever to start an online business,” Behrens said. “You don’t need a physical location; starting an online business is asset-low, and people can focus on what they are best at, which is making creative and beautiful products, taking care of customers, and being in touch with the trends.”

“People have been saying we cannot stop technology. I don’t want to stop technology. People are leveraging technologies to be more creative and be able to form more human connections and make the world a smaller place.”

Tunde Kehinde, the co-founder of Lidya, a leading platform for small- and medium-sized business lending in emerging markets, said obtaining affordable finance was critical in allowing these companies to participate in trade and take advantage of the opportunities offered by access to global markets.

“When you look at sustainable development goals, around job creation and equality, the fact that you can now provide the financing (small businesses) need to meet buyers’ demands really opens up markets for these small businesses that weren’t there before.”

Kehinde urged small business to engage with governments and make their case for creating a business environment that will help them take advantage of new technologies and flourish.

“If you’re not at the table, the challenge you face is that regulation is being made without your voice. And that regulation can be very disruptive; it’s tough to unwind.”

Christine Bliss, the president of the US-based Coalition of Services Industries (CSI), said there was a bright future ahead for service providers in the new technology-driven trade environment. Nevertheless, her members were concerned with some emerging regulatory trends which threatened to disrupt this progress.

“The demands for data localization and data processing requirements are a huge problem and they do threaten to break down the delivery of services in an efficient, cost-effective manner on a cross-border basis,” Bliss declared. 

“The pressure to impose duties on electronic transmissions is another huge challenge which, if not handled correctly, could lead to a serious breakdown in cross-border e-commerce.”

“Cybersecurity risks and over-reaction by governments is another area that needs to be tackled. Cooperative frameworks need to be developed to handle that carefully. We are pressing up against them and we need to find ways to move forward.”

jolanyo@gmail.com

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