United Nations Conference on Trade and Development

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Acronym: UNCTAD

Established: 1964

Address: Palais des Nations, Av. de la Paix 8-14, 1211 Geneva 10, Switzerland

Website: https://unctad.org/

Stakeholder group: International and regional organisation

UNCTAD is a UN body dedicated to supporting developing countries in accessing the benefits of a globalised economy more fairly and effectively. It provides analysis, facilitates consensus building, and offers technical assistance, thus helping countries use trade, investment, finance, and technology to support inclusive and sustainable development.

UNCTAD also works to facilitate and measure progress towards achieving the sustainable development goals (SDGs), through a wide range of activities in areas such as technology and innovation, trade, investment, environment, transport and logistics, and the digital economy. It places special emphasis on supporting the most vulnerable developing countries, including least developed countries (LDCs), landlocked developing countries (LLDCs), small island developing states (SIDS), and African countries to build resilience to economic shocks and to achieve structural economic transformation.

UNCTAD’s work often results in analyses, statistics, and recommendations that inform national and international policymaking processes, and contribute to promoting economic policies aimed at ending global economic inequalities and generating human-centric sustainable development.

Digital activities

UNCTAD is particularly active in the field of e-commerce, trade, and the digital economy, carrying out a wide range of activities from research and analysis to providing assistance to member states in developing adequate legislative and regulatory frameworks and facilitating international dialogue on the development opportunities and challenges associated with the digital economy.

UNCTAD also works to facilitate and measure progress towards achieving the SDGs, in particular through (but not limited to) its activities in the field of science, technology, and innovation (STI) for development. Consumer protection, gender equality, productive capacity building, and privacy and data protection are other digital policy areas where UNCTAD is active.

Digital policy issues

Data governance

As data has become a key resource in the digital economy, data governance is a fundamental part of the work of UNCTAD. This is illustrated, for example, in the research and analysis work of the Digital Economy Report 2019, which focused on the role of data as the source of value in the digital economy and how it is created and captured and the Digital Economy Report 2021, which analysed cross-border data flows and development. Moreover, some of UNCTAD’s work on e-commerce and digital trade touches specifically on privacy and data protection issues. For instance, the eCommerce and Law Reform work dedicated to supporting developing countries in their efforts to establish adequate legal frameworks for e-commerce also covers data protection and privacy among the key issues addressed. The Global Cyberlaw Trackers offers information on data protection laws in UNCTAD member states.

Also relevant for data governance discussions is UNCTAD’s work on statistics, as the organisation collects and analyses a wide range of data and statistics on issues such as economic trends,  international trade, investment, development, and the digital economy. UNCTAD’s statistical capacity development activities help countries enhance their statistical and data infrastructures and often address issues of data governance, such as statistical confidentiality, access to data, and privacy protection. UNCTAD also contributes actively to global work to enhance data governance in statistics and beyond and to develop universal principles to guide the collection, dissemination, use, and storage of data.

UNCTAD makes its data and statistics available as open-source in the UNCTADstat data centre. Statistics underpin UNCTAD’s analytical work and are featured in many publications. The UNCTAD Handbook of Statistics disseminates key messages from UNCTAD’s statistics including infographics and UNCTAD’s SDG Pulse offers statistical information on developments related to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. In addition, Development and Globalization Facts and Figures publications provide thematic updates on topical issues with the latest number focusing on SIDS. To provide timely information on the global economy and trade, UNCTAD Statistics publishes a weekly Trade and Economy Nowcast.

UNCTAD is also running several projects focused on improving the efficiency of data management for example by developing a plug-and-play system to compile Trade in Services Statistics, its activities in the Digitising Global Maritime Trade project, and by supporting customs operations with the Automated System for Customs Data. UNCTAD’s own statistical activities are governed by the UNCTAD Statistics Quality Assurance Framework, which is aligned with principles governing international statistical activities.

E-commerce and trade

UNCTAD’s work programme on e-commerce and the digital economy (ECDE Programme), encompasses several research and analysis, consensus-building, and technical assistance activities, as follows:

Research and analysis

UNCTAD conducts research and analysis on e-commerce and the digital economy and their implications for trade and development. These are mainly presented in its flagship publication, the Digital Economy Report (known as the Information Economy Report until 2017), and in its Technical Notes on ICT for Development. The Technology and Innovation Report, another flagship publication, highlights the need to build science, technology, and innovation capabilities
as prerequisites to enabling developing countries and LDCs to adopt and adapt frontier technologies, including digital technologies.

Consensus building on e-commerce and digital economy policies

UNCTAD’s Intergovernmental Group of Experts on E-commerce and the Digital Economy meets regularly to discuss ways to strengthen the development dimension of e-commerce and the digital economy. The group’s meetings are usually held in conjunction with UNCTAD eWeek an annual event hosted by UNCTAD featuring discussions on development opportunities and challenges associated with the digital economy.

UNCTAD also serves as a knowledge partner to the deliberations of the G20 Digital Economy Working Group on Data Free Flow with Trust and Cross-border Data Flows.

Under the auspices of the UN Commission on Science and Technology for Development (CSTD), UNCTAD provides substantive work on the follow-up to the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) – a unique two-phase UN summit that was initiated to create an evolving multistakeholder platform to address the issues raised by information and communications technologies (ICTs) through a structured and inclusive approach at the national, regional, and international levels.

To that end, the CSTD:

  • Reviews and assesses progress at the international and regional levels in the implementation of action lines, recommendations, and commitments contained in the outcome documents of the Summit.
  • Shares best and effective practices and lessons learned and identifies obstacles and constraints encountered, and actions and initiatives to overcome them alongside important measures for further implementation of the Summit outcomes.
  • Promotes dialogue and fosters partnerships, in coordination with other appropriate UN funds, programmes and specialised agencies, to contribute to the attainment of the Summit.
  • Monitors objectives and the implementation of its outcomes and the use of ICTs for development and the achievement of internationally agreed development goals, with the participation of governments, the private sector, civil society, the UN, and other international organisations in accordance with their different roles and responsibilities.

E-Commerce assessments and strategy formulation

The eTrade Readiness Assessments (eT Readies) assist LDCs and other developing countries in understanding their e-commerce readiness in key policy areas to better engage in and benefit from e-commerce. The assessments provide recommendations to overcome identified barriers and bottlenecks to growth and enjoying the benefits of digital trade.

UNCTAD’s work on ICT policy reviews and national strategies involves technical assistance, advisory services, diagnostics, and strategy development on e-commerce, and national ICT planning at the request of governments. Through an analysis of the infrastructural, policy, regulatory, institutional, operational, and socio-economic landscape, the reviews help governments to overcome weaknesses and bureaucratic barriers, leverage strengths and opportunities, and put in place relevant strategies.

Legal frameworks for e-commerce

UNCTAD’s e-commerce and law reform work helps to develop an understanding of the legal issues underpinning e-commerce through a series of capacity-building workshops for policymakers at the national and regional levels. Concrete actions include assistance in establishing domestic and regional legal regimes to enhance trust in online transactions, regional studies on cyber laws harmonisation, and the global mapping of e-commerce legislation through its Global Cyberlaw Tracker.

Measuring the information economy

UNCTAD’s work on measuring the information economy includes statistical data collection and the development of methodology, as well as linking statistics and policy through the Working Group on Measuring E-commerce and the Digital Economy, established by the Intergovernmental Group of Experts on E-Commerce and the Digital Economy. Figures are published in the biennial Digital Economy Report and the UNCTADstat Data Centre. Technical cooperation here aims to strengthen the capacity of national statistical systems to produce better, more reliable, and internationally comparable statistics on the following issues: ICT use by enterprises, size and composition of the ICT sector, and e-commerce and international trade in ICT-enabled services.

Smart partnerships through eTrade for all

The eTrade for all initiative (eT4a) is a global collaborative effort of 35 partners to scale up cooperation, transparency, and aid efficiency towards more inclusive e-commerce.  Its main tool is an online platform (etradeforall.org), a knowledge-sharing and information hub that facilitates access to a wide range of information and resources on e-commerce and the digital economy. It offers a gateway for matching the suppliers of technical assistance with those in need. Beneficiaries can connect with potential partners, and learn about trends,  best practices,  up-to-date e-commerce indicators,  and upcoming events all in one place. The initiative also acts as a catalyst of partnership among its members for increased synergies. This collaboration has concretely translated into the participation of several eT4a partners as key contributors to the various UNCTAD e Week organised by UNCTAD and in the conduct and review of eTrade Readiness Assessments.

Market access and rules of origin for least developed countries

LDCs are granted preferential tariff treatment in the markets of developed and developing countries under several schemes and arrangements. Since its inception, UNCTAD has assisted governments in developing preferential rules of origin (RoO). UNCTAD assists governments and regional economic communities, as well as the AfCFTA Secretariat, in negotiating and drafting their RoO. Most recently, UNCTAD’s technical assistance has focused on the implementation of the World Trade Organization’s (WTO’s) 2005 Hong Kong decision on Duty-free, Quota-free (DFQF) market access, and understanding and drafting RoO.

UNCTAD has undertaken extensive research on DFQF and RoO. The UNCTAD Database on the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) provides information on trade statistics, rules of origin, and tariff offers under AfCFTA at the Harmonized Commodity Description and Coding System (HS) subheading (6-digit) level 1The Harmonized Commodity Description and Coding System – commonly known as the Harmonized System or HS – is an internationally standardised nomenclature for the description, classification, and coding of goods.. The database enables automatic data visualisation to create a snapshot of the object of interest and matching trade statistics within the AfCFTA tariff offers, and product-specific rules of origin where available.

The UNCTAD Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) utilisation database provides information on the utilisation of the GSP schemes as well as other trade preferences granted to developing countries and LDCs under GSP, DFQF arrangements, and trade preferences under reciprocal free trade agreements (FTAs).

Consumer protection 2Consumer protection and competition are jointly addressed in the work of UNCTAD

Through its Competition and Consumer Policies Programme, UNCTAD works to assist countries in improving their competition and consumer protection policies. It provides a forum for intergovernmental deliberations on these issues; undertakes research, policy analysis and data collection; and provides technical assistance to developing countries. The Intergovernmental Group of Experts on Consumer Protection Law and Policy monitors the implementation of the UN Guidelines for Consumer Protection, and carries out research and provides technical assistance on consumer protection issues (including in the context of e-commerce and the digital economy). UNCTAD’s work programme on consumer protection is guided, among others, by the UN Conference of Competition and Consumer Protection (held every five years).

Given the significant imbalances in market power in the digital economy, competition policy is becoming increasingly relevant for developing countries. UNCTAD addresses this issue in the Intergovernmental Group of Experts on Competition Law and Policy.

UNCTAD also runs the Research Partnership Platform, aimed at contributing to the development of best practices in the formulation and implementation of competition and consumer protection laws and policies.

UNCTAD serves as co-lead of the One Planet Network ‒ Consumer Information for Sustainable Consumption and Production Programme, along with the German government and Consumers International, which implements and supports projects, undertakes research, identifies and encourages policies, and provides collaboration opportunities for anyone looking to engage and assist consumers in sustainable consumption. In 2022, the programme issued Guidelines for Providing Product Sustainability Information in E-commerce.

Creative economy

The UNCTAD Creative Economy Programme recognises the importance of cultural and creative industries and their contribution to the global economy. UNCTAD is mandated to conduct research and policy analysis, consensus building, and technical cooperation.

The increased digitalisation of creative goods and services heavily influences this vibrant sector. The Creative Industry 4.0 report looks at the implications for the creative economy of the rapid changes in automated technology and advanced internet communication that came to be known as Industry 4.0. Using a sustainable development lens, the report looks at economic and social development opportunities driven by digitalisation and advanced technologies for developing countries.

UNCTAD supports countries in measuring the economic contribution of their creative economy and developing appropriate policies for an increasingly digitalised environment. The report Mapping the Cultural and Creative Industries of Angola, among others, looks at some creative industries heavily impacted by digitalisation, such as music, digital media, video games, and visual arts. In parallel, UNCTAD also organised a capacity-building workshop on intellectual property rights (IPR) for creative industry workers in Angola, covering IPR-related issues in the digital environment. These activities were part of the EU-UNCTAD Joint Programme for Angola: Train for Trade II.

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Sustainable development

UNCTAD works to facilitate and measure progress towards achieving the SDGs. It is a custodian agency and partner for nine SDG indicators related to trade, tariffs, development finance, debt, investment, illicit finance, and enterprise sustainability. This entails a global responsibility for UNCTAD to develop concepts and methods to track progress with these indicators, and to support member states in strengthening their capacity to measure and analyse progress to effectively target policy efforts towards meeting the SDGs. UNCTAD releases data-driven analyses on progress towards the SDGs in the areas of trade, development, investment, finance, and technology, including ICTs and digital trade in its annual SDG Pulse online publication.

UNCTAD’s work to facilitate and measure progress towards the SDGs includes (but is not limited to) activities in the field of STI for development. The organisation supports countries in their efforts to integrate STI in national development strategies,   through initiatives such as Science, Technology and Innovation Policy Reviews and capacity-building programmes (such as the Innovation Policy Learning Programme). The eT4ainitiative is also intended to contribute to several SDGs, especially in relation to decent work and economic growth, innovation and infrastructure, global partnerships, and gender equality. UNCTAD’s Investment Policy Framework for Sustainable Development provides guidance for policymakers in formulating national investment policies and in negotiating investment agreements. The organisation is also part of the Toolbox for Financing for SDGs – a platform launched in 2018 at the initiative of the President of the UN General Assembly to assist countries and financial actors in exploring solutions to the challenges of financing the SDGs.

UNCTAD carries out research and analysis work covering various development-related issues, examples being its Digital Economy Report and the Technical Notes on ICT for Development. As the body responsible for servicing the CTSD, UNCTAD also assists the CSTD in its sustainable development-related work, for instance by preparing studies and reports on issues such as the impact of advanced technologies on sustainable development.

UNCTAD’s Productive Capacities Index (PCI) is a dynamic and practical tool to support developing countries in understanding the status of their productive capacity and how this can be improved. It builds on UNCTAD’s long-standing work on productive capacities essential for generating inclusive and sustained economic growth and achieving sustainable development. The PCI covers 194 economies for the period 2000‒2022. The set of productive capacities and their specific combinations are mapped across 42 indicators. This makes our PCI multidimensional in its analytical abilities. The index can help diagnose areas where countries may be leading or falling behind, spotlighting where policies are working and where corrective efforts are needed. It suggests a roadmap for future policy actions and interventions under each of its eight components: human capital, natural capital, energy, ICTs, structural change, transport, institutions, and the private sector.

It was developed in response to the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) resolution (E/RES/2017/29) encouraging UNCTAD “to pursue its methodological work to measure progress in and identify obstacles to the development of productive capacities in developing countries”. The PCI has been peer-reviewed and validated at national and regional levels by leading technical experts across the UN system, as well as by academics and government stakeholders. Stakeholders in select countries have been trained on how to use the index in their development policymaking processes. UNCTAD stands ready to conduct more training sessions at the request of countries.

Other UNCTAD activities designed to contribute to sustainable development cover issues such as climate change, the circular economy, and intellectual property with a focus on the most vulnerable developing countries including SIDS, LDCs, LLDCs, and African countries.

Capacity development

UNCTAD, as the United Nations Forum on Sustainability Standards (UNFSS) secretariat, co-organised with the Quality Council of India the third International Convention on Sustainable Trade and Standards (ICSTS) on 2‒3 November 2023, a convention that occurs every other year. The convention brought together experts and practitioners to discuss innovative ideas, best practices, policies, and underlying themes to highlight the pivotal role played by sustainability standards as an enabler for sustainable development and trade.

Many activities undertaken by UNCTAD have a capacity development dimension. For instance, its work on e-commerce and trade includes supporting developing countries in establishing adequate legal frameworks in these areas (e.g. its eCommerce and Law Reform work) and in producing statistics that can guide effective policymaking (e.g. Measuring E-commerce and the Digital Economy activities, the Productive Capacities Index and the ICT Policy Reviews). UNCTAD’s E-Learning on Trade platform provides courses and training on issues such as trade, gender, and development and non-tariff measures in trade.

The TRAINFORTRADE programme has recently launched a project on blended learning strategy to boost the digital economy in SIDS. The project is structured to encompass the legal aspects of e-commerce, digital economy statistics, and digital identity for trade and development.

UNCTAD also works to build capacity in STI policymaking in developing countries, through initiatives such as the Innovation Policy Learning Programme and STI training provided in the context of the P166 programme.

Additionally, UNCTAD’s Virtual Institute – run in co-operation with universities worldwide – is dedicated to building knowledge for trade and development. Another area where UNCTAD provides capacity building for developing countries is that of statistics: The organisation and its partners assist national statistics organisations in the collection, compilation, and dissemination of their statistics in domains such as trade, sustainable development, and investments.

Gender rights

Within its analytical work on trade and gender, in a recent policy review 2023, UNCTAD analysed the implications of e-commerce for women small entrepreneurs in developing countries. The study is addressed to a variety of stakeholders, but especially policymakers, to provide guidance on how to design policies and measures that enhance women’s beneficial participation in the economy by leveraging e-commerce.

Through its online courses on trade and gender, UNCTAD bridges knowledge gaps on the links between trade policy and gender equality and women’s economic empowerment. With around 2,000 alumni from 180 countries, this online capacity-building initiative remains a particularly effective and inclusive tool to enhance knowledge in a still relatively new field of trade policy.

UNCTAD runs a Trade, Gender, and Development programme dedicated to assisting countries in developing and implementing gender-sensitive trade policies, conducting gender impact analyses of trade policies and agreements, and strengthening the links between trade and gender. One notable initiative is the eTrade for Women initiative, dedicated to advancing the empowerment of women through ICTs.

UNCTAD works to strengthen countries’ capacity to develop and use gender-relevant statistics to inform trade policy. In 2018, UNCTAD developed a conceptual framework to measure gender and trade to support policymakers and national statistics offices in assessing gender equality in international trade and reviewing existing data in this field. Guided by this framework, UNCTAD is working on a project with the economic commissions for Africa (ECA) and Europe (ECE) to strengthen the capacity of interested countries in Africa, Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia to develop and use statistics for more gender-responsive trade policy and to inform the analysis of the gendered impacts of COVID-19 through trade. A pilot in Georgia provided new gender-in-trade indicators for trade policy by reusing existing data; work in four additional countries is ongoing in Africa. This work has given the basis for preparing compilation guidelines on gender and trade statistics to help scale up this work globally. UNCTAD also leads a work stream to include gender equality and inclusiveness considerations in the update of the United Nations Trade Statistics manuals used by all countries globally.

Other initiatives undertaken in this area include capacity building on trade and gender, the Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM): Changing the Narrative Dialogues, and the project Data and Statistics for More Gender Responsive Trade Policies in Africa, the Caucasus and Central Asia.

Non-tariff barriers

UNCTAD has developed digital tools to assist businesses and governments alike to identify non-tariff barriers (NTBs) and non-tariff measures (NTMs), which help make international trade more transparent.

  • In collaboration with the AfCFTA Secretariat, an NTB online reporting, monitoring and eliminating mechanism was developed to help remove NTBs to intra-African trade. Using the online platform is open to all African business sectors and users can report any obstacles when trading goods.
  • The UNCTAD Trains Portal acts as a single window for importers/exporters, policymakers, and researchers to access data on trade regulations, NTMs, and some practical information on target markets. Using digital technology, the interface features an interactive map on NTM coverage worldwide at users’ fingertips.
  • UNCTAD offers various online courses on non-tariff measures (NTMs). Government officials can benefit from executive courses where we highlight the need to identify regulations containing NTMs, which are essential for lawmaking and negotiations. UNCTAD can support governments in various activities related to NTMs, such as enhancing transparency, building a comprehensive database, and providing technical support. Researchers can build deep analyses of NTMs and their impacts on trade in particular regions and sectors based on the knowledge gained from our executive course or analysis course on NTMs.

Voluntary Sustainability Standards

Voluntary Sustainability Standards (VSS) are guidelines for producing, selling, and purchasing products in a sustainable manner. VSS provide consumers with information about the sustainability efforts taken for a product’s production and manufacturing, with the aim of positively affecting communities,   the environment,   and the economy. However, in the last two decades, there has been an exponential growth in the demand and supply of leading VSS-compliant products, leading to a growth in their proliferation and a lack of evidence of the work that VSS do. UNCTAD, as the secretariat of the UNFSS, works on issues pertaining to VSS; undertakes research, policy analysis, and data collection;  and provides support to developing countries with regard to work related to VSS. As a means to establish credible research on the impacts that VSS have, UNCTAD also developed the VSS Analytical Toolkit to identify the challenges and perceptions behind adopting a VSS scheme, and to explore policy options to address them.

Sustainable development: Linking Voluntary Standards to Sustainable Development Goals (2020)

Gender rights: Exploring the Role of Voluntary Sustainability Standards (VSS) for Women’s Economic Empowerment in the Agriculture Sector in Developing Countries (2022).

Digital tools and initiatives

eGovernment portals

UNCTAD’s easy-to-use digital government platforms enable civil servants to quickly build online public-facing services so their governments can deliver on and mobilise funding for climate, jobs, environment, health, food, and other SDGs. Service delivery can include registering carbon emitters and removers as part of the Paris Agreement; delivering certificates of incorporation and business permits in hours, not weeks; tracking extended producer responsibility; simplifying the delivery of production permits for vaccines and pharmaceuticals; helping farmers access key government services; and much more. 

Civil servants use the intuitive drag-and-drop system to create online public services. They don’t require any prior IT knowledge or equipment. It works for any service in any ministry and is compatible with existing digital IDs and government websites to ensure a seamless user experience. 

The system is quickly scalable. Civil servants have access to the Digital Government Academy and can train colleagues to develop digital services across ministries and governments while avoiding the costs, timelines, consultants, and complexities traditionally associated with digital government projects. 

Detailed data generated by these systems show important increases in access to public services by demographics such as young people, women, and rural populations. Governments use this data to fine-tune delivery.

Additional digital tools and online platforms:

Many of UNCTAD’s publications are released as digital publications only.

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