Digitalization and data flows in francophone west and central Africa: Impacts of potential digital trade rules in the WTO on digital industrialization and development

26 Apr 2022 12:00h - 13:00h

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Event report

Organised by the Africa Development Interchange Network (ADIN) in Cameroon and the Ligue des Consommateurs in Togo, and moderated by Mr Richard Hill (President, Association for Proper Internet Governance), the session addressed the impacts of potential digital trade rules in the World Trade Organization (WTO) on digital industrialisation and development in Africa. While most African countries are not participating in the plurilateral negotiations in the Joint Statement Initiative (JSI) on e-commerce, this policy discussion explored what could be the right policy approach, notably in terms of regulating cross-borders data flows, to be followed by countries of Francophone West and Central Africa. Mr Cédric Leterme (Research fellow, Centre tricontinental (CETRI)) argued that the global economy is largely unbalanced, and marked by the strong concentration of economic power in China and the USA. Developing countries are still evolving in the periphery of global trade, notably the digital economy, as shown by the recent 2021 UNCTAD report on the digital economy. African participation in the digital economy is extremely limited, both in terms of businesses and online content. Current discussions on digital trade rules at the WTO could deprive African countries of the tools and capacities to develop their own digital industry. The deregulation of data flows is on its way to the WTO and could benefit developed countries. The free flow of data could negatively affect the economic interests of African countries and create political and societal externalities for their population and businesses, hinting at a form of data colonialism. African countries should develop their own national and regional framework to regulate data flows, and advocate for a data governance framework outside of the WTO.  Mr Martin Luther Munu (PhD Candidate, Maastricht University) insisted that the data economy provides important opportunities for African countries in facilitating trade and improving better business prospects, but also challenges, notably regarding the need for adequate digital infrastructure. The recent proposed rules in WTO on e-commerce could create new challenges for African countries. For instance, the proposed prohibitions to restrict the free flow of data, could potentially infringe on the policy space available to Francophone countries, in terms of privacy and the competitiveness of African countries. Proposed rules could threaten data protection-oriented policies in African Francophone countries, and prevent them from developing the necessary infrastructure capabilities to benefit from the data economy. Digitalisation is here to stay, and there is a need for African countries to develop digital strategies that take into account how these proposed rules could hinder their strategies in the future.  Mr Mahamat Allim Talha (Conseiller économique, Chad) unpacked the importance of mobile and internet connectivity for the development of the digital economy in Africa. The cost of internet access in the Francophone West and Central Africa remains high, contributing to the digital divide in the region. Digital skills of workers are also low. National legislations in relation to consumer protection, e-commerce, and data protection are still to be adopted in many countries of the region. There is a need to stimulate and support the development of African platforms, notably in terms of skills, e-payment and infrastructure, as already done by the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in recent years. Data localisation requirements could lead to more fragmentation at the global level and create economic challenges for African countries. A global framework for e-commerce rules would benefit African countries, as they would also protect consumers and businesses in the least economically advanced countries. By Clement Perarnaud