What role for parliamentarians in digital trade?

Author
Katarina Andjelkovic

[Read more session reports from WTO Public Forum 2019]

The session moderated by Ms Margareth Mensah-Williams (Chairperson of the National Council, Upper House of the Namibian Parliament) addressed digital trade which has grown exponentially over the last two decades, transformed societies, and offered unparalleled opportunities and challenges to cross-border exchanges. Parliaments and parliamentarians are therefore called upon to actively take part in producing regulations needed to protect consumers, personal data, and govern e-commerce.

Mr Jacob Francis Mudenda (Speaker of the National Assembly of Zimbabwe and Chairperson of the African Group, IPU) referred to digital trade as a new phenomenon of international trade, driven by the fourth industrial revolution. The new reality requires the active participation of members of parliaments they must enact legislation, create an enabling environment by enacting appropriate agreements, and should also be conversant about digital trade issues. Digital literacy and capacity development in areas such as consumer rights and intellectual property rights are of utmost importance according to Mudenda.

Advancing ICT infrastructure is key for digital trade. Parliaments should make substantial budgetary allocations for ICT infrastructure development in order to boost e-commerce. Rural areas must not be left behind, and Zimbabwe is already taking measures in this regard by, for instance, distributing laptops and desktops to students in rural areas.

Mudenda highlighted development inequality as one of the major issues that needs to be addressed as development inequalities highly affect digital trade. To that end, political will is needed to bring up the less developed countries to the level of more developed ones and promote science and technology.

Ms Isabelle Durant (Deputy Secretary-General, UNCTAD) pointed out the widening divide between developed and developing countries, more precisely, between the USA and China on the one hand, and the rest of the world on the other, with regard to the economic implications of digitalisation.

She also urged parliamentarians to become part of trade negotiations, particularly if they affect gender rights, the environment, and biodiversity, to name but a few.

Durant also noted that actions aimed at protecting only national interests are ‘narrow viewed and rather naive’ and that there is a need to take a multilateral approach promoted highly by UNCTAD.

Ms Marie-Pierre Vedrenne (Member of the European Parliament) said that digital trade is undergoing exponential growth, offering great opportunities as well as new challenges, and added that there is a need to renew the trade policy of the EU to meet these challenges. She also referred to a new group within the European Parliament in charge of dealing with e-commerce, a leap forward in tackling this issue.

Both Vedrenne and Durant agreed that it is quite difficult to produce quick legislation that addresses today’s problems while anticipating future issues. Parliaments need to make an effort to produce more flexible regulations that would adapt to new technologies that develop at an unprecedented pace.

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