E-commerce is designed for the developing world," says Jack Ma, the emperor of Alibaba Group from the Middle Kingdom. Alibaba was started in 1999. It rules the roost in some 160 countries with sales of around $500 billion. The company provides consumer-to-consumer, business-to-consumer, and business-to-business sales services via web portals. “If you want to do it, you are ready—Don’t wait" he told several trade ministers at an extravagant meeting organized by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) last week.

Over the years, UNCTAD has become synonymous with the causes of the wretched of the earth of the developing world in global trade. It was also called as the “trade union of developing countries."

The positions articulated by UNCTAD in global trade since 1964 under the leadership of the renowned trade economist Raul Prebisch had guided developing countries in facing major global challenges. It is the only body that cautioned about the dangers posed by unimpeded movements of capital and financialization since the 1990s. UNCTAD has also encouraged developing countries to pursue pro-active industrialization policies.

Sadly, UNCTAD has now abandoned its developmental trade agenda that was actively promoted by Prebisch, Gamani Corea, Rubens Ricupero and Supachai Panitchpakdi, among others. That agenda included credible policy advice to developing countries for countering intrusive trade rules being prescribed by the World Trade Organization.

Under the leadership of Mukhisa Kituyi, a former trade minister of Kenya, UNCTAD wants to embrace e-commerce as the solution for bringing about rapid economic development. “E-commerce provides many opportunities for growth in the developing world but we need to seize those opportunities now. The appetite for digital economy can inspire the development of other infrastructure sectors," he says. 

During the “E-commerce Week" organized by UNCTAD during 24-28 April, Jack Ma was treated like a god, as though he possessed all the knowledge needed for the economic development of the world and welfare of humanity. “In future, there will be no e-commerce, everything will be 'e'," he argued. “The new technology will kill a lot of jobs, whether you know it or not... The revolution [would] take 50 years—20 for technology and 30 for implementing… We are just at 20 years into this revolution…I worry that people are against trade and globalization," he emphasized. Further, e-commerce is based on trust, he said. “If you are cheating, the market will punish them. If we can work with WTO (World Trade Organisation) and UNCTAD we can make simple rules."

“I fully agree with Jack, the most painful punishment comes from the market, so you can’t hurt many people and you’re out of the market," said Roberto Azevedo, the WTO’s director general, in response to the Chinese billionaire’s observations. “We have two challenges at the WTO on e-commerce," Azevedo said. “One is defining what e-commerce means for everyone and two is inclusivity in trade for Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs)," Azevedo suggested, arguing that he has received a paper from the Friends of E-commerce for Development (FED) group.

Members of the so-called FED group, which includes Argentina, Pakistan, and Nigeria among others, insist that e-commerce would act as a tool for generating growth while narrowing the digital divide. The three ministers who also attended UNCTAD’s E-commerce Week called for launching negotiations on e-commerce at the WTO’s 11th ministerial meeting in Buenos Aires later this year. Argentina’s foreign minister Susana Malcorra, who is going to chair the conference, says time has come for embracing e-commerce at the WTO. Otherwise, WTO members will “miss the boat" of the biggest opportunities for bridging the gap between the haves and have-nots.

The current e-commerce mandate of 1998 is “limited" and at Buenos Aires, WTO members must settle for a new mandate to engage and embrace e-commerce at the WTO, she emphasized. However, a large majority of countries, particularly from Africa, and India have categorically stated their opposition to negotiating e-commerce. If anything, this majority can be called as the FED-UP with e-commerce group. For some inexplicable reasons, Azevedo prefers to remain silent about the opposition from this majority of countries to e-commerce.

The FED-UP group wants the outstanding issues of the Doha Development Agenda to be resolved before even considering e-commerce.

In a member-driven, inter-governmental organization like the WTO, the director general is only an international civil servant. His credibility is eroded the moment he starts campaigning for issues that are not part of members’ mandate. It’s important that Caesar’s wife must remain above suspicion.

More so, when e-commerce is an issue of enormous importance to the US, which represents the interests of Amazon, eBay, Microsoft, Apple, and other oligopolistic e-commerce titans in cloud computing.

Little wonder, close on the heels of the UNCTAD meeting, lawmakers in the US Congress have formed the bipartisan Digital Trade Caucus to push for e-commerce negotiations in which it wants to tackle the growing restrictions on “data localization requirements" and duties on goods traded through e-commerce. “Knowing that digital trade is accounting for a larger and larger portion of our economy, and trade agreements now have to deal with both protectionist measures happening around the world and restrictions that are being put on data localization, we just thought it was imperative and a good time for making sure the United States can continue to have our data flow across the border freely," Erik Paulsen, the Republican Congressman reportedly said.

Also, it is doubtful whether e-commerce—which is only about enhanced import facilitation with no customs duties, at a time when restrictions are imposed on short-term IT services providers in the US and elsewhere—can bring investments for roads, bridges, supply of clean water, and industries, or eliminate billions of dollars of trade-distorting farm subsidies in the US and other industrialized countries. But the heads of multilateral trade and development organizations such as UNCTAD and the WTO are ready and willingly genuflecting to an e-commerce billionaire, while forgetting that global trade and economic development demand solutions for addressing billions of people “left out" of globalization.

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