WTO Diary: Day two – Partnership, payments and plurilaterals

If there is one key take away from day two of the Public Forum, it is the importance of partnership. From country-country, business-government, capital-representatives, and crucially, business-consumer, partnership is at the heart of the motivation behind the talks on e-commerce and it will be crucial to achieve its success.

On a day that included seven meetings, four ambassadors, one Shadow Secretary of State and ended with a reception at the UK Ambassador’s residence (that did not include Ferraro Roche but did include mini fish and chips), techUK’s delegation were busy meeting some of the key movers and shakers in Geneva on digital trade.

It is clear that there are going to be significant challenges to overcome if the plurilateral e-commerce discussions led by Australia, Japan and Singapore, are to succeed. Since spring this year, monthly meetings on the topic have been scoping out what should be include. Despite over 70 countries signing up to the joint statement, we heard that only around a dozen are actively putting forward proposals.

That engagement will need to see a step change as these informal discussions transform into proper negotiations into the new year. A careful balancing act will need to be pursued between keeping ambition high and including as many countries as possible.

This is where partnership between business and governments is going to be essential worldwide. We heard many times over the course of the day that a diplomat is only as good as their instructions. And unless business is communicating its needs and its ambitions to governments then this will not filter through to negotiators in Geneva.

For counties where digital technologies are only beginning to embed themselves in the way that we are familiar with in the UK, there is an even greater need for partnership. There is a need for business communities in low- and middle-income countries to push governments on the importance of digital, and to connect the dots between what digital is capable of and other national priorities.

This link was made particularly stark in the case of financial inclusion. Most countries will have a strategy on this important area (the UK for example has the Financial Inclusion Policy Forum). Helping give people access to affordable and useful financial products is recognised as a key way to achieve many of the Sustainable Development Goals and helps people and businesses plan for the future, prepare for the worst and make living day-to-day easier.

Getting the rules around digital trade policy right are an essential part of helping achieve these strategies. This can be seen clearly in Kenya, which tops the world for digital financial inclusion. Widespread use of mobile banking and e-payments there has enabled ever more citizens to be included in the financial system with all the benefits that brings. Underpinning that are robust but pro-innovation regulations and a system that sees digital as part of a solution rather than a distraction.

The gains from agreeing new rules on digital trade and e-commerce could be substantial for all countries. There are justifiable concerns about the ownership of data, rights around privacy and how to protect jobs in a digitising economy, and these are ones that are shared by advanced digital economies and those setting out on a digital path alike. Technological transformation is happening before our eyes and the best way to ensure that it is inclusive and beneficial for people globally is to ensure that there is partnership and collaboration between people, businesses and governments worldwide.

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