Time to modernise trade rules for digital era

digital-ownershipIn the past, nations with the best ships and ports were able to establish global trade leadership and the growth that came along with it. Today, global trade has gone digital.

In the digital economy software-enabled products and services such as cloud computing and data analytics are the key drivers of growth and competitiveness. In fact, the world now invests more than $3.7 trillion (R40 trillion) on information and communications technologies a year.

In South Africa, we spend $26 billion a year and the total for the Middle East/Africa region is $228bn. However, to maximise our return on that investment, it is important for policymakers to eliminate barriers that could inhibit the continued expansion of digital trade.

It is clear that software-driven technology is transforming every sector of the global economy. For example, thanks to unprecedented processing power and vast data storage capabilities, banks can detect and prevent fraud by analyzing large numbers of transactions; doctors are now able to study historical trends in medical records to find more effective treatments; and manufacturers can pinpoint the sources of delays in global supply chains.

Against the backdrop of this kind of innovation, any country that wants to compete in today’s international marketplace must have a comprehensive digital agenda at the core of its growth and development strategy. In addition to domestic initiatives such as investment in education and skills training, or development of information technology infrastructure, policymakers can succeed in laying the groundwork for broad-based growth in the digital age if they focus on three big priorities.

First, any bilateral or multilateral trade agreement needs to facilitate the growth of innovative services such as cloud computing. As part of this, there should be clear rules that allow information to move securely across borders and prevent governments from mandating where servers must be located except in very specific situations.

Second, to promote innovation and foreign investment, continued intellectual property protection is vital and the use of voluntary, market-led technology standards – instead of country-specific criteria that force firms to jump through different technical hoops every time they enter a new local market – should be encouraged.

Third, all governments should ensure there are level playing fields for all competitors so customers have access to the best products and services the world has to offer.

At the same time, disclosures about government surveillance programmes in the US and other countries have sparked a renewed focus on data protection and personal privacy. Those concerns are worthy of debate and careful reform. But it is critically important not to conflate separate issues: We can’t let national security concerns derail digital trade.

There is precedent for navigating periods of change such as this in the global trade arena. Policymakers stood at a similar inflection point in the 1980s when they recognised the keys to growth in the coming decades would be intellectual property, services and foreign direct investment.

With foresight and hard work, they updated trade rules in the Uruguay Round of multilateral negotiations to ensure commitments were in place to provide a check against protectionist impulses. Now, as governments pursue robust growth agendas for the digital economy, it is critical we modernise trade rules again. Source: The Software Alliance (South Africa).

Philippine Customs Launches Transparency Portal

bocBigLogoBureau of Customs (BOC) unveiled a new website called “Customs ng Bayan” (Customs of the Nation) as part of newly-appointed Customs Commissioner John Phillip Sevilla’s initiatives to “uproot” the agency from its long history of institutionalised corruption.  “We are publishing reports of almost every importation into the Philippines in December 2013. Going forward, we intend to publish this list every month,” Sevilla said in an official statement.

Each item in the list represents a specific quantity (measured by weight) of a specific item that was imported by a specific importer on a specific day. The list – 88,006 items in December 2013 alone – is organised by major product groups, using the Harmonised Standard (HS) Code classification system.

“For each item, we include information such as a description of the item imported, its HS code number and standard HS code description, what country the item came from, its value and the amount of duties and taxes collected on that item.”

The Bureau of Customs, for the past years, has been one of the country’s most prominent faces of corruption in the government. According to Sevilla, all of that is about to change as they make drastic shifts in leadership, personnel and processes. In particular, he highlighted the importance of leveraging ICT to support the administration’s reform agenda.

“We need to improve the capacity of our IT systems to comply with needed reforms,” he said, adding that the Bureau is now studying the feasibility of implementing a single IT platform for all transactions, which involves improving the planned Php 442.3 million (US$9.8 million) National Single Window (NSW) project.

The NSW will facilitate trade through efficiencies in the Customs and authorisation processes. It will allow single submission and accelerated processing of applications for licenses, permits and other authorisations required prior to undertaking a trade transaction.Source: www.futuregov.asia

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Africa – ready for rich pickings?

While on the theme of African economic and trade emancipation, it is interesting to consider the detailed analysis and evaluation occurring in regard to African continental readiness for information and communication technologies. One such study is the Transformation Ready or eTransform Africa programme, a joint programme of the African Development Bank and the World Bank, in partnership with the African Union. Bear in mind that the WCO and African Development Bank recently signed a cooperation agreement to enhance the capacity of Customs administrations in Africa. 

The study (Click Here!) is a series of  case studies of certain countries. The aim of the programme as a whole, as set out in the terms of reference, is to:

  • Take stock of emerging uses of ICT across sectors and of good practices in Africa and in other continents, including how ICTs are changing business models in strategic sectors.
  • Identify key ICT applications that have had significant impact in Africa or elsewhere and that have the potential of being scaled up, both from the public and private sectors.
  • Identify binding constraints that impact ICT adoption and scaling-up of effective models, such as the need to develop a regional culture of cyber security, and measures to address these constraints, including in relation to the role of different actors and stakeholders (private, public, development community, civil society, etc).
  • Commission a series of country case studies, to formulate a guide for rolling out and scaling up key applications in Africa, in each of the focus sectors, and thereby to identify opportunities for public/private partnership, as well as identifying areas where intervention can be reduced or eliminated.
  • Develop a common framework for providing support in ICT for development to countries that brings together the operations of the two Bank Groups and their respective departments.

The terms of reference for individual sectors were as follows:

  • Within each sector, identify specific opportunities and challenges in Africa that can possibly be addressed with an increased or better use of ICT. Constraints that are hindering ICT uptake and scale-up will be examined within the context of each sector/industry, including human capacity in IT skills and sustainable business models such as for public private partnerships (PPP). Further, the appropriate role of governments in the provision of priority ICT applications and services will be examined in order to maximize private sector development;
  • Undertake a quick scan of ICT applications in the different sectors and identify a few applications that have had significant impact in Africa or elsewhere and that have the potential of being scaled up. The scan should refer to a matrix of selection criteria on which to select case study countries that are considered ripe for the creation of public/private partnerships. On this basis, specific country case studies will be chosen – two to three per sector — on a representative basis, for deep dive analysis. The selection of case studies should be made in consultation with the partners and the other consultants. A workshop should be organized by the coordinator firm at an early stage in the project to finalise this selection.
  • Analyze and understand the barriers to the greater adoption and mainstreaming of ICTs. Barriers may include, for instance, low purchasing power, illiteracy, infrastructure constraints, lack of regulation, poorly functioning mobile ecosystem, power shortages, political instability etc. Identify cases/examples on how these have been dealt with;
  • Analyze and understand the enabling factors of success, including political economy, policy, institutional, human, financial and operational factors;
  • Consider the option of developing multi-country programs or special facilities that would allow fast-tracking specific programs across countries;
  • Provide guidelines on designing appropriate and sustainable ICT components for sector projects (including building effective public and private partnerships) and on evaluating the impact of these interventions; and
  • Propose a course of action on how to include ICT in policy dialogue and planning with country counterparts on sectoral development goals and priorities. Experiences and best practices from other regions will be drawn upon to define the role of the public sector, bearing in mind that government is increasingly positioned as a lead user of ICTs as well as a regulator of the sector.
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The following article provides a disturbing – some would call it conspiracy theory – on what lies in store for the continent of Africa. Perhaps the colonial days will be viewed as mild should some of the suggested schemes materialise.