Published on The Trade Post

Steps to Better Data on E-Trade for Developing Countries

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UNCTAD’s E-Commerce Week took place recently in Geneva, Switzerland. This third E-Commerce Week was the largest ever, with over 900 registered participants, plus walk-ins from the Geneva community. This is nearly triple last year’s attendance. The large turnout reflected the heightened interest of developing countries in e-commerce as a tool for promoting economic growth and opportunity. Highlights of the week included the launch of the online platforms for the multi-stakeholder E-Trade For All initiative  and its private-sector partner Business For E-Trade Development, and a special panel on digital transformation for small businesses and entrepreneurs, featuring Alibaba’s Jack Ma.
Since the World Bank Group is involved in promoting all aspects of the enabling environment for e-trade, our presence was visible every day. Bank Group colleagues introduced new tools for combating cybercrime; discussed our new report on Reaping Digital Dividends in Europe and Central Asia; explained the relevance of trade facilitation for e-commerce; and presented the payment aspects of financial inclusion for e-commerce.
I had the opportunity to chair a session on measurement of e-commerce. This was focused on the following questions: How can we improve the availability of data on e-commerce and e-commerce readiness in developing countries?

At present there is a good deal of data on many of the elements of e-commerce readiness, including access to connectivity, trade facilitation, regulatory frameworks, entrepreneurial skills, availability of financing, and financial inclusion. Data now available at (in country .pdf format) and on  the World Bank's WITS platform (in downloadable format) are an example of this.
Yosr works as a consultant for Famex 2, an export promotion agency at Maison D'Exportateur in Tunis. Photo: Arne Hoel / World Bank

The challenge at present is measurement of the value of e-commerce itself. UNCTAD released a preliminary estimate of global e-commerce: $25.2 trillion in 2015, including both domestic and cross-border e-commerce. Of this, about 90% is B-to-B (business-to-business) and the rest is B-to-C (business-to-consumer). Nonetheless, significant gaps include the relative lack of official e-commerce data in developing countries; the scarcity of measures of B-to-B e-commerce; and specific measures of cross-border (as opposed to domestic) e-commerce. Private data on e-commerce has much to add, but is not easy or cheap for everybody to access.

Some definitions of e-commerce, including the OECD’s definition, have been used by multiple stakeholders. Nonetheless, there are still significant differences in the definitions of e-commerce used by the collectors and disseminators of data, as well as the types of information gathered. While it might be useful to move towards a standard, especially to propose to countries collecting e-commerce data for the first time, the diversity of observed approaches is so far yielding useful information. It is perhaps too early to recommend a global standard to be used by governments, and other forms of data collection are likely to continue to be useful.

To enhance our ability to collect and share more and cheaper data, I suggest the following steps:
  • Increasing the use of existing surveys of economic activity and customs declarations to collect data on e-commerce, by the inclusion of a few additional questions. 
  • Creative use of data—including "big data" and postal data—currently being gathered by the private sector, as an input into public data collection. 
  • Providing additional resources for capacity building in developing countries’ statistical agencies to develop the ability to collect e-commerce data. 
  • Continued partnership by all relevant stakeholders in the measurement agenda.
Together, these key actions could help developing countries further participate in e-trade, boosting their ability to promote a better business environment, grow their economies and provide more jobs.

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