UNCTAD e-commerce Week 2017: Putting people at the heart of the digital economy
To mark UNCTAD e-commerce week (24-28 April 2017), Consumers International’s Director General Amanda Long outlines the need for a fairer and more inclusive digital economy that is built on consumer protection and trust.
It goes without saying that people are at the heart of digital transformation. People as consumers, as citizens, as families, friends and employees, as students or as business owners.
For many people, e-commerce is the gateway to the digital world and the wealth of social and economic opportunities it provides. It is where we buy and compare products, transfer our money and savings, set up and maintain online businesses. And for those who are only now gaining access to the internet e-commerce is likely to be their first online interaction. In recent years, the global e-commerce industry has seen an explosive pattern of growth.
Total e-commerce sales generated around $1 trillion in 2012 and this total is now thought to be close to $1.9 trillion annually - almost doubling in just four years. Yet whilst these figures give us a sense of the enormous potential that the digital economy could have for consumers and businesses across the globe, to fully embrace the benefits, we must create a digital world that works for everyone, everywhere.
The many faces of e-commerce
By taking a look at just some of the wonderful examples of how people are using e-commerce, it is clear to see why diversity and participation are so important:
- In Uganda, young people with innovative business ideas are being granted access to crowdsourced loans online through the Youth Empowerment scheme. 
- Artisan producers in Morocco use online platforms like Anao to sell products direct to customers around the world. Co-operatives like the Women Weavers of Morocco eliminate the need for the middleman and so increase profits. 
- Start-up business like the SafeMoto app in Rwanda are combating the issue of road accidents, 80% of which involve mototaxis. The app scores mototaxi drivers for safety using telematic software on their smartphones. Customers can clearly see who are the bad drivers, and opt for a safer ride thus driving demand for safer transport. 
In all of these examples we see the empowerment of consumers through the creation of new services and jobs, new markets and growth.
There is so much more, however, that still needs to be done before we have a digital world that works for everyone. With only 50% of the world currently online, there are still many consumers who are missing out on the power of e-commerce. According to the World Bank’s Digital Dividends report (eng), only 15% of the world’s population have access to high-speed broadband and nearly 2 billion people do not own a mobile phone, leaving them unable to fully participate in the digital economy.
It is vital that we find the right balance between e-commerce that works for businesses and consumers. To do this, we must strive for digital transformation that is built on consumer trust and participation.
So how do we get it right?
Ensuring that everyone has their say. Yesterday I was on the UNCTAD e-commerce Week high-level panel on ‘Digital Transformational for all’. The event included talks from Mukhisa Kituyi, Secretary-General of UNCTAD, Jack Ma, founder and chairman of Alibaba Group as well as politicians, entrepreneurs, representatives’ from civil society and academia.
We must follow the superb example set by UNCTAD’s e-commerce week and continue to involve a multitude of voices and opinions on the journey to digital transformation and progress. Let’s listen to consumers, producers, employees, prosumers and business owners about their experiences online, their expectations, needs and concerns. What does trust and confidence look like to them and how do we design it in?
Breaking the assumption that consumer protection stifles innovation. It won’t. In fact, careful design and safeguards to improve people’s confidence is essential if we want to bring everyone along on the journey to digital transformation and growth. We need to pay attention to social, economic, cultural and personal impacts on people and enterprises. If we don’t we risk creating a digital world where people are either left behind or lose their faith in the digital products and services available to them.
Making the most of international cooperation and connection. Building a trusted digital world can’t be done by one single entity, because we are all connected. Connectivity is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, we can connect to new markets, new products, our friends, new investments. On the other hand, when everyday things like payments mess up, or updates slow down a device, or when uncanny decisions are made about us based on our habits, it erodes our faith in the other amazing things that we can do with it.
So we need to make the most of the positive nature of connectivity. These connections across sectors, borders and segments mean that international organisations like UNCTAD are more important than ever. The UN Guidelines on Consumer Protection, for example, were updated last year to reflect the changing digital landscape for consumers. They show how together international bodies can create sound principles for consumers, certainty for businesses, and set a marker for good business practice in a changing world.
By working together, we can ensure the e-commerce industry is a driver of greater prosperity and equality for consumers across the globe.
1 - Mushana E SACCO Uganda Ltd. 2016. ‘Uganda Youth Economic Empowerment’. Fire Africa. Online link http://www.fireafrica.org/projects/projects/view/1057
2 - Boots, A. 2015, ‘Anou Connects Moroccan Weavers to World Market’, Fair Observer. Online link: https://www.fairobserver.com/region/middle_east_north_africa/anou-connects-moroccan-weavers-to-world-market-12804/
3 - Mulligan, G. 2016. ‘The Sharing Economy Takes Off in Africa’. This is Africa a Global Perspective. Online link: http://www.thisisafricaonline.com/News/Sharing-economy-takes-off-in-Africa?ct=true