Report: The E-Commerce Negotiations in the WTO – understanding non-participation

Participation from all over the world ensures that the rules are adapted to the conditions of different countries.

Emma Sävenborg Trade Policy Adviser


Several WTO members are negotiating the first true comprehensive legal framework for e-commerce. However, very few African countries are involved. This report examines why and suggests actions to convince more countries to participate. Emma Sävenborg, the author of the report, explains.

What is the report about?

This report examines why so few countries from the African continent are participating in the negotiations for an e-commerce agreement within the WTO. We also discuss how to facilitate broader participation.

What are agreements on digital commerce, or e-commerce, about?

There is a wide range of content in an agreement on e-commerce and digital trade. It may be rules about how countries should recognize digital versions of trade documents, have well-adapted consumer protection legislation and data flow rules that do not obstruct trade.

Why has the National Board of Trade looked into this matter?

The e-commerce negotiations are one of the big issues in the WTO, as it will be the most comprehensive framework for e-commerce rules. An important question is how the agreement supports the conditions of the developing countries, especially as there are only seven African countries involved in the negotiations.

The National Board of Trade wants to draw attention to possible reasons why countries choose not to participate, with the aim of finding ways to increase the incentives for more countries to participate.

Why is it important to include as many countries as possible?

Since the negotiations are to result in a multilateral agreement, it is desirable that all regions are represented. It is also important to have participation from all over the world, as this ensures that the rules are adapted to the conditions of different countries. More countries also means more harmonized rules globally. The rules that are drawn up will have many positive aspects for developing countries. It is also important to have new trade rules that facilitate digital trade in order to reduce the digital divide that currently exists between developed and developing countries.

What reasons can there be for a country not to participate in the negotiations?

There are many different reasons why countries choose not to participate, and it is important to note that the reasons are not the same for everyone. For many, it is a lack of resources and trade policy capacity that leads to other priorities.

Some countries may feel that they do not have the digital maturity to need e-commerce regulations. Other countries have limited institutional capacity, which means they choose to prioritize either other negotiations within the WTO or other negotiations in their region. E-commerce negotiations are very technical and complicated, which makes these particular negotiations demanding.

There are also certain challenges in the way the e-commerce negotiations are carried out, in a so-called Joint Statement Initiative, JSI. A JSI negotiation is flexible and you can move forward quickly because many issues are negotiated in parallel. At the same time, it places great demands on the countries to spare experts for the negotiations.

What can be done to make it easier for countries to be part of the negotiations?

There needs to be a review of how the negotiation process within the JSI works to see if there are ways to support countries with less resources so they are able to participate. It is also important that the substantive issues that are negotiated include issues or perspectives that are prioritized by African countries. The capacity support and development cooperation need to be better adapted to support the countries both before and during negotiations.