New thought leadership on digital trade: reforming trade policies, customs regulations, and development solutions for the global digital economy

Disruptive digital technologies — the cloud and digitization, ecommerce, 3D printing, big data, holograms, Internet of Everything, peer-to-peer lending, virtual currencies, and so on — are revolutionizing the economics of global trade and production. They are empowering corporations to dramatically cut costs and encouraging even the smallest of businesses to engage in trade. Digitization opens tremendous opportunities for countries around the world to drive exports, entrepreneurship, and inclusive economic growth. Many of my company Nextrade Group clients too are now gaining interest in ways to drive the digital revolution, and many of my other company TradeUp‘s clients ride on the digital economy.

Yet, there are several barriers to the expansion of digital trade and ecommerce, such as digital protectionism – barriers to the movement of goods, designs, services, investments, and data in the digital economy – and the fact that most people and businesses around the world do not have regular access to the Internet or use the web to engage in exports or create new value.

I have over the past several months been active in several global dialogues to tackle digital protectionism and advance the access to and use of the Internet for trade and development around the world. Recent efforts and outputs include:

  • On November 17-18, 2014, I presented a working paper “Aid for e-Trade: Accelerating the Global e-Commerce Revolution” at the Center for International and Strategic Studies (CSIS), the third largest U.S. think-tank where she is Adjunct Fellow, and at the World Bank’s Trade & Competitiveness Global Practice and the Development Research Group in Washington. Sponsored by eBay Inc., the paper shows that ecommerce holds extraordinary potential for expanding global trade, promoting small business exports and entrepreneurship in the United States and around the world, and boosting export diversification and international development. Yet much of the world and most businesses are still not connected to the web. In addition, several of the countries that have relatively good information and communications technology (ICT) capabilities and Internet usage rates struggle to translate their connectedness into exports and economic gains. The paper proposes a concerted global public-private initiative, “Aid for eTrade,” a close cousin of the global Aid for Trade initiative, which has over the past decade channeled more than $200 billion in bilateral and multilateral trade-related assistance to developing nations. See more in video here, and OpEd on the idea here.

  • On 3 December 2014, I published an Oped in BRINK, Marsh & McLennan-sponsored forum on global risks, called “How Digital Protectionism Threatens to Derail 21st Century Businesses.” The article argues that the emerging global digital economy is at risk: It lacks the liberalizing policies that powered the 1990s wave of globalization.  Rather, digital protectionism is on the rise. Just like tariffs that splintered the world in the 19th century, digital protectionism risks balkanizing the global digital economy before it even starts, squashing the potential of hundreds of millions to prosper in the global economy, and derailing relations between nations. I propose a new effort, the Seoul Consensus, a set of principles for countries around the world to nurture the global digital economy and battle digital protectionism. The Seoul Consensus, named to celebrate Korea’s rapid ascent to a leading digital economy), would be modeled after the Washington Consensus of the early 1990s, which set off a wave of deep trade and investment liberalization across the developing and post-communist world, paving the way for the Flat World wave of globalization. Read more here.

  • On 23 April 2015, I presented the “Aid for eTrade” concept to a team from the Economic Growth, Education and Environment Bureau (E3) from the U.S. Agency for International Development. The office offers technical leadership, research, and field support for worldwide activities in the areas of Economic Growth and Trade, Infrastructure and Engineering, Education, Environment and Global Climate Change, Water, and Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment. E3 represents the Agency on relevant technical matters in the Inter-agency and with Congress, outside partners, other donors and multilateral institutions. The event was organized by Carana Corporation, a great partner and leading designer and director of economic growth strategies for countries, businesses and donors.

  • On 24 April 2015, I presented a policy paper “Fueling the Online Trade Revolution: A New Customs Security Framework for Secure and Facilitate Small Business eCommerce” at the Center for International and Strategic Studies (CSIS) in Washington. Sponsored by eBay Inc and also featured in a BRINK article, the report shows how across America, individuals and small businesses are increasingly buying and selling goods and services online. The total online transactions in the U.S. grew from $3 trillion in 2006 to $5.4 trillion in 2012, to about a third of U.S. GDP. Yet the rise of ecommerce creates new risk scenarios and considerations for customs agencies—in particular, what security frameworks ought to look like in a world where millions of businesses and individuals around the world increasingly engage in billions of micro-transactions, often resulting in shipments of small parcels from small businesses to other small businesses or individual consumers. The paper proposes an 18-month pilot program “eTrade Track,” a comprehensive initiative run by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to secure and fuel small business and online trade. The event also featured a keynote by Devin Wenig, President of eBay Global Marketplaces, and panel discussion with Alan Bersin, Assistant Secretary and Chief Diplomatic Officer for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Policy. See video here.

  • On 13 May, I joined in New York the E15 Expert Group on The Digital Economy, convened by the World Economic Forum and the International Center for Trade and Sustainable Development (ICTSD). The meeting was led by Theme Leader Merit E. Janow, Dean of the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) at Columbia University. Discussions focused on the challenges and opportunities that the growth of the digital economy creates for trade and development. Suominen discussed in particular ways in which ecommerce and digitization can advance trade and development around the world, and called for a new global effort, Aid for eTrade, to undo barriers for businesses and entrepreneurs around the world to access and use of ecommerce. I also discussed ideas on ways to advance ecommerce through the implementation of the Trade Facilitation Agreement, and my concept Seoul Consensus, a set of principles for countries around the world to nurture the global digital economy and battle digital protectionism. Here I explain the aims of the E15 event: 

  • On 19 May, I joined a World Bank conference “Harnessing Digital Trade for Competitiveness and Development” as moderator of a panel on policies and investments conducive to digital trade. Though an increasing number of producers in developing countries are selling their wares on the Internet, either through their own websites or through web portals such as eBay and Alibaba, they also face significant impediments to fully exploiting the Internet for exporting – from infrastructure weaknesses to unreliable online payments and complicated customs regulations. The conference brought together entrepreneurs, policy experts, and development practitioners to brainstorm ways that the World Bank Group and other stakeholders can work together to break down these barriers.

  • On 28 May, I presented with Alisa DiCaprio from the Asian Development Bank a draft report I have been authoring on the opportunities and challenges of digital trade in the Asia-Pacific to Asian ambassadors to the World Trade Organization in Geneva. The report shows how digitization is opening entirely new opportunities for Asia-Pacific economies to export and create jobs, and advocates pro-active policy reforms and investments to improve the region’s Internet connectivity, logistics, e-payments, and firms’ capacity to use ecommerce. Gaining positive reception among the ambassadors, the report will be highlighted at the Fifth Global Review on Aid for Trade at the end of June, featuring ADB’s president.

  • Also on 28 May, I joined the World Summit on the Information Society Forum 2015 in Geneva. My panel International e-Commerce for Developing Countries: Practical Case Studies in Overcoming Barriers to Trade through Digital Channels reviewed the challenges for enterprises from developing and least developed countries to engage in international trade through ecommerce, and discussed initiatives to reduce the barriers and cases in the field. I presented my idea on Aid for eTrade; presentation is available here. The panel was organized by the United Nations Conference for Trade and Development (UNCTAD), the International Trade Center, and the United Postal Union.

    Stay tuned for more on digital trade – a new report with the Asian Development Bank, idea generation with the World Bank, a new platform for global digital policies, and a book. Coming up!

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