By Kirk Haywood & Niels Strazdins

Addressing the digital divide and modernising Commonwealth trade and investment

The Covid-19 pandemic coupled with rapid and disruptive technological change has had a profound impact on international business.

Perhaps none greater has been the rise and growing importance of the digital economy and digital trade. While this has created vast new opportunities, it has also exposed the “digital divide” within and between countries and the significant challenges we face in bridging it.

The pandemic has changed the way we work, the way we communicate, and the way we transact and do business. It has revealed serious vulnerabilities in supply chains as well as inequalities in access to critical goods and services, from vaccines to ventilators to cold chain logistics capabilities.

Many of these changes will be long-lasting, if not permanent. The challenges and vulnerabilities must not be.

Embracing the digital economy will be key to harnessing the opportunities these changes are creating, as well as to addressing and overcoming the challenges and vulnerabilities that have bene exposed.

Making the Digital Reset Inclusive

The Commonwealth is an association of 54 member states spanning every continent, connected by historical ties and shared values that create unique trade and investment advantages through similarities ranging from legal and administrative systems to commercial and legislative practices.

We are a voluntary association of developed and developing countries with significant representation amongst small states and island nations, who are particularly vulnerable to external shocks such as the pandemic and the vulnerabilities it has exposed.

The pandemic has made clear and accelerated the need for deeper digitisation across Commonwealth economies to bridge the digital divide.

This is highlighted by recent Commonwealth research into the scope of the digital infrastructure divide and the role of digital trade in post-pandemic recovery and resilience.

Less than 30% of the population in several Commonwealth Asia countries have access to the internet, and less than 10% in some Commonwealth Africa countries, for example.

Declines in broadband speeds in certain countries during lockdowns – by over 30% in Malaysia and 24% in Ghana – have underlined the need for policies targeting digital infrastructure-sharing, efficient spectrum allocation and the development of broadband infrastructure.

Moving forward

Addressing these challenges and bridging the digital divide will facilitate not only economic recovery, but also the diversification and modernisation of Commonwealth trade post-pandemic.

Adopted by our member states in 2018, the Commonwealth Connectivity Agenda for Trade and Investment (CCA) builds on Commonwealth advantages to provide a platform supporting structured dialogue, networking and collaboration on trade and investment to address common challenges and opportunities.

Creating appropriate policy frameworks and responses to enable Commonwealth countries to harness new opportunities created by digital innovation and technology is a key focus area for the CCA.

For example, digitally-enabled “Manufacturing 4.0” technologies can foster digital industrial development in less diversified Commonwealth economies that are traditionally reliant on sectors such as agriculture and tourism. This in-turn increases economic resilience, helps countries integrate into global value chains, and creates new and higher quality education and employment opportunities.

Similarly, digital innovations and the application of digital technologies to the agriculture and fisheries sectors are creating new opportunities for efficiency and productivity gains.

More broadly, digital technologies and digitally-enabled trade processes and procedures offer new opportunities to overcome traditional barriers to trade by improving the efficiency and transparency of trade facilitation through paperless measures.

Through our five interconnected clusters (or working groups), the CCA is leading several projects and initiatives focusing on digital innovation and technologies to assist Commonwealth policymakers in understanding and leveraging these new opportunities to bridge the digital divide and lay the foundation for a more resilient and inclusive post-pandemic economic recovery. 

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