UNCTAD Supports Small Island Nations To Harness Digital ID For Inclusion


By Cyber Era NG Special Correspondent

In an increasingly digitalized world, digital identities can foster economic and social empowerment in many far-flung places across the globe.

Trinidad and Tobago, a Caribbean country with over 1.5 million people, is about to launch its national digital identity system.

The government-owned system, known as e-ID, will provide Trinidadians and Tobagonians with unique digital identifiers to enable digital signing and expand access to financial, education, health and private-sector services.

But there’s still much to do to ensure a digital ID for everyone in the country.

Director of national ICT services at the country’s digital transformation ministry, Natalie Maharaj pointed to the need for greater trust-building, privacy and cyber security risk management to help mitigate reluctance to large-scale adoption.

“We’ve observed cultural and technological barriers to adopt the new system.” Ms. Maharaj said. “There is cautious optimism for the initial service uptake.”

The challenges facing Trinidad and Tobago are also felt across other small island developing states (SIDS), which are 39 of the UN’s 193 members.

In 2022, only seven SIDS had a national digital identity system or programme, according to the International Telecommunication Union.

To help SIDS build sustainable and inclusive digital identity ecosystems, UNCTAD’s TrainForTrade technical assistance programme delivered an online course in February and March 2023, focusing on key issues around data protection, governance and technology solutions and risks.

Why digital identification matters          

Ensuring legal identity for all is a priority of the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Currently, some 850 million people worldwide lack an official ID, according to the World Bank. Experts have increasingly highlighted the potential of digital transformation to help close this identity gap.

Digital identity systems provide technology-based solutions to uniquely establish a person’s identity and verify credentials.

An individual’s digital ID can include biographic data such as name and date of birth, biometric data such as fingerprints and facial features, or government-issued identification.

This can provide people with a cost-effective means to access essential rights and services, for instance, opening a bank account, attending school, collecting social benefits, seeking legal protection and safely engaging in online transactions.

“Establishing a reliable and trusted system of digital identity is critical to enabling every person to fully participate in society and the economy, particularly the emerging digital economy,” said director of technology and logistics at UNCTAD Shamika N. Sirimanne.

Supporting SIDS to move towards digital identification

The UNCTAD course targeted civil society and private sector representatives, as well as policymakers from SIDS across trade, finance, justice and ICT ministries.

UNCTAD trained 378 people – 59 per cent of them women – and 172 participants obtained a certificate.

“Our e-learning helps connect people and offers an opportunity to create synergies within and between countries. It is a powerful tool to give a voice to those without access to international events and platforms,” said head of the TrainForTrade programme Mark Assaf.

“This UNCTAD course is very timely,” said a specialist from Saint Lucia’s national ICT office Johannith Khodra. The country is working to provide its people with online access to 154 public services across eight ministries, with a secure digital identity and digital signature for each user.

“The knowledge gained here (from the online course) will support the rollout and help us further engage stakeholders along the implementation journey,” Mr Khodra added.

Policy recommendations and courses to come

To help countries – especially developing ones – create robust national digital identity systems, UNCTAD has spotlighted a range of policy considerations.

They include improving legal frameworks, clearly defining institutional mandates and accountability, undertaking regular audits, reducing the risk of obsolescence and leveraging independent oversight to bolster legal and trust frameworks.

Other UNCTAD courses will promote inclusion and development through digitalization in SIDS. A course on the legal aspects of e-commerce and another one on digital trade statistics will support the implementation of the above policy recommendations.

Despite geopolitical tensions and supply chain disruptions, countries continue to improve the trading environment by simplifying and digitalizing trade processes.

According to the UN’s fifth global survey on digital and sustainable trade facilitation, an average of 68.6 per cent — up by 6 per cent since 2021 – of the general and digital trade facilitation measures outlined in the landmark Trade Facilitation Agreement of the World Trade Organization (WTO) have been implemented by countries worldwide.

The survey analysed trade facilitation progress across 161 countries worldwide, as outlined in the “Digital and sustainable trade facilitation: Global report 2023” launched on 15 September.

It covers some 60 trade facilitation measures grouped under 11 categories.

These include transparency, formalities, institutional arrangement and cooperation, transit facilitation, cross-border paperless trade, trade facilitation for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), agricultural trade facilitation, women in trade facilitation, trade finance and trade facilitation in times of crisis.

UNCTAD as a new partner

The biennial survey used to be conducted jointly by the UN’s five regional economic commissions.

UNCTAD, which contributed to past surveys, is now part of the core team of organizations conducting the survey.

Leveraging its network of national trade facilitation committees (NTFCs), UNCTAD has provided data from an additional 24 developing nations, including four least developed countries, for the 2023 survey.

“This new partnership significantly broadens the scope of the survey and strengthens its credibility as a comprehensive analysis of digital and sustainable trade facilitation measures,” said UNCTAD’s director of technology and logistics Shamika N. Sirimanne.

How countries and categories fare

The survey shows that developed economies have implemented the most trade facilitation measures, leading the global pack with an overall rate of 85.3 per cent.

In comparison, 54 out of 90, or 60 per cent of developing countries with a GDP per capita below US$10,000 have achieved implementation rates of over 50 per cent.

The average implementation rates for least developed countries, landlocked developing countries and small island developing states are similar, ranging between 53 per cent and 61 per cent — significantly below the global average.

This is in part due to persisting challenges related to weaker digital infrastructure and a lack of adequate legal framework to support cross-border data and documents exchanges.

The results reaffirm the need to step up technical assistance and capacity-building efforts to help these vulnerable economies bridge the existing implementation gap in trade facilitation.

On the different categories of measures, countries scored highest in efforts to enhance transparency, with an implementation rate of nearly 80 per cent.

With digitalization on the rise, paperless trade has improved the most over the past two years, averaging globally at 68.8 per cent.  

Despite the low adoption of cross-border paperless trade measures, pegged at a global average of 45.43 per cent, the survey highlights substantial improvements in areas such as e-transaction laws and electronic exchange of sanitary and phytosanitary certificates.

Need to shore up support for vulnerable groups

The survey also makes a case for more sustainable trade facilitation measures benefiting SMEs, agricultural sector entities and women traders.

Globally, SMEs on average have implemented 43.33 per cent of trade facilitation measures. The average rate for agricultural entities is about 64 per cent.

Meanwhile, reducing gender inequalities remains a challenge, as the global average implementation rate continues to hover below 40 per cent for measures related to women in trade facilitation.

UNCTAD has called for greater SME participation in NTFCs, as well as access to one-stop, electronic “single window” platforms for trade-related information and procedures.

It also urged greater involvement of women in trade facilitation policymaking, for instance, by introducing gender focal points in national trade ministries, increasing women’s representation in NTFCs and creating programmes to support female traders.

“By placing an emphasis on inclusive policies, embracing digitalization and fostering stronger international collaboration, we can establish a trade landscape that benefits everyone and leaves no one behind,” Ms. Sirimanne concluded.

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