Supporting countries to measure the digital economy for development

Young hispanic man business worker using smartphone holding packages at storehouse

Digitally deliverable services – those supplied remotely using information and communications technologies (ICT) – have helped cushion the COVID-19 pandemic’s blow to services trade.

New UNCTAD statistics show that global exports of these services grew from around $3.3 trillion in 2019 to $3.8 trillion in 2021. This growth helped to offset sharp declines in exports of other services during this period. As a result, overall services trade fell by 3.5%, much less than would otherwise have happened.

While the pandemic has seen the resilience of e-commerce and the digital economy, it has also laid bare digital and data divides.

“Some countries have huge advantages in a new world of digital trade while others still face great challenges,” said Shamika N. Sirimanne, UNCTAD’s director for technology and logistics.

“Supporting all countries to develop the statistics needed to monitor and manage their performance in the global digital economy is crucial to levelling the playing field,” Ms. Sirimanne added.

UNCTAD’s work on measuring e-commerce and the digital economy aims to build the capacity of countries to produce official statistics in this area to inform policymaking. The lack of such information is a significant gap in the toolkit governments need to design and implement ICT policies for development.

While statistics on digitally deliverable services exports provide valuable insights on digital trade, they’re only a partial perspective. The effects of the digital transformation extend far beyond trade, impacting businesses, individuals and governments the world over.

UNCTAD has spotlighted the need for a wide range of complementary statistics – such as on business ICT usage, e-commerce uptake and the value of e-commerce transactions – to gain a better understanding of the digital economy and how it affects employment, productivity and economic development in different countries.

The core indicators set out in the UNCTAD Manual for the Production of Statistics on the Digital Economy available in English, French, Spanish and Portuguese are a key reference. Nevertheless, it’s important to continue efforts to define and measure further aspects of the digital economy.

Enhancing global cooperation
A dedicated UNCTAD working group meeting held on 28 and 29 November explored ways to build on existing data sources to measure e-commerce and the digital economy. The discussion focused on improving the availability of indicators and statistics to navigate the rapid digital transformation.

Topics discussed included measuring the value of e-commerce, using big data sources and web scraping to obtain insights on the digital economy, using statistics to examine the different experiences of men and women in the digital economy, and how to develop the capacity of developing countries in these areas.

Internationally comparable and timely statistics, along with cross-country analyses, can strengthen the foundation for designing and implementing national digital economy policies.

The group includes developed and developing countries with varying statistical systems and infrastructure. It promotes cooperation to enhance the availability, quality, comparability, usability and relevance of statistics on e-commerce and the digital economy, supporting evidence-based policymaking, particularly in developing countries.