Trade in a Digital World
Paths to Recovery Post-COVID
The Commonwealth is an association of 54 independent countries, comprising large and small, developed and developing, landlocked and island economies.
As the main intergovernmental body of the association, the Commonwealth Secretariat works with member governments to deliver on priorities agreed by Commonwealth Heads of Government and promotes international consensus building. It provides technical assistance and advisory services to members, helping governments achieve sustainable, inclusive and equitable development. The Secretariat’s work programme encompasses areas such as democracy, rule of law, human rights, governance and social and economic development.
The world has changed dramatically since the 2018 Commonwealth Trade Review. Since its onset in early 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on the lives and livelihoods of our 2.4 billion Commonwealth citizens and others around the world. There has been tragic loss of life, with the number of deaths globally now having exceeded 3 million, and there are wide-ranging economic, social and environmental consequences, which present immense challenges and will take some time to overcome.
The pandemic has resulted in the worst economic contraction since the Great Depression, creating an unprecedented crisis for world trade and investment. Lockdown measures, travel restrictions and social distancing across the Commonwealth and globally brought an abrupt halt to many of our usual economic and social activities. We have been compelled to rely even more on digital technologies, innovations and solutions in a range of areas, from health care and education to work, commerce and trade.
Building on the 2015 and 2018 Commonwealth Trade Reviews, Energising Commonwealth Trade in a Digital World: Paths to Recovery Post-COVID provides a timely and comprehensive analysis of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Commonwealth trade and investment flows. Collectively, Commonwealth countries are estimated to have lost as much as US$345 billion worth of trade in 2020, including $60 billion in intra-Commonwealth trade. Indeed, intra-Commonwealth trade flows have dropped to levels last witnessed in 2011. In these troubling times for our member countries, and with less than a decade remaining until the target date for achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the economic and social fallout threatens to exacerbate existing challenges to inclusive growth and sustainable development in the Commonwealth, especially given the disproportionate impacts on women, informal workers and youth.
A key message of this publication is that trade can offer positive solutions to manage the COVID-19 pandemic and will be an essential tool for economic recovery and building back better. In particular, Commonwealth members can harness the ‘Commonwealth advantage’, and draw on the mutual support and benefits offered through the Commonwealth Connectivity Agenda, Commonwealth Blue Charter and other initiatives, to help boost their trade recovery in a more inclusive, resilient and sustainable manner. A reassuring finding is that the Commonwealth trade cost advantage has remained strong and resilient, and is now estimated at 21 per cent, on average. Meanwhile, the investment advantage has almost tripled since the 2015 Commonwealth Trade Review was published, to around 27 per cent. Another finding about the growth of investment in renewable energy is hugely encouraging as our members aspire to greener, more regenerative development paths beyond the pandemic and achieving a net zero global economy by 2050.
Revitalising trade and strengthening connectivity among Commonwealth countries and their global partners are indispensable for recovery efforts and future prosperity. The theme for the forthcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting is ‘Delivering a Common Future’. This Review highlights the wealth of innovation, ingenuity, best practice and human capital across the Commonwealth that can be leveraged, shared and exchanged to help achieve a more prosperous future which leaves no citizen behind or offline.
In particular, the changes brought about by COVID-19 have underlined the centrality of technology in all aspects of our lives – from the rapid development of coronavirus vaccines and 3D printing of medical equipment and devices, to e-commerce and the online delivery of certain services. The greater reliance on digital technologies necessitated by the pandemic will almost certainly remain as an enduring factor that will accelerate growth in the digital economy, including digital trade, in the longer term. This must be matched by proactive efforts to close digital divides within and among countries, especially as this disproportionately affects women and girls.
As the tide begins to turn in the fight against COVID-19, we have opportunities to build more diverse and resilient trade and investment relationships among the countries, cities, communities and citizens of our Commonwealth family. These can form the richly fertile and solid foundation for more inclusive and sustainable future growth and development post-COVID.
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused an unprecedented global economic crisis. It has induced a deep recession in several Commonwealth countries and in their major export markets, which has significantly affected Commonwealth countries’ global and intra-Commonwealth trade. Foreign direct investment inflows to Commonwealth countries have also taken a considerable hit. The pandemic’s disproportionate impact on already vulnerable economies, societies and health care systems, with particularly severe effects on women, youth, the poor and the informally employed, could exacerbate existing challenges to inclusive growth in the Commonwealth and the pursuit of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Indeed, the devastating economic consequences of COVID-19, together with other global exigencies in recent years, mean that 2011–20201 will be a lost decade in terms of gains from trade for the global community, especially for small states, least developed countries (LDCs) and countries in sub-Saharan Africa. This is disheartening because trade has helped lift millions of people from poverty to prosperity around the world and will be instrumental for combating the pandemic, reviving growth and achieving many of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and targets.
The 2021 Commonwealth Trade Review examines the impact of COVID-19 on the performance and prospects for trade and investment in the Commonwealth. It also identifies possible pathways to help guide Commonwealth policy-makers and businesses towards a more inclusive, sustainable and resilient recovery, especially by harnessing digital trade and digital technologies. Overall, it is evident that the pandemic has had a substantial impact on all member countries’ economies, leading to US$1.15 trillion in foregone gross domestic product (GDP) in just one year.2 Had there been no disruption to global trade, the Commonwealth’s global exports of goods and services in 2020 could have been as much as $345 billion higher. This includes an estimated export loss of $60 billion for intra-Commonwealth trade as a result of the pandemic.
Most Commonwealth members have been extremely exposed to the effects of the pandemic as a consequence of the structure of their economies, the composition of their exports, particularly when concentrated in services like transport, travel and tourism, and their level of integration in regional and global value chains (GVCs), as well as other inherent features and vulnerabilities. With the rollout of vaccines, some Commonwealth members have started opening their economies and resuming trade and travel; others confront new waves of infection or lack access to lifesaving vaccines. A sustainable and inclusive recovery globally requires enhanced co-operation to contain the pandemic, mitigate its impact on trade, livelihoods and health, and ensure open trade, undisrupted supply chains, especially for medical equipment, and equitable access to essential vaccines for all. Failure to achieve these goals, especially by vaccinating only people in wealthy countries, could lead to a delayed and asynchronous recovery and cost the global economy around US$9 trillion in lost output (ICC, 2020).
Trade recovery will unfold in tandem with several pre-pandemic trends — the reconfiguration of supply chains, Industry 4.0 and digitalisation — which have accelerated and are transforming global production, trade and GVCs. Many governments and firms across the world are considering ways to near-shore or regionalise their supply chains to reduce risks, build resilience to future shocks and reduce the carbon footprint of production to achieve a global economy with net zero emissions by 2050. The pandemic has hastened the adoption of digital technologies and digital trade, especially e-commerce and the online delivery of certain services, as a means to mitigate some of the economic and social consequences of COVID-19. Digitalisation, more broadly, is accelerating and can support recovery globally, although many Commonwealth developing countries and LDCs still lag with their digital engagement. This evolving global trading landscape and the transition towards the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution presents promising opportunities but also many challenges for governments, businesses, workers and consumers across the Commonwealth as they adapt to this new environment. The pandemic has furthermore amplified the nexus between trade and environment, together with an urgency to build more resilient, sustainable and circular economies.
Trade can offer positive solutions to manage the COVID-19 pandemic and will be an essential tool for economic recovery and building back better. Commonwealth countries’ global exports are expected to rebound and reach US$3.76 trillion in 2021 and $3.94 trillion by 2022. Similarly, intra- Commonwealth exports are expected to surpass $700 billion by 2022. To support their recovery, Commonwealth countries, especially small states that depend relatively more on intra-Commonwealth markets, can harness the “Commonwealth advantage” in trade and investment.
The Commonwealth is not a formal trading bloc, yet the 54 Commonwealth members enjoy a formidable trade advantage without any formal collaboration. Historical ties, familiar administrative and legal systems, the use of largely one language, English, as the means of communicating with foreign partners, and large and dynamic diasporas have contributed to strong trade relationships among its members. Since it was first examined in the 2015 Commonwealth Trade Review, this advantage has remained strong and compelling, and means bilateral trade costs between Commonwealth countries are 21 per cent lower, on average. The 2018 Commonwealth Trade Review furthermore found that Commonwealth members enjoy an advantage when it comes to efficient contract enforcement and strengthened regional integration, and improvements in trade facilitation are likely to yield disproportionately high gains for member countries. New opportunities have now arisen to deepen and broaden Commonwealth trade and investment flows beyond the pandemic, including implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area, finalisation of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership covering Asia-Pacific and the UK’s departure from the EU.
This publication examines the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on trade and investment flows and the possible pathways for trade recovery. It comprises five chapters. Chapter 1 examines the impact of the pandemic on the Commonwealth’s global and intra-Commonwealth trade flows. Chapter 2 maps the Commonwealth’s broad digital trade before the pandemic and analyses the implications of COVID-19. Chapter 3 assesses the impact of COVID-19 on inward investment flows, both global and intra-Commonwealth. Chapter 4 examines some of the trade aspects of the global response to the pandemic, focusing specifically on multilateral developments at the World Trade Organization and regional initiatives involving Commonwealth countries. This provides the overarching global and regional contexts and frameworks to situate the proposed policy actions for trade recovery in the next chapter. Chapter 5 thus sets out some of these possible pathways for recovery from the pandemic, specifically identifying and examining 10 inter-related policy areas for revitalising trade.
Commonwealth Trade and the PandemicRead Chapter 1
Digitalisation and Trade in the CommonwealthRead Chapter 2
The Impact of COVID-19 on Commonwealth FDIRead Chapter 3
Multilateral and Regional Trade Responses to the PandemicRead Chapter 4
Pathways to Post-COVID Trade Recovery and Resilience BuildingRead Chapter 5
The Commonwealth Trade Review 2021 was prepared by Brendan Vickers (Head of Section), Salamat Ali, Neil Balchin, Collin Zhuawu, Kim Kampel, Hilary Enos-Edu and Kimonique Powell of the Commonwealth Secretariat’s International Trade Policy Section.
The team are grateful for the support of Paulo Kautoke, Senior Director of Trade, Oceans and Natural Resources at the Commonwealth Secretariat.
This publication benefited from three background papers funded by the Government of the United Kingdom and undertaken by Sangeeta Khorana and Hubert Escaith; Ben Shepherd and Anirudh Shinghal; and Karishma Banga and Sherillyn Raga for the Overseas Development Institute (ODI).
In addition, substantive background papers were prepared by Badri Narayanan Gopalakrishnan and his team; Geoffrey A. Pigman, who also reviewed chapters and provided substantive inputs; and Sangeeta Khorana and Inmaculada Martínez-Zarzso. Peer reviewers Deborah Elms, Mohammad A. Razzaque and Christopher Stevens provided insightful and constructive comments on the draft.
The team thanks the following colleagues at the Commonwealth Secretariat for their helpful contributions: Benjamin Kwasi Addom, Kirk Haywood, Radika Kumar, Vashti Maharaj, Tanvi Sinha and Niels Strazdins.
Nick Ashton-Hart provided valuable comments and suggestions.
The Commonwealth Secretariat is extremely grateful to UNCTAD for sharing data on investment flows and e-commerce in the Commonwealth, especially Astrit Sulstarova and Torbjörn Fredriksson.
The production of this publication was managed by Sherry Dixon and Vicky Bates.
The copyediting was undertaken by Roo Griffiths. Shaneez Hassan provided excellent administrative support to the project.
The cover, infographics and charts were designed by Rory Seaford Design Ltd.