Algorithms could give the world its first ‘born digital’ free trade agreement in Africa

Cape town

(Rohan Reddy, Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Craig Atkinson, Research Fellow, World Trade Institute

The African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) agreement, presently signed by 52 African Union (AU) member states, is remarkable in its geographic coverage and ambition to create a single market for the continent. The agreement’s extensive protocols will cover trade in goods, trade in services, investment, competition and intellectual property rights.

Following its ratification by the Gambia in April 2019, the agreement is now set to shift the nature of economic relations in the region: intra-African trade is expected to rise by more than 50 per cent. The AfCFTA also has the potential to be innovative in its conception as a 21st century arrangement and become the world’s first ‘born digital’ trade agreement.

Trade challenges

Free trade agreements, negotiated for the benefit of businesses and consumers, can be challenging to understand and apply. Even legally trained experts may find it difficult to navigate the complex array of interactions between different trade agreements and domestic rules. These issues are compounded by the reality that legal texts are often difficult to access – whether unavailable electronically, not up-to-date or not easily searchable.

Survey data from the final report of the 2018 ECORYS study on the use of trade agreements suggests that key barriers to the use of free trade agreements include limited availability of information and that information is difficult to understand. This can mean that intended beneficiaries do not use the agreements to their advantage, undermining expected economic and social outcomes.

While effective use of the rules presents a challenge for all businesses, it is especially problematic for micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs). This is due to the resources they require for interpretation, determination of calculations and compliance with documentation. As the majority of businesses in Africa are small, the AfCFTA must target these enterprises to meet its objective to ‘promote and attain sustainable and inclusive socio-economic development’. Fortunately, legal technology can improve access to, and the functionality of, trade agreements for different user groups, including enterprises, customs agencies and policymakers.

A ‘born digital’ agreement

A ‘born digital’ AfCFTA would make the agreement easier to access, understand and apply. At the most basic level, this would imply the creation of an authorized ‘machine consumable’ translation of the text. Such a computer-friendly version of a trade agreement could, and should, equally represent any natural language counterpart. To add to usability, computational clauses, navigational aids and meta-data information could be integrated via digital formats.

Use of emerging standards such as Legal RuleML would enable users to easily search and jump between related sections. Metadata on specific sections could help users to identify particular provisions. This would be especially helpful for those unfamiliar with legal and trade terminology when searching for relevant parts of an agreement.

A digital AfCFTA also provides an opportunity for home-grown innovation. Creating a machine consumable version of the agreement would provide developers with the means to layer other technological solutions over the digitally expressed clauses, making them even more user friendly and accessible.


‘Rules as code’

Several initiatives are making progress in the area of ‘rules as code’. For example, New Zealand is providing domestic laws in the Extensible Markup Language (XML). Globally, the Xalgorithms Foundation is working to enable the availability of legislation in automation-friendly, computer-executable forms. Its alliance of contributors has developed components for online publishing, discovering and fetching of digitally expressed laws via an ‘internet of rules’.

Thus, a ‘born digital’ AfCFTA could include online schedules providing executable forms of rules to be used to automate cross-border transactions that involve the determination of calculations. To do so, it would be necessary to express relevant clauses of the AfCFTA agreement as algorithms. Creating a digital translation and schedules of executable rules would ensure consistency across the entire trade area and reduce the need for individual member states to duplicate resources in digitising the agreement.

A digital AfCFTA would be able to support trade facilitation systems and dramatically enhance the deployment of any single window. There are also significant implications for the automation of cross- border e-commerce in the free trade area as platforms would be able to fetch and apply rules in real time.

A template for the future

Because the AfCFTA is implemented by AU member states, computer executable rules would need to exist as a template to seamlessly integrate into national customs systems. Ideally, these computer language versions of laws will be openly accessible. With the rules coded in this way, individuals without trade or legal training – such as small traders – can more easily ensure they are seizing the benefits of the AfCFTA. Over time, these rules could be integrated with other systems, such as e-certificates of origin, as well as other digital tools important to trade, such as financing mechanisms, payments systems and digital identity mechanisms.

A digital AfCFTA will make it more simple and cost effective for those who engage in trade to access, interpret and apply the new rules. If executed correctly and practically focused, the benefits of the AfCFTA can be more easily realized and its intended beneficiaries can get the most out of it.

Fortunately, there is more than enough legal, developer and technical talent in Africa to ensure such a version of the agreement could be achieved. There is a good case for leapfrogging access to trade agreements through technology in the African context. All that is needed is the will to make it happen.






the sting Milestone

Featured Stings

Can we feed everyone without unleashing disaster? Read on

These campaigners want to give a quarter of the UK back to nature

How to build a more resilient and inclusive global system

Stopping antimicrobial resistance would cost just USD 2 per person a year

Brexit: UK to suffer from EU’s uncompromising stance

Congrats to the #FutureofMalta: a new age of voting

EU to give more power to national antitrust authorities in a bid to secure regulatory fines

Who should be responsible for protecting our personal data?

COP25 climate talks: What just happened, and what lies ahead?

Libya ‘in race against time’, but dissolving conflict ‘a realistic prospect’, Security Council hears

Protecting farmers and quality products: vote on EU farm policy reform plans

What is digital equality? An interview with Nanjira Sambuli

UN updates guidelines to ensure successful return to civilian life for former combatants

UN ‘prioritizing needs’, ramping up aid, as Hurricane Dorian continues to batter the Bahamas

EU-US relations on the dawn of the Trump era

Statement by OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría on the outcome of COP 25

The eight types of AI you should know about

UN leads bid for cheaper insulin, expanding access for diabetics worldwide

First do no harm. Why healthcare needs to change

Can the US deal a blow to EU and Russia together over Ukraine?

Amsterdam has a bubble barrier to catch canal plastic

An expert in the South China Sea issue on an exclusive interview at the European Sting

New EU short-stay visas: more advantages for legitimate travellers

The Junior Enterprise concept, one of the best ways to develop practical skills

So, what is your favourite Sustainable Development Goal?

UN panel to rally global political will to tackle internal displacement crisis

Iran protests: Live ammunition reportedly used, says UN human rights office

UN Climate Action Summit concludes with insufficient EU and global pledges

Three ways to improve your corporate culture in the #MeToo era

This project is turning abandoned fishing gear into volleyball nets

UN rights chief calls for international inquiry into Kashmir violations

Trump in London poisons UK and Europe

An EU Summit without purpose

Can India reduce deaths on one hazardous road to zero? This group is trying

3 of Jack Ma’s best pieces of advice

Joint U.S.-EU Statement following President Juncker’s visit to the White House

Energy Union: Commission calls on Member States to step up ambition in plans to implement Paris agreement

Deutsche Bank chased away from US, threatened with more fines

D-Day for Grexit is today and not Friday; Super Mario is likely to kill the Greek banks still today

The ethics of the Medical Technology Civilisation era

New rules for audiovisual media services approved by Parliament

Burundi: Inclusive dialogue ‘only viable option’ for resolving country’s political crisis says, UN envoy

South Sudan: UN rights experts see little headway on peace deal amid spike in local-level violence

Court of Auditors: MEPs back five members

‘The green economy is the future,’ UN chief says in Beijing, urging climate solutions that strengthen economies, protect the environment

Pharmaceuticals spend millions to push TTIP while consumer groups spend peanuts

Brexit: European Commission intensifies preparedness work and outlines contingency action plan in the event of a no deal scenario with the UK

Ingredients for a new life: how cooking helps refugees and migrants blend in

Vĕra Jourová, European Commissioner in charge of Justice

The New EU-US “Shield” for data privacy is full of holes

Who is culpable in the EU for Ukraine’s defection to Russia?

If you live in a big city you already smoke every day

UN rights chief Bachelet appeals for dialogue in Sudan amid reports ‘70 killed’ in demonstrations

UN condemns deadly attack against G5 Sahel force headquarters in Mali

Myanmar: New UN envoy offers to serve ‘as a bridge’, recognizes ‘positive steps’ over Rakhine state

Strength in unity: Commission makes recommendations for the EU’s next strategic agenda 2019-2024

Emergency meeting called as Ebola spreads to Congolese city – UN health agency

What the buoyant US economy means for the rest of the world

MWC 2016 LIVE: Zuckerberg warns mobile industry not to ignore the unconnected

Achieving targets on energy helps meet other Global Goals, UN forum told

Capital markets selloff: The financial moguls send messages to monetary authorities

5 factors driving the Chinese lawtech boom

Top officials say UN will support Bahamas’ rescue, relief efforts as Hurricane Dorian churns in Atlantic

‘Unique opportunity’ to resolve border dispute between Sudan, South Sudan

MWC 2016 Live: Roshan CEO opens up on Afghanistan challenges

More Stings?

Speak your Mind Here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s