Two recent articles reaching my desk reiterate the importance of clean and standardised Customs data. Without this, any real benefits to be derived from the latest and future technologies will not be fully achieved. Downstream, a country’s economy depends on this data for accurate analysis, forecasting and policy-making. Similarly, the business community relies on accurate information to assist in better business and investment decisions.
During the 15th PICARD Conference held during 23-26 November 2020, ‘World Customs Journal Special Edition’ was introduced. The first paper of the special edition is based on the keynote speech which was given at the 14th PICARD Conference in October 2019 titled “Data Science: Policy Implications for Customs”.
The paper referred to is titled –
“If algorithms dream of Customs, do customs of cialsdreamofalgorithms?A manifesto for data mobilisation in Customs“
The Abstract of the document reads as follows –
“Governance by data is a growing global trend, supported by strong national public policies whose foundation is open data, artificial intelligence and decision-making supported by algorithms. Despite this trend and some technical advances, Customs face obstacles in deploying ambitious data use policies. This article describes these challenges through recent experience in some Customs administrations and considers the technical and ethical issues speci c to all law enforcement agencies in the context of customs missions, to open paths for research and propose policy recommendations for a better use of customs data.”
The second matter is perhaps more directed towards Africa. TRALAC Newsletter, of October 2002 titled “Trade and Related Matters“ discusses the importance of data, specifically now with the introduction of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) in January 2021.
The article considers more than just Customs trade data relating to goods. It envisages trade in services data as just as important to ensure a holistic approach –
“Trade-related data includes not only recorded values and volumes of goods trade among countries, but also data on services trade, non-tariff measures and barriers, tariffs, informal trade, trade restrictiveness, macro-economic conditions (like gross domestic product), micro-economic data (industry/firm-level data including employment, sales, profits and prices) and investment. This data is utilised by governments to make public policy decisions including the formulation of industrial, agriculture, trade and economic growth policies, strategies and regulations; trade negotiations strategies; merger and acquisition reviews; assessments of anti-competitive practices and determinations in trade remedy cases and applications for changes in tariffs. Businesses use trade information, such as tariffs in destination markets, applicable non-tariff measures, transportation costs and trade restrictiveness in combination with macro-economic indicators, firm-level data and market information to make investment, trade and market development decisions, and also to lodge trade remedy and tariff review applications and to inform their participation in public-private forums.”
The Newsletter continues to explain the notable improvements in data and reporting oer the last decade –
“Although trade and trade-related data has various uses, it needs to be useful, reliable and accurate information which is publicly available (except in the case of confidential information). This is the area where most African countries have historically fallen short although there has been some significant progress over the last decade. Initially, African trade data was only available on subscription databases and only for a select number of countries (like South Africa, Kenya and Egypt) and limited to trade in goods. There was a lack in published tariff schedules and data pertaining to non-tariff measures, investment, informal trade and services. In recent years, the availability of some data has improved significantly, especially for goods trade.
- African countries are now increasingly publishing their statistics on websites of national statistics authorities and notifying their national data to the United Nations (UN). This data includes data on formal goods trade, aggregate services trade, non-tariff measures, tariffs, investment and some market information. The quality of the data has also improved as most countries now extensively verify the data prior to publication and submission. Increased access enables organisations like the World Bank, the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and International Trade Centre (ITC) to obtain, collate and publish trade data in databases like the ITC TradeMap and MacMap and the WTO trade portal.
- As part of the implementation of the WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement, many countries are establishing trade portals. Southern and eastern African countries that already have functioning portals include Seychelles, Eswatini, Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda. Some portals contain detailed information on import and export requirements by specified product, sanitary and phytosanitary requirements, port of entry and applicable tariffs. The trade portals of countries in east Africa, including Uganda and Rwanda provide details of import or export processes including the trade costs such as inspection charges, and indicate the waiting time to complete the different steps.
- Once fully operational, the African Trade Observatory (ATO) will contribute significantly to the availability of African trade data and capacity building. The ATO will collect and analyse trade and trade-related qualitative and quantitative data and information, establish a database for African trade; monitor implementation and evaluate the implementation process and impact of the AfCFTA and the Action Plan for Boosting Intra-Africa Trade (BIAT); and equip national governments and businesses to analyse and use of trade and related data.
- There is increasing awareness of the effect of non-tariff barriers (NTBs) on intra-Africa trade. More information is available in the public domain through industry/product/sector studies, the trade cost database of the World Bank and the online non-tariff barrier mechanisms of the COMESA-EAC-SADC Tripartite Free Trade Area, the Borderless Alliance (west Africa) and the new AfCFTA mechanism.
- Informal trade is recognised as a major component of intra-Africa trade and this is not captured in formal trade statistics. There are a number of initiatives to gather data on informal cross-border trade (ICBT), including studies by UNECAand ongoing work by the Bank of Uganda which has been conducting surveys and reporting ICBT data since 2005.
Although there have been improvements in intra-Africa trade data, there is room for improvement.”