Data is King!

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.”

USA & Singapore – Letter of Intent to Explore Single Window Connectivity

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Singapore Customs signed a historic letter of intent today that will enable closer cooperation in the areas of trade facilitation, revenue protection and risk management.

Executive Assistant Commissioner for the Office of Trade Brenda Smith signed the letter of intent in Washington, DC on behalf of CBP and Deputy Director-General Lim Teck Leong signed the letter of intent in Singapore on behalf of Singapore Customs.

The Letter of Intent to Explore Single Window Connectivity between Singapore’s Networked Trade Platform (NTP) and the U.S. Automated Commercial Environment (ACE) formalizes the United States’ and Singapore’s commitment to sharing trade data and to exploring the possible connection of the two countries’ national Single Windows for trade facilitation. Single Windows are electronic systems that automate and expedite the processing of import and export data by allowing traders to input standardized information in a single entry point to fulfill all import and export requirements. In doing so, Single Windows reduce costs, enhance accountability and improve collaboration among government agencies and the trade community.   

“We value the opportunity for transparency and cooperation that a shared Single Window will bring,” said Executive Assistant Commissioner Smith. “Government-to-government data sharing is rapidly becoming an important component of efficient and secure trade, and CBP looks forward to working with Singapore Customs on this forward thinking approach to trade facilitation.”

“The signing of this letter of intent signifies the first step towards trade data connectivity between the two Customs administrations, and reinforces our commitment to maintain the security of international supply chains, while facilitating legitimate trade,” said Deputy Director-General Lim. 

The letter of intent follows the successful negotiation of the U.S.-Singapore Free Trade Agreement in 2004 and builds on the Authorized Economic Operator-Mutual Recognition Agreement and the Customs Mutual Assistance Agreement concluded by CBP and Singapore Customs in 2014. These efforts support the principles, standards and objectives of the World Customs Organization Framework of Standards to Secure and Facilitate Global Trade.

The collaboration between CBP and Singapore Customs complements the United States’ continued engagement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Single Window Steering Committee on trade facilitative data exchange and Single Window connectivity/interoperability. Singapore is an active member of ASEAN and the ASEAN Single Window. 

In 2019, two-way trade in goods between the United States and Singapore totaled $57.6 billion, making Singapore the United States’ 17th largest trading partner and its second-largest trading partner in ASEAN. 

Source: US Customs and Border Protection, 10 November 2020

Kazungula Bridge nears completion

Construction of the Kazungula bridge which will connect Zambia and Botswana and ultimately link the port of Durban in South Africa to the Democratic Republic of the Congo nears completion and by end of 2020 it is expected to be open to the public.

The Kazungula Bridge is located at the Kazungula crossing, where Botswana and Zambia share a border measuring about 750m over the Zambezi River. It is also at the confluence of Zambezi and Chobe rivers, and the meeting point of the four southern Africa countries – Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

The US $259.3m project was officially launched in September 2014 by then Vice-presidents of Zambia and Botswana, and is financed by the African Development Bank (AfDB) and the two governments. The multi-million-dollar project was hailed as the Southern African Development Community (SADC) economic integration success stories, one of the missing links to realizing the North-South Corridor identified under the Regional Infrastructure Development Master Plan (RIDMP).

Kazungula Bridge under Construction

The new bridge will facilitate trade with Botswana and within the SADC region. The project, which entails a 923 metre-long rail/road extra dosed cable stayed bridge with approach roads as well as construction of one stop border posts on the Zambia and Botswana sides; was scheduled for completion last year but failed due to Zambia’s failure to pay.

The bridge is expected to reduce transit time for freight and passengers, boost the regional economy and even increase global competitiveness of goods from Botswana and Zambia due to reduced time-based trade and transport costs.

HMRC – Border Operating Model with the EU

From 1 January 2021, the transition period with the European Union (EU) will end, and the United Kingdom (UK) will operate a full, external border as a sovereign nation. This means that controls will be placed on the movement of goods between Great Britain (GB) and the EU.

The UK Government will implement full border controls on imports coming into GB from the EU. Recognising the impact of coronavirus on businesses’ ability to prepare, the UK Government has taken the decision to introduce the new border controls in three stages up until 1 July 2021.

Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs (HMRC) published the first iteration of the Border Operating Model in July 2020, setting out the core model that all importers and exporters will need to follow from January 2021 as well as the additional requirements for specific products such as live animals, plants, products of animal origin and high-risk food not of animal origin. We also provided important details of Member State requirements as traders and the border industry will need to ensure they are ready to comply with these, and not just Great Britain (GB) requirements. Indeed, as set out in the recently published ‘Reasonable Worst Case Scenario’ assumptions, it is largely the level of readiness for Member State requirements which will determine whether there is disruption to the flow of goods at the end of the transition period. This is why we have included additional signposting to those requirements throughout the document, and are encouraging all GB businesses not just to ensure their own readiness but also the readiness of EU businesses to whom they export, and throughout their supply chains.

Since July, the HMRC has worked closely with industry to further develop plans for the end of the transition period, and also to respond to industry questions since the publication of the first iteration of the Border Operating Model. This latest iteration of the Border Operating Model provides additional information in a number of key areas as set out below as well as clarifying a number of questions from industry.

You can access the HMRC Border Operating Model here.

Harmonised Message Structures for International Forwarding and Transport Messages on the way

NEWS From the GEFEG Blog

UN COVID-19 project to support data exchange for international supply chain processes

The emergence of COVID-19 has shown an increased demand for coordination, efficient planning, modelling and risk control in many areas. The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) and its trade related United Nations Centre for Trade Facilitation and Electronic Business (UN/CEFACT) are strongly supporting multilateral engagement for interoperable cross-border standards, such as UN/CEFACT Data exchange Standards.

Multi-Model Transport Reference Data Model Ready for use

Many current regulations, standards, instructions and business capacity-building measures are available already. The comprehensive Multi-modal Transport Reference Data Model (MMT RDM) covers the requirements of international forwarding and transport, including related trade, insurance, customs and other regulatory documentary requirements based on the integration of trade facilitation best practices, developed by UN/CEFACT.

COVID-19 Project lead by GEFEG: Development of a standardised data set for the Transport sector

On behalf of the UN, GEFEG provides the project lead for the COVID 19 project. The project concentrates on ensuring the flow of goods and the transport across the various transport modes. Its overall objective is to set up a multi-modal harmonized set of mainly transport documents as a profile of the UN/CEFACT Multi-modal Transport Reference Data Model (MMT RDM).

The data sets developed include seven electronic exchange messages such as Booking Instruction, Shipping Instruction, Waybill, Bill of Lading, Packing List, Status Messages, Rapid Alert Security Food and Feed (RASFF) and their Business Requirement Specifications (BRSs). It has been checked that every data element with the same name also has the same semantic meaning.

The new profile of the MMT RDM will build a bridge to the already existing electronic exchange formats and allow a better use of state-of-the-art technologies such as block chain and APIs regarding the different transport modes.

Focusing on the different transport modes in the next phase

Additional information will be collected in the next phase, with a stronger focus on the different modes of transport. Results will be reported back to the Multi-modal Transport RDM and change processes initiated regarding relevant yet missing information in the MMT RDM. And last but not least, profiles of the MMT for the different modes of transport, such as air, rail, road, and maritime will be published.

Michael Dill, CEO of GEFEG is looking forward to welcome further participants in the project: It will be important to get advice and hints on any missing data requirements across the various modes of transport! I would like to encourage colleagues involved in transport processes to join the next phase of the project. Your valuable input and expert knowledge would be very much appreciated.”

Interested parties wishing to participate in the project should contact info@gefeg.com with subject detail: New Participant in COVID-19 project.

Source: GEFEG News Blog, dated 16 September 2020

DTIC Launches New Support System to Address SA’s Export Barriers

The Department of Trade, Industry and Competition (the dtic) launched the Export Barriers Monitoring Mechanism (EBMM) that will put South Africa in a strong position to provide the type of consistent, ongoing support that is needed to continuously improve the country’s export environment. The Department’s e Deputy Director-General of Export Development, Promotion and Outward Investments, Ms Lerato Mataboge said the fundamental aim of EBMM is to make the government’s support to exporters facing barriers more effective, more flexible, and more accessible.

By creating a systematic approach to monitoring these barriers, the government can develop a long-term agenda to target the most important export barriers. By addressing each individual barrier, government can begin to manage each problem with the level of nuance and detail needed for these complex challenges.

During an initial pilot project, 28 key export barriers were processed by the EBMM and during the initial phase of the national lockdown, the EBMM methodology was used to process 76 barriers related to COVID-19. From today, the EBMM is open to any firm that encounters an export barrier of any kind, whether locally or in any foreign market.

In 2018, South African exporters faced an estimated 154,571 unique customs requirements worldwide. Over the last ten years, 23,795 new or amended technical barriers to trade have been registered with the World Trade Organisation; while over the same period 13,364 sanitary and phytosanitary barriers were registered or amended.

DTIC’s priority is to work progressively to smooth these barriers, the experience of the last decade of trade has demonstrated that we need to be prepared to manage this growing complexity. Increasingly, a key component of global competitiveness will be how we manage a constantly changing global trading environment. Managing this environment will only be possible through a close working partnership between the government and the private sector.

Speaking at the same launch, the Executive Director of the South African Electrotechnical Export Council, Ms Chiboni Evans, highlighted the importance of maximising content and projects in the African continent, and the important role played by export barriers in reducing competitiveness in the region.

Persistent logistics barriers meant that transporting goods by road took longer from all our major cities to mines in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region. It was then easy for these countries to import goods from Asia, Americas and Europe rather than waiting on South Africa.

Highlighting previous experiences of partnering with the dtic to resolve export barriers, Ms Evans noted that a lot of the barriers to export can only be resolved by the private sector working together with government. She added that this new mechanism will assist greatly in opening up government support to a much broader spectrum of private sector individuals.

All export barrier queries can be reported to ExportBarriers@thedtic.gov.za or through the the dtic website.

Source: The Department of Trade, Industry and Competition, August 31, 2020

World Bank suspends ‘Doing Business’ rankings after fraud

The World Bank has suspended its Doing Business report, which ranks countries based on the costs of doing business. It is the latest crisis to beset the institution.

“A number of irregularities have been reported regarding changes to the data in the Doing Business 2018 and Doing Business 2020 reports,” the global institution said in a statement on August 27.

The institution said it had informed the authorities of the most affected countries, but did not name them. “We will act based on the findings and will retrospectively correct the data of countries that were most affected by the irregularities,” the statement added.

The Wall Street Journal reported that data on China, Azerbaijan, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia “appeared to have been inappropriately altered.”

If confirmed, the revised data could affect the rankings of the five countries. The latest report, for example, showed vast improvement among Middle Eastern economies with Saudi Arabia climbing 30 places.

The latest report, published last year, ranked Togo and Nigeria among the 10 countries that had shown the most improvement and collectively accounted for “one-fifth of all the reforms recorded worldwide.”

There are no reports that the scores of either country were tampered with.

In the report, only two Sub-Saharan economies, Mauritius and Rwanda, ranked among the top 50. Kenya, South Africa, Zambia, Botswana, and Togo ranked among the top 100 while South Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia ranked among the lowest globally.

The decision to suspend the rankings is also likely to reignite controversy around the annual report, particularly in the methodologies behind the rankings.

In the 17 years it has been published, the Doing Business reports have amassed “surprising influence over global regulatory policies,” researchers wrote in a paper published in 2019. The researchers found that the rankings strongly affect policy as governments make reforms to improve their ranking.

“Changes over time in the Doing Business rankings are not particularly meaningful. They largely reflect changes in methodology and sample—which the World Bank makes every year, without correcting earlier numbers—not changes in reality on the ground,” Researchers at the Center for Global Development wrote in February 2018.

In June, the Bretton Woods institution appointed Carmen Reinhart as its new chief economist. Reinhart’s two predecessors, Penelope Koujianou Goldberg and Paul Romer, resigned after less than two years on the job. Pinelope Goldberg quit in February, effective 1 March.

Romer quit in January 2018 after igniting a controversy around Chile’s ranking in the Ease of Doing Business Report, which he suggested may have been deliberately lowered under the presidency of left-leaning Michelle Bachelet.

The World Bank is also struggling to counter the fallout from the publication of an internal paper that looks at elite capture of foreign aid.

Source: The Africa Report, 28 August 2020

WTO: COVID-19 related restrictions on cross-border mobility are affecting global trade

A new information note published by the WTO Secretariat highlights how trade in goods and services has been affected by temporary border closures and travel restrictions linked to the COVID-19 pandemic.

It describes how the cross-border mobility of individuals plays an important role in both the cross-border provision and consumption of services and in manufacturing value chains.  

The paper notes that sweeping travel barriers introduced in the early stages of the pandemic have given way to more fine-tuned policies aimed at allowing through “essential” foreign workers, or creating quarantine-free “travel bubbles” among partners. Nevertheless, mobility barriers have had a particularly heavy impact on tourism and education services, as well as on trade in goods, due to their effect on transport services and on information and transaction costs.

The paper notes that international cooperation has a potentially important role to play in minimizing the economic impact of mobility restrictions. For instance, exchanging information on lessons learnt about mobility restrictions and trade could help WTO members foster greater resilience in the face of future crises. Such an exercise could help with identifying options to implement travel measures that meet public health protection objectives while minimizing the negative effects on trade.

Key points

  • International trade and investment have always relied on the cross-border mobility of individuals. 
  • To contain the spread of COVID-19, many WTO members imposed temporary border closures and travel restrictions. The severe restrictions on cross-border movement are not motivated by trade considerations but by public health reasons. Nevertheless, they have had a significant impact on trade. In several members, initial sweeping travel barriers have been replaced by more fine-tuned policies, aimed at allowing the movement of “essential” foreign workers, or creating “travel bubbles” permitting quarantine-free mobility among partners. 
  • A significant amount of services trade requires physical proximity between producers and consumers. International mobility to consume or provide services abroad is one way to attain this proximity. Mobility is also important to the operations of services providers who establish a commercial presence in other countries, as well as to those who ordinarily provide services remotely across international borders. 
  • Border measures and travel restrictions have had a particularly heavy impact on sectors such as tourism and education services. COVID-19 has triggered an unprecedented crisis for the tourism sector. In terms of travellers and revenue, international tourism in 2020 is expected to register its worst performance since 1950. In higher education, some institutions are facing a potential drop in international student enrolment of 50 to 75 per cent. 
  • Mobility barriers also significantly affect trade in goods, through their impact on transport services and on information and transaction costs. 
  • Restarting international mobility is unlikely to proceed in a linear fashion. Given the crossborder spill-overs resulting from measures affecting transnational mobility, a case can be made for supplementing domestic action with international cooperative efforts. WTO members may eventually wish to look into building greater preparedness and resilience for future crises, for example starting with information exchange about lessons learnt about mobility restrictions and trade. The exercise could help with identifying ways to implement travel measures that meet public health protection objectives while producing the least trade distortive effects.

The report can be found here!

Source: World Trade Organisation

Automating global logistics starts with digital documents

Like with most business ecosystems, the functioning of global trade relies on efficient exchanges of information, especially of documents. While industries and ecosystems around the world are now digitizing associated processes and automating the bottlenecks, the business ecosystem of global shipping has been slower to realize innovation and digitization.

Supply chain processes require close coordination among many parties and a major choke point in this process is the requesting and finalizing of bills of lading with ocean carriers. There are many situations which cause even the most straight-forward flows to be disrupted and require multiple versions of documents to be created, reviewed and exchanged until final approval and the final bill of lading submission.

TradeLens Workflows utilize blockchain smart contracts to automate and digitize multi-party interactions — this helps drive efficiencies across supply chains. Let’s take a look at each major element to understand what digitizing document workflows looks like for the shipping industry.

Blockchain as the foundation

The foundation of TradeLens Workflows is a permissioned blockchain which guarantees the immutability and traceability of shipping documents and their processes on the platform. This is a very important building block in providing the trust needed to scale.

The permissioned blockchain transforms some of the basic concepts around business networks — contracts, ledgers, transactions, the flow of assets and identity of participants — and introduces the following:

  • Consensus. Transactions in a blockchain network are first proposed, then consented to by the group, and only then committed to the ledger.
  • Shared ledger. Trust anchors have an exact copy of the ledger.
  • Immutability. When a block is committed it is cryptographically secured with previous blocks in the ledger forming an audit log that becomes the foundation of trust.
  • Accountability: All participants are digitally identifiable, and each blockchain transaction is signed with a permissioned user digital certificate.

Document sharing

TradeLens Document sharing provides a framework for organizing and sharing trade documents related to a host of information such as shipments, consignments and transport equipment. This is all done through permissioned access according to the role of different players and includes security, version control and privacy provisions.

Each trade document is stored on a single stack within the blockchain network, under the control of the operator and accessible only to permissioned parties within a channel. Users can upload, download, view and edit documents as allowed by their permissions and access control on that specific type of document for the trade object in question.

It is important to note, only the hash of a given document is stored on the ledger. The document itself is stored securely where access is granted according to the TradeLens Data Sharing Specification. Each time a document is edited or uploaded, a new version is created and added to the document store. Every version can be verified against a hash of its original submitted content in the ledger.

Blockchain ensures the immutability and auditability of all these documents, promoting trust and alignment across trading partners.

Beyond document sharing

The TradeLens Workflow feature takes thedocument sharing capability one step further. It provides a way to interpret structured documents and take actions on them according to well-defined workflows. In other words, by understanding the purpose and contents of documents we can automate certain actions and notifications in the shipment flow.

As documents are submitted through the TradeLens API or UI, they are interpreted by looking at specific attributes that determine which trade object the document is applicable to, and which actions to perform. The actions are checked against defined rules and only specific actions by specific actors are accepted.

When all requirements are fulfilled, the document is saved and the appropriate action gets recorded as a transaction on the blockchain. Smart contracts ensure the state and progression of a TradeLens Workflow — what can be done at each step, and by which organization or actor.

Our workflows also update generated events to help notify subscribers (members of the supply chain) of the actions and results.

An example of TradeLens Workflow: SI-BL Flow 

Let’s talk about a specific TradeLens Workflow — the SI-BL. This variation simplifies the process of sending a shipping instruction (SI) to the ocean carrier and receiving back a verified bill of lading (BL). The TradeLens SI-BL Workflow removes the need to manually edit, amend and transfer these critical documents, accelerating end-to-end flow to achieve a final bill of lading.

When a shipper (or their representative) submits a SI to the TradeLens Platform, it is analyzed by its attributes to determine which consignment it’s related to and which ocean carrier should be notified. Once the carrier has it, a draft BL is submitted back to the platform, the shipper can review and make amendments and share back to the carrier and so on, until a final BL is agreed upon. Because this is an automated process between systems at the shipper and carrier, manual tasks are eliminated along with their inherent delays.

There are many other variations of this flow, but the benefits come from the visibility and increased speed in processing these transactions. Also helpful for shippers, this offers a single mechanism and process for interacting with different ocean carriers with an immutable, shared audit trail for all draft BL revisions and approvals — all recorded on the blockchain ledger.

A digital ecosystem to meet old and new challenges

TradeLens Workflows help connect your ecosystem, drive information sharing and foster collaboration and trust by enabling the digitization and automation of how you work with others.

Source: Article by Ana Biazetti, TradeLens, May 22, 2020

Brazil launches first ever nation-wide Time Release Study

On 30 June 2020 the Secretariat of the Federal Revenue of Brazil (Receita Federal do Brasil), launched its first ever nation-wide Time Release Study (TRS) during an online live broadcasted event attended by over 4000 participants – including border agencies and the private sector, as well as Customs administrations from across the globe. The TRS, which follows the World Customs Organizations (WCO) TRS Methodology, constitutes a milestone for the Brazilian Customs Administration as it enhances transparency while providing an opportunity for an evidence based dialogue between all key stakeholders to tackle the identified bottlenecks and improve the effectiveness and efficiency of border procedures.

The TRS report was validated by the WCO in collaboration with the World Bank Group and with support of the UK’s Prosperity Fund. Speaking at the Opening Session of the launch event, WCO Deputy Secretary-General, Ricardo Treviño Chapa said: “This is a big step forward towards increased trade facilitation and provides a baseline to measure the impact of actions and reforms”. He also underlined that the Brazilian experience would be valuable to share with the wider Customs community and added that “the current health emergency shows that it is key to keep the flow of goods going”. Throughout the event the importance of the WCO’s TRS methodology was highlighted by various speakers as a vital tool for strategic planning and the implementation of the WTO’s Trade Facilitation Agreement. 

The study shows an average time measured of 7.5 days considering air, sea and road modes of transport. The Customs clearance stage accounts for less than 10% of the total time measured, while those actions under the responsibility of private agents represent more than half of the total time spent in all flows analysed. 

To further increase transparency for importers and exporters, the Secretariat of the Federal Revenue of Brazil also intends to publish the raw data of the TRS.

The recording of the full launch event with Portuguese/English translation can be watched here (YouTube).

The TRS report and its Executive Summary are available here.

Source: World Customs Organisation

WTO Director General Roberto Azevêdo resigns

The World Trade Organization’s Director General, Roberto Azevêdo announced his resignation effective 31 August of this year. His tenure will end three years into his second four year term which was otherwise due to expire in 2021.

Azevêdo’s departure annouoncement comes in a week where a bill to withdraw the United States from the organization was introduced in the US House of Representatives by the Democratic Chairs of the Transportation & Infrastructure, and Energy and Commerce Committees. This following the introduction of a Joint Resolution to the same effect in the US Senate by Republican Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri.

It comes as the organisation finds its dispute resolution function paralyzed by a US Appellate Body blockade, a potentially existential budget battle looms, its scheduled ministerial conference cancelled and even supportive members eyeing unilateral trade action in contravention of its principles.

At perhaps the most perilous time in its 25-year history, the WTO will be without a formally appointed leader, and the forthcoming selection process for his replacement hands the US yet another opportunity to exercise an effective veto over the organization’s future.

Dmitry Grozoubinski highlights the significance of Azevêdo’s departure.

Is this resignation a big deal?

While not likely to be the straw that breaks its back, this unfortunately timed resignation is still a hefty new weight for an exhausted WTO camel whose knees were already trembling. As the kids would say, “It’s not great.”

While opinions on the Roberto Azevêdo’s performance vary, his departure couldn’t come at a worse time, and the process to replace him is both very long and just as susceptible to being held hostage by an ornery member as everything else in the organisation.

As a global champion of rules based trade, the WTO’s ‘DG’ has an important role to play in making the full throated case against the rising tide of export restrictions, protectionism and unilateralism unleashed by the US-China trade tensions and exacerbated by Covid-19. Now is no time for the system to be without its Knight in Shiny Armani.

As the head of the WTO secretariat, the director general was poised to play a key role in steering the organisation through what now seems a near inevitable battle over its budget at the end of the year. If the US once again blocked adoption of the WTO’s budget, it would have been up to him to try and forge a compromise, or make the difficult and controversial decisions required to keep the lights on, staff paid and fondue pot glowing in the face of an unapproved budget.

As the chair of the trade negotiations committee, the director general offers convening power, good offices, and a consensus building voice. With critical negotiations around fisheries subsidies, e-commerce, investment, and WTO reform all hanging in the balance, the absence of a Director-General only further decreases the likelihood of progress (perhaps from Hail Mary Pass to Igloo in Hell).

What happens now – Interim Director-General? 

Upon Mr Azevêdo’s departure at the end of August, The rules now require the WTO General Council – a meeting of all WTO Members which serves as its highest decision making-body outside of a ministerial conference to appoint one of the four Deputy-Directors General as an interim director.

This presents a potential hurdle, as the WTO General Council makes decisions by consensus. Therefore, even a single member’s objection could prevent the appointment of an interim leader for the organisation.

The current deputies are Yonov Frederick Agah of Nigeria, Karl Brauner of Germany, Alan Wolff of the United States and Yi Xiaozhun of China. For obvious reasons, neither the US nor the Chinese DDGs are likely candidates for unanimous approval, and it is not impossible to envisage objections to Agah and Brauner as well – either personally or on general principle to sabotage the organisation further.

What happens next – A new Director-General?

Whether an interim DG is appointed or not, the WTO members will need to begin the process of selecting a new Director-General.

The procedure is lengthy and would ordinarily begin nine months before a DG’s term is set to expire. Once the process begins, WTO members have one month to nominate candidates, which must be their own nationals.

After this month is over, the candidates are expected to come to Geneva and meet with the WTO missions. The next seven months are to be spent weening the applicants down to a single final consensus candidate.

Is there politics? 

Oh my god yes. While the Director-General has no legal authority to make or enforce the rules, WTO members are still intensely jealous of the position and allergic to any candidate they feel might impede their interests.

Arriving at a single consensus candidate requires a raft of compromises, trades and deals even at the best of times, which of course the current situation is not.

What happens if no consensus candidate can be found? 

Theoretically, the rules do allow for a vote by the membership to select a Director-General. However, this procedure is both a measure of last-resort and intended primarily for a situation where the membership is split between two or more valid candidates and agrees by consensus on a vote to break the deadlock.

Were the US or some other member to block all candidates as a matter of principle, they would also likely oppose a vote. Even if a vote could then be forced regardless, it would only fuel the fires of those who argue the WTO has gone rogue.

So what does it all mean? 

On its own, this resignation does not fundamentally change the state of play. The WTO is severely weakened, partially paralysed and increasingly in the crosshairs of the US, where concerns about it extend beyond the Trump administration and across party lines.

It does however rob the WTO of an experienced, consensus-approved leader at a time when both the organisation and the cause of rules-based trade desperately need one.

Still, though slim, there is hope the DG selection process might serve to revitalise the organisation. Long rumored candidacies like that of Kenya’s formidable Amina Mohamed, who chaired the 10th WTO Ministerial Conference to a successful conclusion and would be the organization’s first female and first African Director-General, offer a path to a more globally representative future.

Source: article by Dmitry Grozoubinski, Borderlex.eu, 14 May 2020

Bid to Hire 50,000 Post-Brexit Customs Staff

The U.K. risks failing to recruit the 50,000 customs agents the logistics industry says are needed before Britain’s final parting with the European Union, spelling potential chaos at the country’s busiest border.

The coronavirus has hampered efforts to train staff to handle the extra paperwork firms will need to complete after the U.K. exits the EU’s customs union at the year-end, according to industry bodies involved with the process. One lobby group says its offer to help plug the shortage of recruits has met with silence from Whitehall.

Without enough agents, goods traveling to and from the EU, the U.K.’s single biggest trading partner, risk being delayed at ports, disrupting supply chains and heaping more pain on companies reeling from coronavirus. Even if the two sides strike a trade deal by December, agents will still be needed to process an additional 200 million customs declarations, according to estimates by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs.

“This is all blown out the water by the virus,” said Robert Keen, director-general of the British International Freight Association, which is helping to train workers to process the new paperwork with funding from a 34 million-pound ($43 million) government program. “Everybody is fighting to keep their businesses going.”

Keen’s industry group has postponed its classroom training until at least June. The number of monthly registrations for its online learning course has dropped by 80% since February.

Asked by lawmakers on April 27 how many agents have been recruited so far, Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove said he didn’t know.

He told members of Parliament the government had been in talks with the logistics industry about creating a training school. Such an initiative already exists — the U.K. Customs Academy was started in September with the Institute of Export. 876 courses have been initiated or completed since the academy opened, according to KGH Customs, which helps run the program.

“There is a significantly long way to go,” said Marco Forgione, director-general of the Institute for Export. According to him, the 50,000 figure is almost certainly a conservative estimate of how many agents will be needed. He is calling on the government to encourage people who have lost their jobs because of the virus to re-train as customs officials.

‘Full Stop’

In a sign of how the virus has sapped attention away from Brexit in Whitehall, the Freight Transport Association submitted a proposal to the Treasury on March 17 about how to set up a mass education program to train up agents. More than a month later, the lobby group hasn’t received a reply.

“My impression is it has come to a full stop,” said Rod McKenzie, managing director of policy and public affairs at the Road Haulage Association. He expressed surprised he hadn’t seen any job ads for customs agents.

Talks to seal a trade deal between Britain and the EU have been disrupted by the virus. The U.K. is seeking a Canada-style accord which would eliminate tariffs on goods but create new non-tariff barriers like customs declarations and rules-of-origin paperwork. Without a deal, the U.K. would trade with the EU on terms set by the World Trade Organization, meaning steep duties on products from cars to beef.

Need to Prepare

The two sides have until the end of June to extend the standstill period Britain entered after Brexit on Jan. 31 – but the government has repeatedly ruled out seeking a delay. Business groups such as BIFA and the FTA have called for an extension, arguing firms shouldn’t have to face the double whammy of higher trade costs while still recovering from the negative effects of coronavirus.

A government spokesman said thousands of agents, freight forwarders and parcel operators had used the 34 million-pound fund to improve their IT hardware and train staff.

“The U.K. has a well-established industry of customs intermediaries who serve British businesses trading outside the EU,” the spokesman added.

Even if firms are able to divert resources into training later in the year, by when the virus might have abated, companies will still need time to prepare, said Arne Mielken, founder of Customs Manager, an advisory firm for importers and exporters.

“You can’t hammer in customs knowledge overnight,” he said. “We urge companies not to neglect the fact that Brexit is still happening.”

Source: Article by Joe Mayes, Bloomberg, 4 May 2020

World Bank -Trade and COVID-19 (Coronavirus)

Photo: Martin Sanchez, Unsplash

Maintaining trade flows during the COVID-19 pandemic will be crucial in providing access to essential food and medical items and in limiting negative impacts on jobs and poverty.

The speed and scale of the crisis are unprecedented. But governments can ameliorate the impact. The following documents, hyperlinked to this page provide initial guidance for policymakers on best practices to mitigate pandemic-related trade risks, support trade facilitation and logistics, and implement trade policy in a time of crisis.

Managing Risk and Facilitating Trade in the COVID-19 Pandemic

Maintaining trade flows as much as possible during the COVID-19 pandemic will be crucial in providing access to essential food and medical items and in limiting negative impacts on jobs and poverty.

Some countries are closing border crossings and implementing protectionist measures such as restricting exports of critical medical supplies. Although these measures may in the short-term provide some immediate reduction in the spread of the disease, in the medium term they may undermine health protection, as countries lose access to essential products to fight the pandemic. Instead, governments should refrain from introducing new barriers to trade and consider removing import tariffs and other taxes at the border on critical medical equipment and products, including food, to support the health response.

Trade facilitation measures can contribute to the response to the crisis by expediting the movement, release, and clearance of goods, including goods in transit. The World Bank Group provides guidance and technical assistance to developing and least developed countries to implement best practices to facilitate the free flow of goods.

Download the Guideline here!

Do’s and Don’ts of Trade Policy in Response to COVID-19

Despite the initial inclination of policy makers to close borders, maintaining trade flows during the COVID-19 pandemic will be crucial. Trade in both goods and services will play a key role in overcoming the pandemic and limiting its impact in the following ways:

  • by providing access to essential medical goods (including material inputs for their production) and services to help contain the pandemic and treat those affected,
  • ensuring access to food throughout the world,
  • providing farmers with necessary inputs (seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, equipment, veterinary products)for the next harvest,
  • by supporting jobs and maintaining economic activity in the face of a global recession. Substantialdisruption to regional and global value chains will reduce employment and increase poverty.Trade policies will therefore be an essential instrument in the management of the crisis.

Trade policy reforms, such as tariff reductions, can contribute:

  • to reducing the cost and improving the availability of COVID-19 goods and services,
  • to reducing tax and administrative burdens on importers and exporters,
  • to reducing the cost of food and other products heavily consumed by the poor and contributing to themacro-economic measures introduced to limit the negative economic and social impact of the COVID-19 related downturn,
  • to supporting the eventual economic recovery and building resilience to future crises.

Governments with industries producing COVID-19 medical goods or food staples can further contribute by committing to refrain from limiting exports through bans or taxes. If export restrictions must be used, then they should be targeted, proportionate, transparent, and temporary.Measures to streamline trade procedures and facilitate trade at borders can contribute to the response to the crisis by expediting the movement, release, and clearance of goods, including goods in transit, and enabling exchange of services.

Reforms can be designed to reduce the need for close contact between traders, transporters and border officials so as to protect stakeholders and limit the spread of the virus, while maintaining essential assessments to ensure revenue, health and security. Interventions to sustain and enhance the efficiency of logistics operations may also be critical in avoiding substantial disruption to distribution networks and hence to regional and global value chains.

Download the Guideline here!

Trade in Critical COVID-19 Products

The covid-19 pandemic is increasingly a concern for developing countries. Using a new database on trade in covid-19 relevant products, this paper looks at the role of trade policy to address the looming health crisis in developing countries with highest numbers of recorded cases. It shows that export restrictions by leading producers could cause significant disruption in supplies and contribute to price increases. Tariffs and other restrictions to imports further impair the flow of critical products to developing countries. 

Download the Guideline here!

Also view the Blog post – Viral protectionism in the time of coronavirus

Source: World Bank, 1April, 2020

AfCFTA – an uphill struggle in quest for regional trade on the continent

Picture : Bloomberg.com

The following article was published by Bloomberg and sketches the day-to-day hardship for cross border trucking through Africa. In a sense it asks the very questions and challenges which the average African asks in regard to the highly anticipated free trade area. While rules of origin and tariffs form the basis of trade across borders, together with freedom of movement of people, these will mean nothing if African people receive no benefit. As globalisation appears to falter across Europe and the West, it begs the question whether this is in fact is the solution for Africa; particularly for the reason that many believe globalisation itself is an extension of capitalism which some of the African states are at loggerheads with. Moreover, how many of these countries can forego the much need Customs revenue to sustain their economies, let alone losing political autonomy – only time will tell.

Nyoni Nsukuzimbi drives his 40-ton Freightliner for just over half a day from Johannesburg to the Beitbridge border post with Zimbabwe. At the frontier town—little more than a gas station and a KFC—he sits in a line for two to three days, in temperatures reaching 104F, waiting for his documents to be processed.

That’s only the start of a journey Nsukuzimbi makes maybe twice a month. Driving 550 miles farther north gets him to the Chirundu border post on the Zambian frontier. There, starting at a bridge across the Zambezi River, trucks snake back miles into the bush. “There’s no water, there’s no toilets, there are lions,” says the 40-year-old Zimbabwean. He leans out of the Freightliner’s cab over the hot asphalt, wearing a white T-shirt and a weary expression. “It’s terrible.”

By the time he gets his load of tiny plastic beads—the kind used in many manufacturing processes—to a factory on the outskirts of Zambia’s capital, Lusaka, he’s been on the road for as many as 10 days to traverse just 1,000 miles. Nsukuzimbi’s trials are typical of truck drivers across Africa, where border bureaucracy, corrupt officials seeking bribes, and a myriad of regulations that vary from country to country have stymied attempts to boost intra-African trade.

The continent’s leaders say they’re acting to change all that. Fifty-three of its 54 nations have signed up to join only Eritrea, which rivals North Korea in its isolation from the outside world, hasn’t. The African Union-led agreement is designed to establish the world’s biggest free-trade zone by area, encompassing a combined economy of $2.5 trillion and a market of 1.2 billion people. Agreed in May 2019, the pact is meant to take effect in July and be fully operational by 2030. “The AfCFTA,” South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said in his Oct. 7 weekly letter to the nation, “will be a game-changer, both for South Africa and the rest of the continent.”

It has to be if African economies are ever going to achieve their potential. Africa lags behind other regions in terms of internal trade, with intracontinental commerce accounting for only 15% of total trade, compared with 58% in Asia and more than 70% in Europe. As a result, supermarket shelves in cities such as Luanda, Angola, and Abidjan, Ivory Coast, are lined with goods imported from the countries that once colonized them, Portugal and France.

By lowering or eliminating cross-border tariffs on 90% of African-produced goods, the new regulations are supposed to facilitate the movement of capital and people and create a liberalized market for services. “We haven’t seen as much institutional will for a large African Union project before,” says Kobi Annan, an analyst at Songhai Advisory in Ghana. “The time frame is a little ambitious, but we will get there.”

President Nana Akufo-Addo of Ghana and other heads of state joined Ramaphosa in hailing the agreement, but a number of the businesspeople who are supposed to benefit from it are skeptical. “Many of these governments depend on that duty income. I don’t see how that’s ever going to disappear,” says Tertius Carstens, the chief executive officer of Pioneer Foods Group Ltd., a South African maker of fruit juices and cereal that’s being acquired by PepsiCo Inc. for about $1.7 billion. “Politically it sounds good; practically it’s going to be a nightmare to implement, and I expect resistance.”

Under the rules, small countries such as Malawi, whose central government gets 7.7% of its revenue from taxes on international trade and transactions, will forgo much-needed income, at least initially. By contrast, relatively industrialized nations like Egypt, Kenya, and South Africa will benefit from the outset. “AfCFTA will require huge trade-offs from political leaders,” says Ronak Gopaldas, a London-based director at Signal Risk, which advises companies in Africa. “They will need to think beyond short-term election cycles and sovereignty in policymaking.”

Taking those disparities into account, the AfCFTA may allow poorer countries such as Ethiopia 15 years to comply with the trade regime, whereas South Africa and other more developed nations must do so within five. To further soften the effects on weaker economies, Africa could follow the lead of the European Union, says Axel Pougin de La Maissoneuve, deputy head of the trade and private sector unit in the European Commission’s Directorate General for Development and International Cooperation. The EU adopted a redistribution model to offset potential losses by Greece, Portugal, and other countries.

There may be structural impediments to the AfCFTA’s ambitions. Iron ore, oil, and other raw materials headed for markets such as China make up about half of the continent’s exports. “African countries don’t produce the goods that are demanded by consumers and businesses in other African countries,” says Trudi Hartzenberg, executive director of the Tralac Trade Law Center in Stellenbosch, South Africa.

Trust and tension over illicit activity are also obstacles. Beginning in August, Nigeria shut its land borders to halt a surge in the smuggling of rice and other foodstuffs. In September, South Africa drew continentwide opprobrium after a recurrence of the anti-immigrant riots that have periodically rocked the nation. This could hinder the AfCFTA’s provisions for the free movement of people.

Considering all of these roadblocks, a skeptic would be forgiven for giving the AfCFTA little chance of success. And yet there are already at least eight trade communities up and running on the continent. While these are mostly regional groupings, some countries belong to more than one bloc, creating overlap. The AfCFTA won’t immediately replace these regional blocs; rather, it’s designed to harmonize standards and rules, easing trade between them, and to eventually consolidate the smaller associations under the continent­wide agreement.

The benefits of the comprehensive agreement are plain to see. It could, for example, limit the sort of unilateral stumbling blocks Pioneer Foods’ Carstens had to deal with in 2019: Zimbabwe insisted that all duties be paid in U.S. dollars; Ghana and Kenya demanded that shippers purchase special stickers from government officials to affix to all packaging to prevent smuggling.

The African Export-Import Bank estimates intra-African trade could increase by 52% during the first year after the pact is implemented and more than double during the first decade. The AfCFTA represents a “new pan-Africanism” and is “a pragmatic realization” that African countries need to unite to achieve better deals with trading partners, says Carlos Lopes, the former executive secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa and one of the architects of the agreement.

From his closer-to-the-ground vantage point, Olisaemeka Anieze also sees possible benefits. He’s relocating from South Africa, where he sold secondhand clothes, to his home country of Nigeria, where he wants to farm fish and possibly export them to neighboring countries. “God willing,” he says, “if the free-trade agreement comes through, Africa can hold its own.”

In the meantime, there are those roads. About 80% of African trade travels over them, according to Tralac. The World Bank estimates the poor state of highways and other infrastructure cuts productivity by as much as 40%.

If the AfCFTA can trim the red tape, at least driving the roads will be more bearable, says David Myende, 38, a South African trucker resting after crossing the border post into South Africa on the way back from delivering a load to the Zambian mining town of Ndola. “The trip is short, the borders are long,” he says. “They’re really long when you’re laden, and customs officers can keep you waiting up to four or five days to clear your goods.” 

Source: article by Anthony Sguazzin, Prinesha Naidoo and Brian Latham, Bloomberg, 30 January 2020

Third anniversary of WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement

Three years since the Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA) entered into force on 22 February 2017, WTO members have continued to make steady progress in its implementation. Director-General Roberto Azevêdo, on the occasion of the TFA’s third anniversary, welcomed members’ efforts to ensure traders can reap the full benefits of the Agreement.

The TFA, the first multilateral deal concluded in the 25-year history of the WTO, contains members’ commitments to expedite the movement, release and clearance of goods across borders. As of the TFA’s third anniversary, 91% of the membership have already ratified the Agreement. It entered into force three years ago when the WTO obtained the two-thirds acceptance of the Agreement from its 164 members.

The Agreement is unique in that it allows developing countries and least-developed countries (LDCs) to set their own timetables for implementing the TFA depending on their capacities to do so. They can self-designate which provisions they will implement either immediately (Category A), after a transition period (Category B), or upon receiving assistance and support for capacity building (Category C). 

As of 22 February 2020, over 90 per cent of developing countries and LDCs have notified which provisions they are able to implement after a transition period, and the ones for which they will need capacity-building support to achieve full implementation of the Agreement. Developed countries committed to immediately implement the Agreement when it entered into force.

Based on members’ notifications of commitments, 65 per cent of TFA provisions are being implemented today compared to the 59 per cent implementation rate recorded on the Agreement’s first anniversary. Broken down, the latest figure equates to a 100 per cent implementation rate for developed members and 64 per cent for developing members. As for least-developed countries, the improvement in the implementation rate is particularly notable at 31 per cent today versus the 2 per cent recorded a year after the Agreement entered into force. The implementation rate for each WTO member can be viewed here

The Agreement has the potential, upon full implementation, to slash members’ trade costs by an average of 14.3 per cent, with developing countries and LDCs having the most to gain, according to a 2015 study carried out by WTO economists. It is also expected to reduce the time needed to import and export goods by 47 per cent and 91 per cent respectively over the current average.

Source: World Trade Organisation, 22 February 2020