ICD 2020 – #MakeTradeWork

Picture courtesy of the WCO

To mark International Customs Day 2020 – focusing on the theme of ‘fostering Sustainability for People, Prosperity and the Planet’, the following article from the Spring 2018 edition of World Trade Matters by Jan Hoffmann, the Chief of the Trade Logistics Branch, Division on Technology and Logistics at UNCTAD, is relevant. The article discusses global trade facilitation reforms, the digitalisation of trade and measures towards ensuring long-term sustainability in the maritime industry. 

Confronted with growing populism and a surge in protectionist measures recorded by the WTO, policy makers and enterprises are struggling to avoid a backlash in international trade. At UNCTAD’s Trade Logistics Branch, we support these endeavours by helping to make trade work better. Through trade facilitation reforms, the promotion of digitalisation, and ensuring the long-term sustainability of international transport, we aim at ensuring that the international movement of goods is not confronted with unnecessary obstacles and costs. 

A multilateral agreement to facilitate international trade

Under the Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA) of the World Trade Organization (WTO), developing countries commit to implement a number of very practical measures that make trade easier and more transparent. Countries are obliged to publish duties and procedures on the web, traders can transmit their declarations prior to the arrival of the goods, payments can be made electronically, and fees and charges must not become hidden taxes to generate income for the government. These are but some of the 37 concrete measures grouped into 12 Articles of the TFA. They are all useful and help make trade more efficient. 

However, many of these measures involve an initial investment or reforms that require human and financial resources to start with, which developing countries many not have. The good news is that the TFA also includes a novel mechanism – the so called “Special and Differential Treatment” – that helps developing countries plan and acquire the necessary capacity prior to being fully committed to comply with all 12 Articles. Concretely, the mechanism puts the developing countries in the position – and obligation – to analyse and notify their own implementation capacity. At UNCTAD, we are working closely with the developing countries to enable them to do so. Our main counterpart in this endeavour are the National Trade Facilitation Committees (NTFCs) that each country must set up under the TFA. UNCTAD’s Empowerment Programme for NTFCs includes training and knowledge development for the members of the NTFC, combined with advisory services and the development of a Roadmap of TFA implementation. 

By the same token, UNCTAD also supports developing countries in setting up Trade Information Portals. Under the TFA, members of the WTO are obliged to make relevant information on tariffs and trade procedures available on-line. UNCTAD’s Trade Information Portals not only help countries become compliant with this obligation, but in the process of analysing and publishing applicable trade procedures, a Trade Information Portal effectively helps countries identify the potential for the further simplification of procedures. Thanks to these new insights, NTFCs can then develop programmes and reforms that subsequently ensure the further simplification of procedures. 

Technological progress will never be as slow as today

My favourite provision of the TFA is Article 10.1., as it provides for a dynamic dimension of the Agreement. According to this article, countries need to minimize “the incidence and complexity of import, export, and transit formalities”, continuously “review” requirements, keep “reducing the time and cost of compliance for traders and operators”, and always choose “the least trade restrictive measure”. As such, even if a country is compliant with all TFA provisions today, countries will need to continue monitoring if existing procedures are still appropriate in view of technological or regulatory developments. 

As trade becomes increasingly digitalised, and new technologies which do not yet exist will be developed, it will be important that governments continuously revise and review the applicable rules and regulations. 

Digitalisation comes in stages. First, we optimize existing procedures, making use of cargo tracking, the Internet of Things, blockchain et al. Second, new businesses are developed which could not exist without the new technologies; new platforms come into being and we see more “uberisation”. Finally, there is transformation and science fiction; still in our lifetime Artificial Intelligence will overtake human capabilities to manage international trade and its logistics. 

But let us take one step at a time. At UNCTAD, we support developing countries through eTrade readiness assessments, the development and upgrade of technological solutions in Customs automation and Single Windows, and by providing a Forum for our members to analyse and discuss the challenges that come with digitalisation. We encourage the development of global standards that allow for interoperability among new systems. The challenge for policy makers it to encourage private sector investments in new technologies and solutions, while ensuring that no new monopolies emerge that might exclude smaller players.  

And it has to be sustainable

While we aim at ensuring continued growth in international trade, there is a catch. The transport of this trade encompasses increasing externalities, such as pollution, green-house-gas emissions, and congestion. 

Ports need to minimise social and environmental externalities. Many port cities are among the most polluted places to live, as ships burn heavy oil, and delivering trucks produce noise and cause traffic congestions. In addition, ports need to be resilient in the face of disruptions and damages caused by natural disasters and climate change impacts. 

International transport, including shipping, needs to play a larger role in addressing global warming and contribute to mitigating the carbon emissions that are causing climate change. Shipping emits less carbon dioxide (CO2) per ton-mile than other modes of transport, but then due to its sheer volume it also produces many ton-miles. Would it be possible that the industry could be charged by its main regulatory body not per ship tonnage (as is currently the case), but per tonne of CO2 emission? 

Currently, the International Maritime Organization is funded proportional to the tonnage registered under the members’ flags. Like this, Panama, Marshall Islands and Liberia pay for the largest share of the IMO budget – and in the end, this is passed on to the ship-owner, who in turn passes this on to the shipper, who will charge the consumer. This is a good established mechanism that could be expanded to also internalize the external costs of CO2 emissions. 

Being the most globalized of all businesses, maritime transport should consider adopting a global regime that helps further internalize its environmental externalities – to ensure prosperity for all.  

It is all about efficiency

Investing in trade facilitation reforms, making intelligent use of the latest technologies, and ensuring that externalities are internalized are all several sides of the same coin. Trade efficiency is necessary to promote an open international trading system. It requires a continuous effort by policy makers to continuously review current procedures, apply the most appropriate technological solutions, and support an efficient allocation of scarce resources. 

Source: Jan Hoffman, UNCTAD – originally published in World Trade Matters, Spring Edition, 2018

AU – Online tool to remove Trade Barriers in Africa goes live

An online platform developed by UNCTAD and the African Union to help remove non-tariff barriers to trade in Africa became operational on 13 January.

Traders and businesses moving goods across the continent can now instantly report the challenges they encounter, such as quotas, excessive import documents or unjustified packaging requirements.

The tool, tradebarriers.africa, will help African governments monitor and eliminate such barriers, which slow the movement of goods and cost importers and exporters in the region billions annually.

An UNCTAD report shows that African countries could gain US$20 billion each year by tackling such barriers at the continental level – much more than the $3.6 billion they could pick up by eliminating tariffs.

“Non-tariff barriers are the main obstacles to trade between African countries,” said Pamela Coke-Hamilton, director of UNCTAD’s trade division.

“That’s why the success of the African Continental Free Trade Area depends in part on how well governments can track and remove them,” she said, referring to the agreement signed by African governments to create a single, continent-wide market for goods and services.

The AfCFTA, which entered into force in May 2019, is expected to boost intra-African trade, which at 16% is low compared to other regional blocs. For example, 68% of the European Union’s trade take place among EU nations. For the Asian region, the share is 60%.

The agreement requires member countries to remove tariffs on 90% of goods. But negotiators realized that non-tariff barriers must also be addressed and called for a reporting, monitoring and elimination mechanism.

The online platform built by UNCTAD and the African Union is a direct response to that demand.

Hands-on training

Complaints logged on the platform will be monitored by government officials in each nation and a special coordination unit that’s housed in the AfCFTA secretariat.

The unit will be responsible for verifying a complaint. Once verified, officials in the countries concerned will be tasked with addressing the issue within set timelines prescribed by the AfCFTA agreement.

Hands-on training

UNCTAD and the African Union trained 60 public officials and business representatives from across Africa on how to use the tool in December 2019 in Nairobi, Kenya.

They practiced logging and responding to complaints, in addition to learning more about non-tariff barriers and their effects on trade and business opportunities.

“The AfCFTA non-tariff barriers mechanism is a transparent tool that will help small businesses reach African markets,” said Ndah Ali Abu, a senior official at Nigeria’s trade ministry, who will manage complaints concerning Africa’s largest economy.

UNCTAD and the African Union first presented tradebarriers.africa in July 2019 during the launch of the AfCFTA’s operational phase at the 12th African Union Extraordinary Summit in Niamey, Niger.

Following the official presentation, they conducted multiple simulation exercises with business and government representatives to identify any possible operational challenges.

Lost in translation

One of the challenges was linguistic. Africa is home to more than 1,000 languages. So the person who logs a complaint may speak a different language from the official in charge of dealing with the issue.

Such would be the case, for example, if an English-speaking truck driver from Ghana logged a complaint about the number of import documents required to deliver Ghanaian cocoa to importers in Togo – a complaint that would be sent to French-speaking Togolese officials.

“For the online tool to be effective, communication must be instantaneous,” said Christian Knebel, an UNCTAD economist working on the project.

The solution, he said, was to add a plug-in to the online platform that automatically translates between Arabic, English, French, Portuguese and Swahili – languages that are widely spoken across the continent. More languages are being added.

UNCTAD’s work on the AfCFTA non-tariff barriers mechanism is funded by the German government.

Source: UNCTAG.ORG, 17 January 2020

ZIMRA – ASYCUDA failure set to cost in excess of $20M in lost revenue

ZIMRAaaaaaaaZimbabwe’s Deputy Finance and Economic Planning Minister Terrence Mukupe has estimated that the country has lost an estimated $20 million in revenue receipts since ZIMRA’s automated Customs processing system (ASYCUDA World) collapsed in the wake of server failure on 18 December 2017.

During a site visit of Beit Bridge border post earlier this week, it was revealed that ZIMRA collects an estimated $30million per month in Customs duties at its busy land borders. The Revenue Authority has since instituted manual procedures.  Clearing agents are submitting their customs documents accompanied by an undertaking that they will honour their duties within 48 hours. That is, when the ASYCUDA system is finally resuscitated and this is totally unacceptable.

Furthermore, Zimbabwe lies at the heart of the North-South Corridor which handles a substantial volume of transit traffic. The threat of diversion due to lack of proper Customs control and opportunism will also create both a fiscal and security headache. The deputy minister stated that the government was considering abandoning the Ascyuda World Plus system to enhance efficiency and the ease of doing business. “We need to benchmark it with what our neighbours in the region are using”.

It has also been suggested that the ZIMRA board have been complacent in their oversight of the affair. While it is a simple matter to blame systems failure, the lack of management involvement in taking proactive steps to ensuring redundancy of the country’s most crucial revenue collection system has been found wanting.

This calamity undoubtedly signals a huge concern for several other African countries who are likewise supported by UNCTAD’s ASYCUDA software. Many question post implementation support from UNCTAD, leaving countries with the dilemma of having to secure third party vendor and, in some cases, foreign donor support to maintain these systems. The global donor agencies must themselves consider the continued viability of software systems which they sponsor. Scenarios such is this only serve to plunge developing countries into a bigger mess than that from which they came. This is indeed sad for Zimbabwe which was the pioneer of ASYCUDA in sub-Saharan Africa.

This development must surely be a concern not only for governments, but also the regional supply chain industry as a whole. While governments selfishly focus on lost revenue, little thought is given to the dire consequence of lost business and jobs which result in a more permanent outcome than the mere replacement of two computer servers.

Under such conditions, the WCOs slogan for 2018 “A secure business environment for economic development” will not resonate too well for Zimbabwean and other regional traders tomorrow (International Customs Day) affected by the current circumstances. Nonetheless, let this situation serve as a reminder to other administrations that management oversight and budgetary provisioning are paramount to maintaing automated systems – they underpin the supply chain as well as government’s fiscal policy.

WCO Workshop on Inland Depots in Lao PDR

inland-port-7The World Customs Organization (WCO) organized a National Workshop on Inland Depots under the sponsorship of the Customs Cooperation Fund (CCF)/Japan and the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). It was held from 20 to 22 September 2016 in Savannakhet Province, Lao People’s Democratic Republic.

Twenty six Customs officers from the Lao Customs Administration participated in the workshop, along with guest Customs experts from The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Japan and JICA. Mr. Somphit Sengmanivong, Deputy Director General of the Lao Customs Administration, opened the workshop. He highlighted the importance of Inland Depots as a national strategy to secure his country’s economic growth and sought participants’ active participation in the discussions on this topic.

Presently, there is no clear definition of “Inland Depot” and many similar terms, such as Dry Port, Inland Terminal, Free Trade Zone and Special Economic Zones, are used in the international logistics. During the three-day workshop, participants discussed the functions and a possible definition of Inland Depot from a Customs perspective.

AmatiComment – Inland container terminals serve as important hubs or nodes for the distribution and consolidation of imported and export destined cargoes. There are 16 Landlocked countries in Africa, which signifies the importance of hinterland logistics development and its consequential impact on regional trade groupings. Consequentially, it behooves governments to understand and support the logistics supply chain industry in maximizing inland transportation (multi-modal) infrastructures to achieve a common and mutually beneficial economic environment. Furthermore, the more facilitative these arrangements, the better opportunity there is for success and longer-term economic sustainability.

The WCO Secretariat made presentations on international standards for relevant procedures, including Customs warehouses, free zones, Customs transit, inward processing, clearance for home use and temporary admission. Experts from The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Japan described their national and regional experience of Customs warehousing, and Customs transit procedures. The JICA expert presented the bonded procedures applied by neighbouring countries to Lao People’s Democratic Republic. Lao Customs administration explained their national system for Inland Depots and a logistics company of Lao PDR shared its expectations on inland depots.

On the last day, participants discussed the challenges and possible solutions to enhance the functional and efficiency of Lao’s Inland Depots. Possible solutions, such as the use of modern information technology, further cooperation with the private sector, clear regulations on relevant procedures, coordinated border management and international cooperation were considered. Source: WCO

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South Africa – WCO ESA Regional Workshop on TFA implementation

ESA_Regional-WS_South-AfricaThe WCO Regional Workshop on Strategic Initiatives for Trade Facilitation and the Implementation of the WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA) – Mercator Programme – for the WCO East and Southern Africa (ESA) region was held from 15 to 17 September 2015 in Johannesburg, South Africa. It was hosted by the South African Revenue Service (SARS) representing the WCO Vice Chair of the ESA region, and financially supported by the United Kingdom Department for International Development (UK DFID) and the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland. More than 100 participants from 21 ESA Members (Customs, Trade Ministries/equivalent Ministries), the WTO and other international organizations, development partners and the private sector participated in the event.

The Workshop was opened by the Commissioner of SARS, Mr. Thomas Moyane. He expressed his view that the WCO Mercator Programme created significant conditions for contributing to intra-African as well as international trade facilitation benefits. As Vice Chair of the ESA region, he hoped that the Workshop could recommend immediate actions for the region.

The Workshop raised a lot of interest and active discussions from a variety of well-prepared and informative presentations, including the role of the WCO in TFA implementation;  TFA regulations such as Article 23.2 on National Committees on Trade Facilitation (NCTF) and specific national and (sub-)regional examples of implementation approaches; experiences of Trade Ministries and several partner institutions active in the region; and discussions on further approaches to Capacity Building and TFA implementation, including in cooperation with Development Partners.

The region agreed on next steps forward, including on a regional focus on the establishment and maintenance of NCTFs (for instance further provision of replies to the respective WCO survey; identification of the situation within ESA Members); reporting the outcomes of the Workshop to the ESA Regional Steering Committee; encouragement of ESA Members who are not yet Contracting Parties to the Revised Kyoto Convention to accede to it as soon as possible (and/or to identify related Capacity Building needs) – as one concrete way to also support TFA implementation; and responsibility of the ROCB and the Vice Chair to continue collecting and publishing information on ongoing Capacity Building projects and work of partner organizations such as SADC, COMESA, SACU and UNCTAD especially in the TF(A) area in the region – while encouraging Members and partner organizations to share such information.

The Workshop was successfully concluded with positive feedback from Members, partner organizations and development partners. A summary document on the discussions held during the Workshop is currently under finalization by the Vice Chair’s office and the ROCB and will be circulated to all participants of the Workshop in due course. Source: WCO