WCO Capacity Building Committee, 8th Session (Part 2/2)

Capacity Building has become one of the most important subjects in Trade Facilitation with the recent entry into force of the landmark WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement, commonly known as the TFA. The  8th session of the World Customs Organization’s Capacity Building Committee, WCO CBC, was held on the premises of the WCO from 7-9 March, 2017. Experts from international organisations, national governments, academia and the private sector attended this two-and-a-half-day meeting in Brussels to gain first-hand information on the Capacity Building initiatives of the WCO and its partners, national developments with regard to Trade Facilitation and other related topics. I was happy to take part in this annual event on behalf of Cross-border Research Association. This Blog (part 2 of 2) encapsulates the main discussion points and the key messages conveyed in the latter part of the meeting.

The second day of the event was opened with a hearty applause to commemorate the International Women’s Day. The subject of gender equality and diversity figured prominently in the discussions during the second part of the meeting. Speakers emphasised the need to adopt a comprehensive approach to eliminate gender inequalities and to achieve balanced gender participation in political and economic decision-making spheres.

In the first session, the Director of the WCO CBC gave a briefing on the overall context and mission of the CBC and the key results in Capacity Building delivery. The contextual background hinges on three pillars: the entry into force of the WTO TFA; global counter-terrorism strategy; and digitalisation and data analysis. The CBC strives to be particularly attentive to members’ needs and aims to provide high investments for project planning, structured organisational support, results-based implementation, and measurement tools for capacity performance. So far, the WCO has delivered 342 missions across 110 member countries. The most successful outcomes are observed when member states also demonstrate commitment to carry out these ambitious projects.

Insights on project management were provided in the next panel discussion. The representative from the Brazilian Revenue Office shed light on best practices in his administration. He presented a four-step methodology based on behavioural and technical elements as well as synergy and integration, placing a major focus on results and benefits. Today, the Revenue Office has around 60 strategic projects running with their individual portfolio management methodologies. He considers it important for each agency strategy to be linked to the entire government planning process and to draw lessons from both successful and unsuccessful cases.  Qatar has developed novel approaches for the efficient functioning of the General Authority of Customs. To cite an example, the administration has produced intelligence reports called “Smart Reports” on specific areas like food safety and decision-making processes. Qatar Customs places importance on setting priorities in the project planning process based on the significance of these projects and in view of their impacts on society.

Some pitfalls have been observed that lead to project failures at customs offices. These can be directly attributed to several reasons that were spelled out by the WCO Deputy Director of Capacity Building. He views correct communication as the most fundamental challenge. Communication issues stem from differences in perception and cultural differences across people and organisations. Second, problems arise in defining priorities and setting the sequence for implementing the priorities. Third, the scope of the project often gets expanded along the way due to increased pressure, making it difficult to manage. Several mitigation tools for the anticipated problems are outlined in the WCO Capacity Building Development Compendium. Some commonalities have been observed in customs project management across the globe. It is public in nature and subject to domestic and international scrutiny. It is also a cross-sector discipline that links to wider strategies at the organisational, ministerial and national levels and encompasses a wide range of new processes. The WCO tools for project management are provided in the WCO Compendium with dedicated chapters on Capacity Building development, donor engagement and performance measurement. The WCO is developing a training package for project management that aims to disseminate and enhance participant knowledge of best practices and modern techniques in specific areas of customs. The package consists of a 40-minute block seminar divided over seven different modules that will be piloted under the framework of WCO’s existing Capacity Building programmes in selected countries.

The International Women’s Day was celebrated with cocktails, toasts and flowers over the midday break. Speeches were made in recognition of women in customs and the need to promote gender parity. The WCO actively upholds the principles of gender equality and is striving to attain gender balance and to raise female representation at decision-making level in the global customs community.

Performance measurement and progress evaluation in the national context were discussed in the following sitting. The WCO customs expert presented the Maturity Model aimed at measuring members’ progress towards implementation of the TFA. The Maturity Model provides the WCO and the national customs administrations with a methodology to review practices and processes against known standards. In this context, the representative from Liberia provided information on the Liberian Revenue Authority’s ASYCUDA Performance Management Programme that was introduced in 2013. The WCO Maturity Model and the new project training package were endorsed by the CBC in the meeting.

As an integral part of the Capacity Building approach, the deployment of WCO experts was the next subject of debate. The WCO continues to expand its pool of experts, establish virtual working groups, conduct customs modernisation refresher events, and accredit experts. The HMRC – Her Majesty Revenue and Customs Service, UK – representative shared his experience on the Mercator activities pertaining to the mobilisation of experts. Three Mercator Programme Advisor, MPA, accreditation events have been delivered in the first year of the programme. However, a number of diagnostic challenges for MPAs arise in terms of strategic planning, time management, cultural awareness, and working knowledge of in-country TFA activity.

The CBC also discussed the challenges and opportunities of security and trade facilitation in fragile environments, with special reference to Nigeria, Tunisia, Jordan, Turkey and Syria. To assist members in tackling complex security issues, the WCO initiated its security initiative in 2010. The WCO findings from the seven research fieldworks on security clearly point to a need for inclusive approaches embedding customs and trade activities in conflict-ridden areas. The current security–development nexus is not deemed sufficient and the local role of customs seems to be undervalued. Capacity Building should be tailored to the needs of fragile borderlands, but members are confronted with a paucity of knowledge on these areas. The WCO and the Nigerian Customs Agency have convened the first meeting of the Technical Committee on the security project entitled Sécurité par Coopération. Nigeria has now established a strong link between security and development and has raised the customs profile in the post-conflict situation. Tunisian Customs have assumed a social role and strive to support people make a living along the borders. Heavy investments have been made in Turkey, Syria and Jordan to reasonably strengthen their strategic direction and administrative infrastructure. Intelligence exchange and coordinated border management are playing increasingly important roles in facilitating commerce in fragile environments.

On the third and final day of the CBC meeting, presentations were made on how to achieve the best possible cooperation between customs and tax authorities, whether integrated or independently organised. The Hungarian representative provided insights on the organisation of the National Tax and Customs Administration that embarked on a gradual process of merging, and is now in its fifth phase of functional integration. The current structure and functions of the Spanish Customs and Excise Department were elaborated by the representative from Spain.  Before 1992 customs and tax were separate directorates, but in due course merged into an integrated administration. The organisation is responsible for all national tax and customs systems. The WCO has developed guidelines to strengthen cooperation and information exchange between customs and tax departments in order to develop best practices and focus on business processes, both for merged and non-merged administrations. A briefing was provided on the main advantages and challenges of both joint and merged tax and customs administrations. Integrated IT systems have proved to be very effective. By giving more comprehensive information, a single database is extremely useful for tackling tax evasion and fraud. However, one main challenge is the difference in work cultures between tax and customs. There is a clear need for a common understanding and a joint strategy to fight effectively against fraud.

Some updates were provided on the activities of the WCO Regional Office for Capacity Building, ROCB and Regional Training Centres, RTCs. Regional strategic plans are in progress and each region will pursue its own strategy covering 2-4 years and put forward an action plan. The WCO has come up with a methodology and tailor made best practice guidelines for ROCBs and RTCs  that will be updated every year.

Fruitful discussions were exchanged around the topic of gender equality and diversity. The representative from the WCO Secretariat presented the results of the 2016 survey on gender issues in customs. Iceland is a perfect example of gender balanced representation in all levels, including the upper echelons of the administrations. The speaker from Paraguay briefed up the CBC on the progress in mainstreaming gender perspectives in national policies and programmes. It was commonly agreed that a series of events must be conducted to address the question of gender egalitarianism within the broader customs community.

The discourse around the WCO Capacity Building approach show clear indications that the CBC is aiming to follow the maxim of “beginning with the end in mind”. Deliberations of the panellists reflected the importance of results based delivery, structured planning, collective strategic development, and goal oriented team work that are the hallmarks of the WCO Capacity Building philosophy. National administrations should endeavour to fully exploit the synergies between international policy formulation on the one hand and WCO supported trade related assistance on the other hand to pursue the overarching objective of comprehensive and integrated economic development.


Part 2 of 2 of the CBRA CBC-Blog by Dr. Sangeeta Mohanty.