About 300 delegates from all over the world braved the frosty outdoor temperatures in Geneva in late January to attend the first International Forum for National Trade Facilitation Committees at the United Nations. Myself, Dr. Sangeeta Mohanty, had the good fortune of representing Cross-border Research Association at this memorable event.
This one-week event was organised by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in cooperation with the International Trade Centre (ITC), the World Bank Group (WBG), the World Customs Organization (WCO) and the World Trade Organization (WTO). The objective of the Forum was to empower the leaders of National Trade Facilitation Committees and provide opportunities for developing and Least Developed Countries to access funding for the establishment and sustainability of such crucial committees.
With just two ratifications to go for the entry into force of the WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement, the debate was held at an opportune moment for many developing countries to support their continued efforts towards establishing fully operational National Trade Facilitation Committees, (NTFCs), that is mandated by the WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA).
The first two days of the meeting focussed on understanding the WTO TFA, the technical assistance available from a range of institutions for the implementation of Trade Facilitation reforms, challenges encountered in setting up NTFCs, Trade Facilitation efforts on a regional perspective and establishing coordination mechanisms between national and regional Trade Facilitation committees.
The main session started off with a lucid presentation by the WTO representative on the most relevant articles of the TFA, the status of ratification, categorisation and notifications and the way forward after the entry into force of the Agreement. Speakers from major international organisations including UNCTAD, ITC, WBG, WCO, WTO, UNIDO (United Nations Industrial Development Organization) and AfDB (African Development Bank) elaborated on their specific programmes to support national governments in establishing or improving the effectiveness of NTFCs. Trade Facilitation (TF) support at UNCTAD is based on three pillars: Research, Technical assistance and capacity building, and Consensus building. ITC sets out to support the TFA implementation purely from the business perspective with a dedicated focus on small and medium sized enterprises and stimulating public-private dialogue in policy making. The WBG is dedicated to providing technical assistance for developing countries in reforming and aligning their TF laws, procedures, processes and systems to enable implementation of the WTO TFA requirements through its Trade Facilitation Support program. The WCO has launched the Mercator programme that seeks to ensure the uniform implementation of the TFA in the area of Customs, using the WCO instruments and tools. WTO drives the Enhanced Integrated Framework, a multi-donor programme, supporting Least Developed Countries to play a more active role in the global trading system. The AfDB targets regional infrastructure development and industrialisation of trade. And finally, UNIDO provides technical assistance support programmes with a focus on mutually recognising standards. The natural sequel to the above dialogue was the panel discussion around bilateral aid provided by the European Commission and national governmental offices from the United Kingdom, Germany and Finland, which in some cases operate in partnership with other organisations.
The next panel proffered some general policy recommendations to resolve operational, regulatory and procedural challenges faced by NTFCs across the world. One key recommendation was to include the private sector in decision making and financing. Academia and civil society participation was also recommended. Governments are advised to include the right mix of regulators and other actors in NTFCs. The panel members highlighted the need for facilitating inter-agency collaboration and to provide national directives for TF measures. Establishing legally established work plans for NTFCs on the strategic, operational and technical levels was considered absolutely essential. The gradual simplification of procedures was also considered fundamental to TF reforms.
The following panel discussions centred on the role of regional organisations in Africa and Latin America and the Caribbean along with the bottlenecks affecting the implementation of TF reforms.
Parallels were drawn between the African and Latin American context where regional integration is largely missing. The main challenges appear to be limited human and financial resources, different priorities among members and agencies, duplication of efforts across existing agencies, weak monitoring and evaluation process, private sector exclusion from decision-making, limited coordination of NTFCs at regional and sub-regional levels, the different mandates and goals of NTFCs, and vested interests of different parties. Panellists recommended a variety of solutions, such as empowering regional committees with the capacity to coordinate, mobilising of resources, harmonising and standardising procedures, aligning facilitation and compliance, enhancing regional competitiveness, and ensuring public-private cooperation. Good practice examples of successful regional integration strategies were put forth in the final round of discussion by top-level experts from the WBG, WCO, the Swedish Permanent Mission in Brussels, Secretariat of the Central American Integration System, NTFC Kenya and the East African Community.
Overall, the integration of trade is considered vitally important to integration in the two regions and private sector engagement appears to be an essential part of dialogue and coordination. Long term strategy planning for NTFCs is advocated. The lively debate on the challenges and complexities around TF set the tone for the subsequent discussions in the next three days regarding important activities involved in establishing NTFCs to help make the vision of the TFA a reality.
Part 1 of 2 of the CBRA NTFC-Blog by Dr. Sangeeta Mohanty.