Interview with Mr. Ireland, Head of WCO’s Research Unit

Hi Robert, and thanks for joining a CBRA interview. Can you please tell first a bit about yourself: who you are and what you do?

Thanks Juha for this opportunity.  I have been Head of the World Customs Organization’s Research Unit since 2009 and have lived in Brussels since 2005.  I am a policy analyst by training and at the WCO I am fortunate to focus on the intriguing intersection of international trade and broader public policy matters.

What does the WCO’s Research Unit do? Are there any specific priorities for the year 2017?

The WCO Research Unit takes an inter-disciplinary approach to researching subjects that directly or indirectly relate to Customs and international trade.  We have two core objectives.  First, we seek to publish high-quality articles in external publications – such as the Global Trade and Customs Journal and the World Customs Journal – and in WCO publications such as the magazine WCO News.  Second, we seek to bring together top academics and Customs officials at international research conferences, such as the annual PICARD Conference.

The Research Unit has tackled an array of topics in recent years, including counter-terrorism, informal trade practices, performance measurement, corruption, money laundering, the implications for Customs and international trade of global warming, the contribution of tobacco control to public health, and wildlife protection.  For 2017, our specific research priorities are e-commerce and Customs practices at fragile borders.

Although cross-border e-commerce is still a small portion of international trade – and smaller than domestic e-commerce -, it continues to grow.  In terms of regulation, Customs administrations are striving to strike the right balance between trade facilitation on the one hand, and revenue collection and illicit trade on the other hand, and the WCO wants to help them get there.  The Research Unit’s e-commerce project will be launched in March 2017 when we will visit China to meet with representatives from Alibaba, China Customs, and other e-commerce stakeholders.

Regarding the fragile borders project, let it never be said that the Research Unit does not take hardship missions – we go where the action is.  While much of the focus on the refugee crisis has been in Europe, our intent is to conduct fieldwork at the source: for instance, in the Middle East, North Africa, and West Africa, and to examine the scope of Customs work in those locales.

WCO just announced that PICARD 2017 Conference will take place in Tunis, 26-28 September this year – great location! Can you please share information about the research themes for the Tunis conference – and why were they selected?

The WCO is very grateful to Tunisia Customs for hosting the next PICARD Conference in Tunis.  In February 2017, the WCO published the PICARD Call for Papers which solicits submissions on four topics: Data Analysis; Trade Facilitation; Security; and Customs-Tax Cooperation.  Data analysis was selected because it is the WCO’s theme for 2017 in recognition of the crucial role it plays in the Customs context, underpinning virtually all functions of a Customs administration. The Customs-Tax Cooperation topic was selected to encourage research on the interaction between these two government functions and because approximately 25 percent of WCO Members are Revenue Authorities – administrations that merged both Customs and Tax.  The other two topics – trade facilitation and security – were selected because they continue to be of great interest to the global Customs community.


Thanks a lot for these updates Robert – and see you latest in September in Tunis!