Seeing Progress and New Horizons in Trade Facilitation

The Alliance’s 2020 annual report shows strong momentum for projects and reform

Yesterday, the Alliance published its annual report for 2020 and the picture that emerges should encourage all of us working to catalyse trade reform. It shows that there is growing support, even impatience, for freeing trade of the roadblocks that stunt business and economic growth.

Despite the magnitude of the global COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the Alliance launched new projects, built on its successes, and embraced innovative ways of delivering trade facilitation solutions. The Alliance approved four new projects, undertook scoping of another 21, welcomed five more prominent official business partners, and channelled nearly a half a million dollars in in-kind contributions from businesses through our 12 ongoing projects.

COVID response shows the potential for uniting the public and private sector around trade

While we felt the effects of the COVID-19 crisis in our work, the pandemic also served to showcase the kind of collaboration between the private and public sectors that is the central pillar of our approach. Pharmaceutical companies, medical equipment suppliers, and logistics companies responded to the crisis as it unfolded, and governments acted with urgency to get vaccines and other health essentials from wherever they could.

Surely, we no longer need further evidence of just why this kind of public-private collaboration is essential to permanently remove bottlenecks in our trading system. Not just to reduce the risks of another health emergency but to anticipate problems in food security or in dealing with the waste generated by modern economies.

Upscaling project successes and generating new ideas through hackathons

The Alliance’s projects aim to address today’s challenges, bringing new answers to resolve stubborn problems, and they reflect an evolution in the ways in which we approach our work.

In addition to our traditional projects, which are built from the ground up in a co-creation process between the public and private sectors, we gathered project ideas throughout the year from businesses to identify specific, narrower reform targets. Some of those ideas are already being launched including one that promises to ease the path for imports of HIV/AIDS and malaria rapid test kits and various vaccines in Mozambique.

We are also now aiming to upscale our projects by leveraging each success, taking our lessons and experience to other countries. We used this springboard approach in approving an e-phytosanitary certificate project for Madagascar that’s built on the track record we earned in Morocco in applying this digitized process, developed and operated by the International Plant Protection Convention.

The 2020 annual report also highlights a third way we’re aiming to spur trade facilitation and that’s by tapping into innovations made possible through today’s technologies. We began by engaging in two hackathons that aimed to generate fresh ideas to improve processes and infrastructure at ports in Valencia, Spain and Casablanca, Morocco. The hackathons generated enormous interest from trade specialists but also from entrepreneurs, students, tech start-ups, and academics in more than 30 countries. They connected to a range of online events and submitted dozens of proposals, with the finalists now moving toward becoming actual trade reform projects.

Colombia experience shows trust growing between government and business

All of these experiences from 2020 point to the determination of both the public and the private sectors to engage each other and work on making trade easier and more cost-effective in ways that might not have been explored without the Alliance.

As we explain in the latest annual report, we looked into how we’ve been doing in encouraging better relations between governments and the private sector and found that participants in the Colombia project to establish a Center of Excellence focused on advanced rulings in the automotive sector reported significant improvements in their feelings of trust in each other after four years of close engagement facilitated by the Alliance. And in Zambia, we heard from some small and medium enterprises that they were pleased to have had a chance to engage government representatives for the first time on meaningful ways to improve customs operations affecting their businesses.

What’s emerging from the five years of the Alliance’s work is that our projects provide a platform for closer engagement by governments and businesses around a common goal of making trade simpler, faster, and most cost-effective. In addition to the projects themselves, the Alliance’s role as a neutral partner to both sides fosters understanding and sustains the momentum of engagement across the project life and even beyond.

The broader impacts of trade facilitation

During the past year, we continued to focus on ways to make our work and trade facilitation efforts more broadly be better at ensuring women and men share equal opportunities to benefit from trade, including by weaving our gender mainstreaming guidelines throughout our project portfolio. We’re also looking at ways to bring in small and medium enterprises and ensure they can have a voice in trade facilitation reform, given they stand to gain not only from access to markets but from the knowledge and experience shared by international companies as part of our project work.

We need these kinds of improvements to assist countries in making greater strides to meet their commitments under the World Trade Organization’s Trade Facilitation Agreement. There has been progress but 30% of WTO members are still to make good on their reform promises.

When I looked at 2020 as we prepared the annual report, it struck me that that with the COVID response embodying the critical importance of public-private engagement, we need to get governments and businesses to see they can also succeed in the trade arena in ways that have far greater impacts than they might imagine, whether preventing the next health crisis, food shortage, or environmental catastrophe.

Philippe Isler 

Director, Global Alliance for Trade Facilitation