Tag Archives: TFA

WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement: Why is it important for Caribbean Small States?

Alicia Nicholls

History was made on February 22nd when the World Trade Organisation (WTO) Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA) finally came into force. Coming into effect some four years after its conclusion at the WTO’s 9th Ministerial held in Bali, Indonesia in 2013, the TFA is a momentous achievement for the world, but also a plus for Caribbean small States which, like other developing countries, stand to benefit the most from the Agreement’s full implementation. Indeed, WTO economists estimate that full implementation of the TFA “could reduce [global] trade costs by an average of 14.3% and boost global trade by up to $1 trillion per year.”

Economic growth was one of the three broad themes discussed at the 28th Intersessional Meeting of the Heads of Government of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) held in Georgetown, Guyana last week. Trade, both intra- and extra-regional, is an important contributor to economic growth, employment and poverty reduction. CARICOM Secretary-General Irwin Larocque recalled that the Community “has identified the CARICOM Single Market and Economy (CSME) as the best vehicle to promote our overall economic growth and development”.

However, despite trade accounting for between 54-135% of Caribbean countries’ GDP according to World Bank data, the region’s share in global trade has been on a decline. Export performance and investment attraction remain lacklustre. Market and product diversification remain limited. Moreover, according to the last Caribbean Trade and Investment Report published in 2010, although intra-CARICOM merchandise trade was gaining momentum, it still only comprised “a minute portion of total CARICOM trade”.

Trade Facilitation can improve Caribbean trade

There is no one factor which explains the region’s declining trade performance or the still limited intra-CARICOM trade. For instance, a 2015 Compete Caribbean study noted that except for three countries, customs and trade regulations were found not to be a significant obstacle for doing business. With regard to intra-regional trade, high transportation costs remain one of the biggest barriers. However, with regard to extra-regional trade, a 2013 World Bank Report highlighted the low customs performance of Caribbean countries’ despite their high trade openness.  Another World Bank report noted that port handling charges in the Caribbean “can be two to three times higher than in similar ports in other regions”.

Unnecessarily burdensome border procedures and costly border fees make it difficult for exporters to access other markets, even where trade agreements or preferential arrangements exist. This is made even more difficult in cases where customs and other administrative procedures are opaque and rely largely on paper-based processes as opposed to electronic payments and e-documents. While large firms can invest the time, human and financial resources in navigating complex border rules and procedures in other markets, small-and medium sized enterprises (SMEs)’s often lack this luxury. Add in a foreign language, and it gets even more complicated. Improving trade facilitation can help boost Caribbean countries’ competitiveness, while facilitating policies and support structures can assist Caribbean firms’ access to regional and international markets. After all, States do not trade, firms do.

The TFA addresses one of the biggest constraints of SMEs seeking to do business internationally through the simplification, harmonisation and modernisation of customs procedures, while also fostering transparency and reducing transaction costs. The TFA includes provisions aimed at facilitating the release and clearance of goods through customs, requires States to publish rules and procedures and to establish contact points for enquiries, facilitates border agency cooperation, provides procedures for appeal and review and disciplines for fees and penalties, inter alia.

Developed countries have committed to implementing all of the provisions of the Agreement upon its entry into force, which means accessing those markets should be easier at least from a customs standpoint. Like other WTO developing country and Least Developed Country (LDC) Member States, Caribbean countries’ implementation of the TFA will be based on their ability to do so. Member States are allowed to schedule their commitments for the Agreement’s provisions into three categories: A, B, C, with category A commitments being those which the Member State can implement upon the Agreement’s entry into force (or within one year of entry into force for an LDC). Importantly for Caribbean countries, they will also have access to the Trade Facilitation Agreement Facility which was established to assist developing countries and LDCs in their implementation efforts.

In a world with increasingly globalised supply chains, the smooth flow of trade across borders is important for improving Caribbean countries’ competitiveness and ability to participate in Global Value Chains (GVCs). Implementing the reforms pursuant to the TFA can also be beneficial for intra-regional trade, through the harmonisation of customs procedures.

Trade facilitation has other benefits as well, as noted in the WTO study on this issue. An improved trade and investment climate increases the attractiveness of a country for foreign direct investors. Moreover, transparent customs procedures reduce the opportunity for customs fraud and corruption, and improves revenue collection. It should be noted that not only are foreign direct investment inflows critical for Caribbean economies, but customs and other import taxes remain an important revenue source for many Caribbean governments.

Trade Facilitation Measures in the Caribbean

The encouraging news is that several Caribbean countries have begun trade facilitation reforms, including improvements in port infrastructure and simplification of customs procedures in recent years. As was noted in the World Bank’s Doing Business Report – 2017, Antigua & Barbuda removed the requirement of a tax compliance certificate for import customs clearance, while Grenada streamlined its import document submission procedures.  Haiti has allowed the submission of supporting documents online under its SYDONIA electronic data interchange system.

Trinidad & Tobago was among the first countries to ratify the TFA, while Belize, Guyana, Grenada, Jamaica, St. Kitts & Nevis, St. Lucia and Dominica have also ratified the Agreement. Trinidad & Tobago (in regards to advance rulings) and the Dominican Republic (has not yet ratified the TFA) and Jamaica (authorised traders) are among several countries which have been identified as case studies in the implementation of trade facilitation measures.

With the help of a loan from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) Barbados (which has not yet ratified the TFA) has introduced an Electronic Single Window, part of a wider competitiveness programme. Through its Global Logistics Initiative, Jamaica is seeking to take advantage of its location in one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes to become the premier logistics node within the Americas. However, in light of increased competition from other parts of the world, particularly for global investment flows, there is the need for the region to increase the pace of its trade facilitation reforms.

What is next?

Given the benefits that the at-the-border and behind-the-border reforms pursuant to the TFA can have for regional SMEs and for facilitating Caribbean trade, it is hoped that other Caribbean countries will ratify the Agreement. For those which have not yet done so, ratification of the Agreement could serve as a powerful signal to investors of their commitment to trade and business facilitation.

Caribbean countries should move expeditiously to develop and implement national strategies for trade facilitation. This would involve assessing their country’s readiness to implement the various provisions of the TFA through identifying capacity gaps and implementation needs, on which basis they will categorise the provisions and make their notifications. Implementation capacity, of course, varies from one country to another. Caribbean countries should also continue to make use of technical and financial assistance and capacity building support for the implementation of the measures.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B., is a trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.

Advertisements

WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement enters into force

Alicia Nicholls

Today the World Trade Organisation (WTO) Trade Facilitation Agreement, the first multilateral trade agreement to be concluded since the WTO came into being over twenty years ago, has entered into force. The Trade Facilitation Agreement aims to expedite the process of the movement of goods across  national borders and was concluded as part of the Bali Package coming out of the WTO Ministerial in 2013.

For immediate entry into force the Agreement needed to be ratified by two-thirds of the WTO’s membership, that is, 110 member countries. That threshold was met today when Chad, Jordan, Oman and Rwanda submitted their instruments of ratification.

As the World Bank’s Annual Doing Business Reports show, countries’ customs procedures can vary from a few to a multiplicity of steps, which can significantly increase the amount of time goods take to clear borders, which increases costs to both suppliers and consumers. As supply chains become  increasingly globalised, so is the need for more expeditious trade flows and standardisation of customs procedures. The Trade Facilitation Agreement’s provisions provide standards which were inspired by international best practices.WTO economists in the World Trade Report 2015 estimated that the Agreement would lower members’ trade costs by an estimated 14.3% on average.

Developing countries and Least Developed Countries (LDCs) have the option to determine their pace of implementation by designating each of the provisions according to one of three categories: A,B,C, with A being the commitments each country can undertake as soon as the Agreement comes into force. The Agreement also includes provisions on customs cooperation. A Trade Facilitation Facility was also created at the request of developing countries to assist them and Least Developed Countries in implementing the Agreement.

So far besides St. Vincent & the Grenadines, the following countries of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) have ratified the TFA: Trinidad & Tobago, Belize, Guyana,  Grenada, Jamaica, St. Kitts & Nevis, St. Lucia and Dominica. Reforms undertaken by CARICOM countries pursuant to Agreement could help to facilitate the movement of goods trade within the Community through more simplified customs procedures and lower border costs. Like other developing countries, CARICOM countries would also be able to access the Trade Facilitation Facility to assist in their implementation of the Agreement’s reforms.

For further information, please see the WTO’s press release.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B., is a trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.

St. Lucia and Grenada ratify WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement

Alicia Nicholls

Just a week shy of the commencement of the WTO’s 10th Ministerial Conference in Nairobi, Kenya, St. Lucia and Grenada became the first states of the Eastern Caribbean Economic Union (ECCU) to ratify the World Trade Organisation’s Trade Facilitation Agreement.

The TFA, which has the potential to increase global merchandise exports by up to $1 trillion per annum (according to the World Trade Report 2015), aims to expedite the movement, release and clearance of goods, including goods in transit and to provide measures for effective cooperation between customs authorities. It is the first WTO agreement to link implementation to countries’ capacity to implement.  In November 2014, WTO members adopted a Protocol of Amendment to insert the TFA Agreement into Annex 1A of the WTO Agreement. Both countries have already notified their Category A commitments pursuant to the Agreement.

St. Lucia and Grenada also join Trinidad & Tobago, Belize and Guyana to make it a total of five CARICOM states which have ratified the Agreement so far. Late last month Guyana became the 53rd state to ratify.

For the TFA to enter into force, ratification by two-thirds of the WTO’s membership of 162 is required.This week Cote de Ivoire and Kenya also ratified the Agreement, becoming the fifth and sixth African countries to do so. This brings the number of ratifications to 57 states, which is more than half the number needed for the Agreement to enter into force.

The ratification by St. Lucia and Grenada are a welcomed development and it is hoped more CARICOM states will follow suit. My article on the benefits of the TFA for small island developing states can be accessed here.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B. is a trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. Please note that the views expressed in this article are solely hers. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.

 

The WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement and Caribbean Small Island Developing States: Challenges and Opportunities

Alicia Nicholls

Getting raw sugar from a sugar factory in Guyana or Suriname to supermarkets and kitchens half-way across the world involves many different customs processes and paperwork. The World Trade Organisation’s Trade Facilitation Agreement seeks to cut the red tape and reduce the transaction costs and delays in the movement, release and clearance of goods across borders through the harmonisation, simplification and acceleration of customs procedures.

Trade facilitation, along with investment, competition policy and government procurement, was one of the four “Singapore Issues” which developing countries were opposed to including in the multilateral negotiation agenda at the 5th WTO Ministerial in Cancun in 2003. However, negotiations on trade facilitation were eventually launched in 2004 (pursuant to Annex D of the July Package) with the “aim to clarify and improve” relevant aspects of trade facilitation articles under the GATT 1994″ in order to speed up the movement, release and clearance of goods, including goods in transit.

After nearly ten years of negotiations, the TFA was concluded at the 9th WTO Ministerial Conference in Bali, Indonesia in 2013. It is the only multilateral trade agreement to be concluded so far out of the deadlocked Doha Development Round and the first since the WTO was established twenty years ago.  A separate Protocol of Amendment was adopted by WTO members on November 27, 2014 to insert the TFA into Annex 1A of the WTO Agreement.

The TFA will enter into force once two-thirds of the WTO’s 161 states (as at April 2015) ratifies the agreement. So far of the only 52 countries which have already ratified the agreement, Trinidad & Tobago and Belize are the only countries of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) to have done so, while Mauritius is the only other SIDS worldwide to have done so. A report published by UNCTAD in September 2014 on the status of implementation revealed that though a priority, trade facilitation is a major challenge for developing countries and least-developed countries (LDCs) and that some of the major barriers to implementation are lack of resources and of legal frameworks.

Caribbean Economies are trade dependent

Trade facilitation is important for Caribbean economies which have a high dependence on trade. Limited natural resources and lack of scale make most Caribbean SIDS (with the exception of Trinidad & Tobago) highly dependent on imported food, fuel and medicines, while their export profiles are characterised by a narrow range of exports and export markets. They have limited participation in global value chains and face declining terms of trade.

Smaller Caribbean SIDS have largely diversified from economic dependence on mono-crop agriculture to services trade, mostly tourism and/or financial services. However, the major commodities exporters in the region (Trinidad & Tobago and the mainland countries of Guyana, Suriname and Belize) rely on exports ranging from oil and natural gas in Trinidad & Tobago and Belize, to aluminium, rice and raw sugar in Guyana and Suriname.

Importance of Trade Facilitation

Despite market access opportunities created by trade agreements, a major complaint for Caribbean SIDS exporters, especially small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs), have been the cumbersome hurdles they face when seeking to export to foreign markets. These hurdles include not just complex customs procedures but also stringent sanitary and phyto-sanitary standards (SPS) and technical barriers to trade (TBTs), these latter two are covered in other WTO agreements (i.e. the SPS and TBT Agreements).

Customs procedures vary by country. By standardising and simplifying customs procedures, reforms pursuant to the TFA can enhance access and predictability for Caribbean SIDS exporters in foreign markets and promote export diversification.

As the industrial action by customs officials in Barbados earlier this year showed, customs delays can negatively impact businesses and consumers. These delays can stem from the time taken to process applications for obtaining import or export licenses to the length of time for barrels and containers to clear ports.The quicker goods clear customs the quicker they can reach businesses and consumers for use as inputs or as final goods. Efficient customs release and clearance is particularly important for time-sensitive perishable products such as fruit and meats. Loss of perishable goods equals lost revenue to businesses.

Transparent customs procedures and rules can also limit the opportunity for corruption by officials at checkpoints. Moreover, as import duties are still important revenue sources for Caribbean SIDS, modernisation of customs collection procedures can facilitate increased tariff revenue collection.

The Agreement

The TFA is divided into 3 sections: general provisions, special and differential treatment provisions for developing country members and least-developed country members (LDCs) and institutional arrangements and final provisions.

It provides binding obligations in relation to procedures for pre-arrival processing, electronic payment, procedures allowing the release of goods prior to the final determination of customs duties, taxes, fees and charge, a risk management system for customs control, post-clearance audits, establishment and publication of average release times, procedures to allow expedited release of at least goods entered through air cargo facilities and procedures for releasing perishable goods within the shortest possible time.

Provisions requiring publication and availability of information (such as applied rates and import/export restrictions) on the internet and for allowing traders and “other interested parties” the opportunity for comment and if necessary consultations before introducing or amending laws of general application to trade in goods, aim to promote transparency. While this latter provision may sound like an invasion of policy space, developing countries should take advantage of this provision to have their say on proposed policies by developed countries which might have an impact on their exporters.

The Agreement also includes some ‘best endeavour” provisions, such as encouraging members to use relevant international standards in their formalities and procedures and to establish a single window for traders. The Agreement further provides for the establishment of a permanent WTO committee on trade facilitation and member states are required to designate a national committee to facilitate domestic coordination and implementation of the provisions of the Agreement.

Special and Differential Treatment

The TFA presents numerous benefits for Caribbean SIDS. However, Caribbean governments’ capacity to implement these trade facilitation reforms varies considerably as evidenced by the difference in their Category A notifications.

The special and differential treatment provisions in Section II of the Agreement take this into account by linking countries’ commitments to their capacity to implement them. Moreover, LDCs will only be required to undertake commitments to the extent consistent with their individual development, financial and trade needs or their administrative and institutional capabilities.

These flexibilities are based on the modalities that had been agreed in Annex D of the July 2004 Framework Agreement and paragraph 33 of and Annex E of the Hong Kong Ministerial Declaration. Developing countries and LDCs are to receive assistance and support for capacity building to implement the provisions of the Agreement in accordance with their nature and scope.

Developing and LDC countries are required to categorise each provision of the Agreement  based on their individual implementation capacity, with Category A being those measures they can implement by the time the Agreement comes into force (or within one year after  for LDCs), Category B being those which they will implement after a transitional period following the Agreement’s entry into force and Category C meaning those which require capacity building support for implementation after a transitional period after the Agreement’s entry into force. Most Caribbean SIDS, including Barbados, have now submitted their Category A notifications.

Trade Facilitation Facility

A key developmental element of the TFA, the Trade Facilitation Facility (TFF) was established in July 2014 to provide assistance to developing countries and LDCs to ensure “no WTO member is left behind”. The TFF is to provide assistance in helping them assess their capacity to implement the TFA, by maintaining an information sharing platform to assist with the identification of possible donors , providing guidance on the implementation of the TFA through the development or collection of case studies and training materials,  undertaking donor and recipient match-making activities and providing project preparation and implementation grants related to the implementation of TFA provisions in cases where efforts to attract funding from other sources have failed.

According to the World Trade Report 2015, once it enters into force, the TFA is expected to reduce total trade costs by up to 15 per cent in developing countries.

Status of Implementation

At the recently concluded COTED meeting in Georgetown, Guyana, CARICOM members reported on their status of TFA implementation. However, this status information has not been made public. Despite this, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has a ‘compare your country on trade facilitation performance’ portal which allows for comparing countries on trade facilitation indicators.

Looking at Barbados’ performance for instance, Barbados “matches or exceeds the average performance of high income countries in the areas of fees and charges and simplification and harmonisation of documents”, with performance improving in appeal procedures and automation. However, some ground was lost in information availability and internal border agency cooperation.

Implementation Challenges

Trade facilitation reforms can be beneficial to Caribbean SIDS.  This does not mean however that there will not be significant implementation challenges, particularly the infrastructure costs related to technology and equipment, and administrative, human resource and training costs. There will also be costs associated with raising private sector awareness. These costs are not just one-time costs but are recurring.  In light of competing resource demands and their limited access to concessionary loans these costs will not be easy for cash-trapped Caribbean SIDS which already have high debt to GDP ratios.

The flexibilities in the Agreement allow states  to implement the provisions in accordance with their capabilities and there are aid for trade initiatives such as the European Development Fund of which Caribbean SIDS have been taking advantage in varying degrees.  Other challenges for implementation include limited human resource capacity and the need to reform existing laws and regulations to give effect to obligations.

Surveys of developing countries and LDCs conducted by the WTO found that trade facilitation remains a high priority for developing countries. For Caribbean SIDS there certainly has been some interesting developments on this front. The governments of several Caribbean states have openly stated their countries’ firm commitment to trade facilitation and their recognition of its potential for economic growth.

Trinidad & Tobago was recently approved for a $25 million loan from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) to help strengthen the country’s Single Electronic Window for Trade and Business Facilitation Project (TTBizLink). With the aim of becoming a logistics hub, Jamaica has recently established a Trade Facilitation Task Force. Technical assistance and aid for trade facilitation are also included in the EC-CARIFORUM Economic Partnership Agreement, which includes a protocol on mutual administrative assistance in customs matters.Moreover, in Barbados’ latest Trade Policy Review 2014 WTO members noted the considerable progress the country made with respect to the adoption of trade-facilitation measures. Recently, the island  also amended its Customs Act to allow for post-clearance audits.

Taking full advantage of the technical assistance, aid and capacity building assistance under the TFF will be key for Caribbean SIDS in their implementation efforts.

The Case of Mauritius 

As the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius was the first SIDS to ratify the Agreement, it provides useful lessons for Caribbean SIDS. Seizing the opportunity to boost its competitiveness, Mauritius has received assistance from the International Trade Centre and UNCTAD, including for the establishment of the Mauritius National Trade Facilitation Committee. One can read about the Mauritius experience here.

Conclusions

Despite the high costs and challenges of implementation, trade facilitation reforms pursuant to the WTO TFA have the potential to bring many benefits to Caribbean SIDS. By streamlining the flow of cross-border trade, the ratification and speedy implementation of the TFA by Caribbean SIDS and their trade partners will allow Caribbean exporters to capitalise on the market access openings available in foreign export markets, thereby boosting Caribbean SIDS’ export competitiveness and GDP growth, with spillovers for income and job creation. However, regional exports will still need to meet SPS and technical standards which for many exporters still remain significant barriers to trade.

Ratification and full implementation  of the TFA by all CARICOM states could also improve Caribbean regional integration by easing transaction costs of exporting across CARICOM states. Implementing these reforms also send a strong signal to the business community of these countries’ commitment to improving their business environment.

Full realisation of the benefits of the TFA will not be automatic and the degree will largely be contingent on the pace and depth of implementation of the Agreement by  Caribbean governments and their trading partners and on stakeholder buy-in. Stakeholder holder consultation and strong coordination between public and private actors will be crucial for the formulation of implementation plans and the monitoring and assessment of the impact of the reforms. In this regard, lessons can be learnt from the Mauritius experience. Trinidad & Tobago and Belize have already made the step by ratifying  the Agreement. It is hoped that other Caribbean SIDS will soon follow suit.

The full text of the Trade Facilitation Agreement is available here:

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B. is a trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. Please note that the views expressed in this article are solely hers. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.