Written by: Arántzazu Sánchez and Brook KidaneArticle No. 33 [UNCTAD Transport and Trade Facilitation Newsletter N°81 - First Quarter 2019]
Transparency is one of the pillars of trade facilitation. Transparency promotes openness and accountability of a government's actions by disclosing information in a way that the public can readily access and use. In that sense, it helps to increase the predictability of trade transactions.
Several transparency provisions have been included in the WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement. The establishment of an enquiry point (Article 1.3) is an example of one of these provisions.
According to the Agreement, enquiry points shall answer enquiries and provide import, export and transit forms and documents within a reasonable time period set by each Member, which may vary depending on the nature or complexity of the request. Countries are also obliged to provide to the WTO the contact information for these enquiry points.
This provision aims at providing easily accessible, precise and complete information, such as laws regulations, forms and other relevant documents for trade across borders, in a timely and cost-effective manner. Furthermore, it helps increasing traders’ compliance by avoiding confusion and solving doubts prior to the transactions (UNCTAD 2011).
With only 53.2% implementation rate, ‘enquiry points’ is the seventh least implemented provision of the WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement (as of 18 February 2019).
Why is it so challenging to implement an enquiry point?
Article 1 urges countries to publish trade related information and make them available on the internet. Thus, this article requires a strong coordination among public agencies, as several Ministries will be guardians of the different pieces of legislation required under Article 1. The sustainability and efficient functioning of an enquiry point will be determined by a country’s ability to harmoniously coordinate all the relevant agencies and update the information and documents whenever there is a change. National Trade Facilitation Committees would be key in this regard.
Another challenge is providing the enquiry point with the necessary resources. According to Member States, information and communication technologies as well as human resources and training are the most urgent technical assistance requested.
Figure 1: Type of technical assistance requested to be compliant with Art. 1.3 on enquiry points
Once established, the enquiry point needs to be maintained. The fixed costs such as personnel and information and communication technologies (phone lines, internet, computers) need to be covered in the long run to ensure the sustainability of the enquiry point. Thus, these costs should be included in the regular budget of the public agency delivering the service.
The Agreement acknowledges that this might be challenging as, in many countries, resources are scarce. Therefore, it does not prohibit to require the payment of a fee for answering enquiries and providing required forms and documents. However, it encourages not to and, in case this is done, to limit such a fee to the approximate cost of services rendered.
How are countries implementing enquiry points?
As for many of the other provisions of the Trade Facilitation Agreement, the Agreement remains silent about the modalities of implementation of the enquiry point. Thus, Member States need to decide whether they would like to nominate a centralized or a decentralized enquiry point.
While a centralized enquiry point should be able to answer queries related to any border agency, a decentralized approach will oblige traders or foreign governments to consult directly to the public agency covering the specific issue raised in the query. For instance, if the question is related to regulations for the importation of pharmaceutical products, traders will have to contact the enquiry point located at the Ministry of Health.
Thus, a centralized approach might be user-friendlier, but a decentralized approach might ensure accuracy in the responses obtained, as the staff responsible for answering the queries is supposed to be specialized in a specific domain. It is worth mentioning that the Trade Facilitation Agreement is not the first WTO Agreement to foresee enquiry points. For instance, under the Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures, WTO members are also required to establish enquiry points. This could explain why some WTO Members might have opted for a decentralized approach when setting up their enquiry points for trade facilitation.
To date, a total of 85 countries (including 39 developed countries) have implemented or partially implemented Art.1.3. From those 85 countries, only 54 (including 38 developed countries) have communicated to the WTO the contact information of the enquiry point(s). Half of them have opted for a centralized approach to its enquiry point.
Countries that are struggling to implement or to decide an implementation approach for their enquiry point could use other country cases for inspiration. In UNCTAD, we have looked into the cases listed in the database of the WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement Facility and some encouraging country approaches that could pass as best practices for enquiry points were identified.
The Trade Facilitation Agreement encourages its Members to make the trade information available on the internet in at least one of the WTO official languages (English, French and Spanish).
This will be a resource demanding endeavor but the role it plays in facilitating trade and promoting the country as a trade partner is unquestionable.
Among the enquiry points already notified to the WTO, some countries provide the information in several languages. One of the leading examples is the National Animal Health Service of Costa Rica, which provides information in 7 languages (Spanish, English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Russian).
A decentralized enquiry point could be overwhelming for traders or governments if the different contact points are not provided in a descriptive and precise way. In its communication to the WTO, Hong Kong, China, has listed the different topics addressed by its decentralized enquiry points, making it very easy to understand the type of information that every enquiry point will be able to provide.
Another country practice worth mentioning is “Jamie”, the virtual real-time agent of Singapore’s Customs.
This search function helps traders easily navigate through the information available on the Customs’ website. If the answer provided is not comprehensive enough, an enquiry can be directly sent to the administration.
Article 1.3 Paragraph 2 of the WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement states that “Members of a customs union or involved in regional integration may establish or maintain common enquiry points at the regional level to satisfy the requirement of paragraph 3.1 for common procedures”.
So far, only the European Union has provided the contact details of its regional enquiry points.
The EU Trade Helpdesk targets European firms who want to import products to the EU market and exporters from outside the EU who want to export their products to the EU's market.
To help importers and exporters seize the trade opportunities of these agreements, the EU Trade Helpdesk provides A Search Tool to find product-specific market information as well as General information about the EU market and the EU trade agreements in place.
Within few minutes companies can check:
Health, safety and technical standards they'll need to meet
Customs duties you'll need to pay at the border
Internal taxes in each of the 28 countries
Rules of origin that define where a product is from and whether it profits from preferential duty rates
Forms to send with your shipments
UNCTAD Trade Portals: An enabling tool for enquiry points
Clear, organized and timely descriptions of import, export and transit procedures from the trader's point of view help countries to comply with all the measures described in Art. 1 of the WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement, including enquiry points.
As previously indicated, setting up an enquiry point demands a huge effort of coordination, skilled human resources and the support of ICT. Here is where UNCTAD Trade Portals comes in to fill the gap and the challenges countries may face due to resource constraints. And here is why:
UNCTAD Trade Portals display in a friendly way: import, export and transit procedures, as well as the underlying regulations, laws, forms and documents as stated in Article 1.1.
This means that the staff behind the enquiry points have already at hand, all information they need to answer to the different queries.
Kenya’s Trade Portal alows users to easily find forms, laws, contacts and the detailed description of relevant procedures for all trade matters.
Moreover, UNCTAD Trade Portals include the contact points for each administrative step along the way. Traders can access the contact details to address directly their queries to the person who will be in the best position to answer such queries.