As countries adopt radical measures to bring the coronavirus pandemic under control, international trade and transport systems are under tremendous stress.
Early evidence shows that international trade is collapsing, threatening access to goods and critical supplies. In response, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) has issued an action plan to tear down barriers to trade and transport and ensure the free flow of goods, food and essential supplies.
“Trade facilitation is about keeping goods moving, so we must do our utmost to ensure the crisis doesn’t slow the movement of critical supplies,” Shamika Sirimanne, UNCTAD’s director of technology and logistics, said. “Facilitating trade and the transport of goods has become more important than ever, to avoid logistical obstacles that lead to shortages of necessary supplies.”
The policy brief presents concrete measures to facilitate transport and trade while protecting people from contracting COVID-19. The action plan is rooted in UNCTAD’s work with international policy experts and operators on the ground, through its trade facilitation, customs automation and maritime transport programs.
UNCTAD proposed 10 policy measures to cover maritime transport, customs operations, transit, transparency and legal issues, as well as technology to enhance paperless trade processes. The plan calls for policies that ensure uninterrupted shipping, keep ports open, protect international trade of critical goods and speed up customs clearance and trade facilitation and facilitate cross-border transport. It also seeks to ensure the right of transit, safeguard transparency and up-to-date information, promote paperless systems, address early-on legal implications for commercial parties, protect shippers and transport service providers, and prioritize technical assistance.
The policy brief also calls on governments to ensure health measures are implemented in ports and border crossings in ways that minimize interference with international traffic and trade. It also stresses the need for people involved in the movement of trucks, ships and planes to be given the status of critical personnel.
Sirimanne noted that even before COVID-19 struck, many developing countries were already confronted with the challenge of having limited resources to make the necessary investments in transport infrastructure and services, and undertake trade facilitation reforms.
These measures require further investment in human, institutional and technological capacities, and should be given priority by development partners. UNCTAD already works with developing countries to support their trade and transport facilitation efforts. An example is the ASYCUDA program that offers a technology solution for customs automation and a single window for trade.
UNCTAD also trains officials to build port management capacity, works with national trade facilitation committees and provides technical assistance to improve transport transit in developing countries. The committees enhance inter-agency coordination to facilitate trade flows, especially in emergency situations such as the coronavirus pandemic.