Commentary: Trade Portal and Single Window Reduce Cost of Doing Business

20 August 2016

The National Trade Portal and National Single Window are important components of the World Trade Organization's Trade Facilitation Agreement (WTO TFA). This commentary by Ms. Ferdous Ara Begum, Chief Executive Officer, Business Initiative Leading Development of Bangladesh, discusses how these could improve trade, gives an update on Bangladesh's initiatives toward ratifying the WTO TFA, and recommends a region-wide Single Window for South Asia.


Trade Portal and Single Window reduce cost of doing business

By Ferdous Ara Begum

The Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA) of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in its Article 1.2 says, all trade-related information need to be made available through the Internet to acquaint traders with  all procedures for export and import and transit, forms and documents along with contact-point information. Thus, a National Trade Portal (NTP) with all relevant information is necessary for a WTO member-state. Additionally, as per Article 1.1 of the TFA,  each member-state has to publish applied rates and duties and taxes, fees and charges, rules for classification or valuation, laws, regulations, administrative rulings related to rules of origin, import, export, transit restrictions or prohibitions, penalty provisions, procedures for appeal or review, trade agreements and procedures in tariff quota administration etc.

So far, 90 out of 164 member-states have ratified the WTO TFA agreements. As per provisions, it requires two-thirds of the members to ratify the agreement. Ratification by about 20 more members are required for full implementation of the agreement. In Asia, 17 countries have so far ratified the agreement. Bangladesh is in the process of and almost close to ratification.

Similar to that of Trade Portal, Article 10.4 of the TFA mentioned about the Single Window as the best endeavour. In its Article 4.1 to 4.4,  a detailed requirement is listed for proper documentation and data requirements for import and export.

A recent Trade Portal and Single Window Forum in Sri Lanka showed the preparedness of different countries on Trade Portal and Single Window and how they could complement each other. An efficient Trade Portal supports a business; an individual can prepare for any investment decision. Then while going further to different business approval process, a Single Window as a central contact point can work to get all clearances from a single place.

Aspects of legal issues, technology, data harmonisation and management, inter-ministerial collaboration, initial funding and maintenance were the main crux of the problems raised by the country representatives.  It is also mentioned that in terms of technology, Trade Portal is not that much complicated as the Single Window, as open source software is available, but appointment of IT consultant company, content coordinator, dissemination officer etc. need some monetary involvement. In some countries, people are even willing to pay for the information available in the Trade Portal.

The basic necessary information and among the fundamentals, commodity tariff schedule and export-import procedures are important while prominence is given to regulations of exports and imports and all licenses. Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS) and Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT), market intelligence, customs, shipping process and documentation needs etc. are similarly important.

Similarly, Single Window (SW) is a facility which allows parties involved in trade and transport to give standardized information and documents with a single entry point to fulfill all import, export and transit-related regulatory requirements.  Through the SW, if data and information can be harmonized, then it will allow entrepreneurs to submit the information reducing cost and time both.  Like Trade Portal, legal issues take an important place. Electronic signatures, certification authorities, mutual recognition along with identification and authentication and authorization are important. Data protection and data quality regulation are yet another very important aspect.  Different countries have been engaged to develop different models to shape up their SW to provide better and swift trade support services to make businesses competitive.

Bangladesh is also not far behind and has developed Bangladesh Trade Portal (BTP) with on-line enquiry points. Developed by the Ministry of Commerce and supported by IFC under World Bank technical assistance. Bangladesh also has a Customs portal/website and internet-based national enquiry point under technical support from USAID.  BTP provides full information on import and export and other related information on legal documents, procedures and forms, border trade, measures and standards, SPS/TBT, GSP, market access and free trade agreements.

Like other NTPs, when it was launched in March this year, sustainability issues were raised. The Trade Portal, in order to be a one-stop point of all trade information after the inception stage is over, will face challenges of developing and updating the information on a continuous basis for accurate, reliable and authentic useful information.

National Single Window is the best tool for countries to enable traders to submit documents and data requirements through a single entry point to the relevant agencies as per WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement (Article 10.4). Bangladesh is now in the process of ratification of the Trade Facilitation Agreement. In order to make operation of a SW effective, a national trade portal can be a complementary instrument. Experiences of South Asian and Association of Southeast Asian Nation (ASEAN) countries show that challenges vary from country to country. As ASEAN regional SW is in operation, a similar SAARC regional SW should now become our priority.

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