Pensées Insolites: Articles of Faith, Putting the WTO’s TFA to Work in Bangladesh

In my prior role as USAID’s Director of the Office of Economic Policy, I occasionally wrote a column for the office’s newsletter titled “Musings of the Office Director.” This was a popular forum that reached the corps of economists throughout the Agency. I have mused about a similar forum in my new role as Chief Economist and VP at IBI. I toyed with the column’s name: Musings of the Chief Economist? Too portentous. An Economist’s Blog: Too prosaic. Something informal yet international and catchy seemed right. This is it, the first essay for Pensées Insolites (“unusual thoughts”), loosely translated as thinking outside the box, but which sounds better in French.

Next month the International Consortium on Governmental Financial Management (ICGFM) will hold its annual Winter Training Conference in Washington, D.C. at the IMF. One session will highlight how improvements in internet access to trade information promotes transparency and good governance. IBI has been implementing a USAID-funded project in Bangladesh (the Bangladesh Trade Facilitation Activity, or BTFA) since 2013 to make trade information more available to all, but especially to those who need it the most, including exporters, importers, customs brokers, customs officers, and others in government with trade-related responsibilities. The project has focused, in part, on building a Bangladesh Customs Portal and a National Enquiry Port for trade-related enquiries. Dr. Khairuzzaman (Zaman) Mozumder served as chief of party for this project before returning to government as Bangladesh’s Deputy Secretary in the Finance Division of the Ministry of Finance.

Zaman has written a paper explaining how the Customs Portal and the National Enquiry Point (NEP) promote transparency and good governance by making trade information available to those who need it. Customs is a function of government, and actions that the customs authority take to reduce transactions costs, such as by making information more easily available, will make trading easier and contribute to economic growth. This is what good governance is all about.

Zaman’s paper linked here provides the broader context for BTFA. The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT)—which was replaced by the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1995—urges transparency in a member’s trade regulations through publishing and disseminating trade-related information. More recently in 2013, Article 1 of the WTO’s Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA) went a step further in calling for information to be available on the internet, to the extent possible, and that each member establish a national enquiry point to answer trade-related questions.

The paper is a case study of how the government of Bangladesh (GOB) with USAID assistance took up the TFA’s transparency requirements, addressing shortcomings in how the GOB’s National Bureau of Revenue (NBR) provided trade information to the public through the internet. The result has been creation of the NBR’s Customs Portal—a one-stop-shop website for all GOB customs information. Related to this and accessible through the portal is a national enquiry point, where anyone can submit trade-related questions. The portal was launched to grand fanfare in September 2017, and the NEP, in September 2018.

It is to be seen how much the portal and the NEP actually facilitate trade. Customs procedures are many and complicated, and include numerous forms and documents, detailed tariff schedules, complicated valuations procedures, exchange rates, economic zone considerations, baggage rules, risk management rules, and so on. In addition, a portal’s design and the timeliness of its information will greatly affect its usefulness.

Congratulation to the government of Bangladesh and its National Board of Revenue for their work to achieve World Customs Organization (WCO) and WTO standards. To make good on these investments, these new systems must be monitored carefully to determine whether they perform as planned and whether they have the hoped for impacts on trade and economic growth.

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