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IBI Supports the Government of Timor-Leste to Import Critical Medical Supplies

Timor-Leste: Customs Reform Project

Since 2017, USAID/Timor-Leste’s Customs Reform Project (CRP) has been working with the Government of Timor-Leste (GOTL) Customs Authority (CA) and private sector stakeholders to provide support for trade facilitation and domestic resource mobilization. With limited domestic farming and manufacturing infrastructure, Timor-Leste is heavily reliant on trade for the majority of its goods. According to the GOTL, in 2018, the importation of vehicles, construction materials, rice, and other staples amounted to $565 million, while its exports measured close to $46 million. For Timor-Leste, receiving goods quickly, safely, and efficiently is essential.

As the prime contractor for CRP, International Business Initiatives (IBI) supports the GOTL, and specifically the CA, and the private sector by strengthening institutional and human capacity in order to implement regional and global best practices in trade facilitation. This targeted support aims to reduce trading costs, improve the accuracy and timeliness of information for traders and customs officials, improve customs revenue collection, and shorten customs clearance times.

COVID-19 and CRP

The IBI team for CRP remains committed to working with the GOTL and specifically the Customs Authority during the COVID-19 pandemic. Having worked as a prime contractor on several projects in Liberia during the Ebola crisis, IBI was positioned to quickly adapt to the challenges and opportunities presented by COVID-19. This has included support that resulted in keeping the nation’s most important entry port open, classifying critical goods for expedited import processing, and implementing telework and distance learning. IBI’s long-term project staff have remained in country throughout the crisis, and short-term staff have been brought on to work remotely.

Leveraging Relationships: Opening the Seaport

CA utilizing electronic tablet to record examination results

Dili Seaport accounts for nearly 90% of all import transactions in Timor-Leste, making it the most important entry port in the country. With many government entities shutting down operations at the beginning of the country’s State of Emergency, the IBI team for CRP intervened immediately and was able to exercise influence with Customs and other authorities to provide support that allowed the seaport to stay open. A closed port would have crippled the country and severely inhibited the government’s ability to effectively tackle the COVID-19 pandemic. As trusted experts, the IBI team was able to facilitate discussions between health, trade, and private sector stakeholders that allowed the port to operate safely under rapidly changing conditions.

Adapting Proven Processes: Classifying Critical Goods

Anticipating the need for emergency supplies to be used in responding to COVID-19, IBI helped the CA identify a list of goods that would be eligible for an expedited clearance procedure. The CA created a list of critical COVID-19 related goods—including test kits, disinfectants, protective clothing, sterilization products, thermometers, respirators, foodstuffs, building materials, and others. Using a three-tiered goods classification system developed by IBI, all 34 different types of critically important goods are now subject to fast clearance following submission of the declaration to Customs. Since the list was activated, nearly 60 tons of goods have been imported to tackle the pandemic.

Health Information

Customs displaying COVID-19 posters (printed by USAID) in public areas

As early as February 2020, CRP started to explore the impact COVID-19 would have in operational Customs areas and potential strategies to mitigate risks. A month later, Timor-Leste announced a State of Emergency on March 28th. After conversations with local officials, CRP worked with the Customs Authority to initiate protocols of social distancing, disinfection, and the use of face masks. USAID continued to play a key role in supporting front line customs officials as they face the ongoing issues surrounding COVID-19. Assistance has included the delivery of workplace mentoring and support to staff in health and safety related best practices, provision of posters for display in relevant areas, and supplying basic cleaning products, such as anti-bacterial wipes, and hand sanitizer.

Going the Distance: Distance Learning

After the declaration of a SOE in Timor-Leste, the number of staff allowed to attend work, the capacity of in-person meetings, and face-to-face meetings were restricted. IBI instituted telework procedures that allowed all project staff to remain in country and continue to support the response. The IBI team, in collaboration with the Customs Training Department, changed their training approach by creating a 21-page training manual and 50 written answer follow-up questions that teach Customs staff how to correctly classify goods in line with international standards. Each trainee’s answers were graded and each one was given one-on-one feedback. The program ensured the quality and continuity of capacity building efforts in the CA continues throughout COVID-19.


Through its partnership with USAID, IBI’s continued commitment to working in Timor-Leste and its ability to positively respond to unprecedented challenges has proven critical in the country’s fight against COVID-19. IBI’s successful response throughout COVID-19 has been a combination of continuity and creativity: prioritizing the response to COVID-19 and adapting existing activities to new health guidelines.

Attribution: This blog post was prepared by IBI Associate Reed Collins, with input from IBI Chief of Party for the CRP, Mark Hamill

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