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Lowering Trade Costs through Transparency: the Importance of Trade Information Portals

Marcus Bartley Johns's picture
A lack of transparency: it is one of the most common complaints of the private sector in many developing countries where the World Bank Group works. Improved transparency can lower trade costs and improve predictability, and it is a key objective of international agreements like the World Trade Organization’s Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA). Implementation of the TFA is a key topic being discussed in Geneva at this week’s Sixth Global Review of Aid for Trade.  
 
Traders Maheswor Shrestha and Sarita Tuladhar try out Nepal’s Trade Information Portal in 2015. The portal  provides information traders need to import and export goods, including information on permits, laws and taxes. Photo: Peter Kapuscinski / World Bank
Because of the importance of transparency, supporting Trade Information Portals is increasingly common in our facilitation projects. Beginning with Lao PDR in 2012, the Bank Group has now supported trade information portals in more than a dozen countries using a custom-built software platform, as well as contributing to global knowledge on the topic. Just today, Vietnam became the latest country to launch a portal. The basic function of the portals is publishing all laws, regulations and procedures affecting trade. Increasingly, they also serve other functions including as enquiry points on trade; or repositories of information on trade in services or non-tariff measures.
 
From May 29-31, the Trade & Competitiveness team in the Bank Group’s Singapore Hub hosted officials from 15 countries for a workshop to share experiences on improving the effectiveness of trade information portals. Some of the topics discussed included:
  • Ensuring high-level political support on an ongoing basis (many commented that there was a risk of a portal being seen as a project “owned” by one agency, when in fact it should be seen as a major national initiative overseen by Cabinet or the equivalent);
     
  • Responding in a timely manner to requests for information received through the portals (some countries have specific agreements between agencies to promote timeliness, including setting deadlines for responses to queries);
     
  • Engaging the private sector to build awareness of the portals (for example, Lao PDR implemented an extensive awareness-raising campaign after establishing the portal, which helped build a substantial community of users);
     
  • Encouraging private sector users to provide regular feedback on the accuracy of the information uploaded, including whether implementation of policies matches what is set in law or regulation; and
     
  • Using existing data gathered through use of the portal, as well as additional data like user surveys, to assess the impact of the portals in improving transparency and reducing trade costs.
As the first country to implement a Bank Group-developed trade portal project, Lao PDR’s experience was of great interest to other participants. Ms. Latthana Douangboupha, Director of the Trade Facilitation Division at the Lao PDR Ministry of Industry and Commerce, explained how there are now hundreds of daily users of the trade portal, and it is fostering coordination across government agencies related to trade, as well as with the private sector. Since launching its portal in 2012, Lao PDR has made publicly available 315 legal documents, 49 forms, 30 procedures, 253 measures, and 144 standards relating to trade.
 
Just as important as the transparency they provide, the process of establishing and maintaining portals brings together government agencies responsible for trade. Getting this coordination running effectively is essential in reforming trade facilitation and undertaking larger projects like the establishment of a National Single Window. Reflecting this, most countries at the workshop reported that they are already using the National Trade Facilitation Committees required through the WTO TFA to oversee the portal. In this way, the portal projects are helping strengthen the overall mechanisms for trade facilitation at the national level.
 
One key outcome of the workshop was the establishment of a community of practice among countries maintaining the Bank Group-developed trade portal software. This community of practice, convened by the Bank Group, will support the ongoing sharing of experience among countries. With the steady growth in the number of trade portals being implemented, the workshop was an opportunity to take stock of the achievements so far and the challenges ahead – with the hope that the community of practice will help governments share experiences and support each other in this effort in the years ahead.
 

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