Developing a trade information portal (TIP) – a website that provides easy access to information about a country’s regulations and procedures to traders – has become a common feature of trade facilitation action plans. However, despite much effort and, in some cases, intergovernmental agreements, many countries still lack an effective and sustainable TIP. A quick review of TIPs across countries in Asia and the Pacific reveals big differences in the quality of TIPs and the information they contain. Many fail to take the user’s viewpoint and do not provide practical step-by-step guides, nor answer key questions relevant to traders. Some have limited or outdated content and are difficult to use and navigate. Often established in developing countries as part of a project funded by international development partners, their quality will often slip after the project ends.
So how can we ensure that TIPs and other national trade repositories are relevant and sustainable? ESCAP, in cooperation with Thailand’s International Institute for Trade and Development, has developed a guide and online course, Enhancing TIPs, to answer this question. The course builds on earlier and ongoing work by the World Bank and UNCTAD, and includes input from many national experts directly involved in operating trade portals in Asia and the Pacific. It proposes a governance framework and a maturity model that can be used to evaluate an existing TIP and improve it. Several suggestions have emerged from this work:
First, TIPs must establish institutional collaboration with all the relevant regulatory agencies. TIPs need to collect overlapping information from a wide variety of agencies, 30 to 50, depending on the country. That information must reflect trade procedures from the user’s point of view, as they exist in practice, not in legal theory, and it must be continuously kept up-to-date. A good practice is to have the heads of trade-related agencies commit to providing the needed information to a dedicated TIP secretariat, possibly the same that is assisting the National Trade Facilitation Committee established as part of implementing the WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement. Such information should be collected from or provided by designated focal persons in each agency, using a pre-agreed standard digital format.
Second, TIPs need to earn traders’ trust. Bad TIPs are not just useless, they can mislead and further confuse traders. A quality assurance process needs to be put in place, and key performance indicators established and monitored. Aside from website metrics, systematically and actively gathering feedback from current and potential users is essential. The data collected can then be used to make improvements and add those features traders have shown particular interest in. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is an excellent opportunity for TIPs to demonstrate their usefulness to traders in providing timely information on quickly changing rules and procedures, in particular those relating to the trade of emergency goods and services. Furthermore, since a well-crafted TIP allows for the easy identification of redundancies and optimization opportunities, the system is also the ideal platform for Governments to showcase their achievements in terms of simplification of trade procedures.
Third, TIPs should be easily accessible and should prioritize the needs of MSMEs. Large firms generally have no problem finding regulatory information – the cost-saving benefits of a TIP are most important for small traders, perhaps entering international markets for the first time. But small firms have less infrastructure and the onus is on the TIP to accommodate them. Thus, ensuring low bandwidth requirements, a mobile-friendly design and availability of as much information as possible in an intuitive package across many languages are important features. The best TIPs will proactively reach out to MSMEs on social media and other platforms that are already used to conduct business.
The potential benefits of trade information portals in facilitating trade, making trade more inclusive and enhancing supply chain resilience in times of crisis are indisputable – both in developed and developing countries. But TIPs do require institutional commitment and attention to succeed. All those involved are invited to take the free Online Course on Enhancing Trade Information Portals and reflect on how TIPs can be made to reach their full potential.