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Adapting to the “new normal”: building back better with digital and sustainable trade facilitation

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The COVID-19 pandemic and its subsequent disruptions have pushed up shipping and air freight costs, and posed significant challenges for supply chains globally. Still, significant progress has been made towards more efficient trade facilitation, as shown by the fourth Global Survey on Digital and Sustainable Trade Facilitation. According to the survey conducted by the five United Nations Regional Commissions and coordinated by ESCAP, the overall rate of implementation of trade facilitation measures at the global level reached 65 per cent, an increase of five percentage points over the past two years.

Every cloud has a silver lining, and the COVID-19 pandemic is no exception. The pandemic has spurred many countries to ensure smoother trade flows and improve trade facilitation practices in the regulatory, institutional, and technical spheres. Progress made in implementing paperless and cross-border paperless trade is particularly noticeable. Since the survey was conducted globally in 2015, digital trade facilitation measures have made the most significant leap in implementation rates in this fourth survey. The progressive expansion in scope and coverage of the ASEAN Single Window is one example of leveraging digital technologies to make trade flow more smoothly across borders.

Despite significant improvements, implementation for cross-border paperless trade is still substantially lower than other groups of trade facilitation measures. Enabling the cross-border exchange of trade-related data requires strong political commitment and sustained planning. One good example is the Framework Agreement on Facilitation of Cross-border Paperless Trade in Asia and the Pacific, a UN treaty aiming to accelerate the implementation of digital trade facilitation measures, which entered into force on 20 February 2021. To advance cross-border paperless trade efforts in the Asia-Pacific region, the Framework Agreement provides a dedicated intergovernmental platform for developing and testing legal and technical solutions for cross-border paperless trade that build on national, bilateral, and subregional initiatives.  

In addition to prioritizing international cooperation for digital trade facilitation, national trade facilitation implementation plans need to fully incorporate sustainable development considerations.

Sustainable trade facilitation measures may focus on increasing opportunities for sectors and groups with special needs, such as small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), women traders, and the agriculture sector, to help reap the full development-related benefits from trade facilitation reforms. However, the results from the survey show that while agricultural trade facilitation measures have been comparatively well-implemented, the implementation of trade facilitation measures aimed at SMEs and women in business face immense challenges, with average implementation rates of 41 per cent and 31 per cent, respectively.

Finally, the importance of trade facilitation to tackle future emergencies shall be considered in long-term planning. A group of trade facilitation measures relevant to crisis and pandemic was identified in the Asia-Pacific region and incorporated into the fourth UN survey. The results show that immediate policy responses have been implemented to a certain extent to keep global supply chains going, especially for essential goods. However, the results also showed that long-term measures and emergency plans are often not in place. Developing trade facilitation strategies in times of emergencies will reduce the likely impact of future crises.

The results of the survey and the global report, including detailed data analysis, can be found at

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Soo Hyun Kim
Economic Affairs Officer
Jiangyuan Fu
Associate Professor, Faculty of Law, Huazhong University of Science and Technology, China
Yann Duval
Chief, Trade Policy and Facilitation
Trade, Investment & Innovation +66 2 288-1234 [email protected]