Last reviewed 10 September 2013

Sandra Strong, of Strong and Herd LLP, reports on some of the insights that she gained at a recent Knowledge Academy organised by the World Customs Organization.

In July 2013, I was pleased to be invited to attend the World Customs Organization (WCO) Knowledge Academy for Customs and Trade. Two weeks of lectures and training sessions run by the WCO in Brussels for customs officials and private sector practitioners, all on customs regulations and procedures. How could I resist?

Despite fate sending me a slipped disc and the flight being delayed by nearly an hour, I did make it to Brussels. As I checked in for 11 nights at my hotel, I realised this would probably be the longest I’d sleep in the same bed for consecutive nights in years. International trade is a great job, whichever area you’re in, but it does tend to turn us into nomads.

The WCO buildings were just around the corner from the hotel. On the wall are two signs: the WCO logo and the Customs Co-operation Council (CCC) plaque dating from the 1940s. In fact, the organisation is still officially the CCC — WCO is just its marketing front.

On the first evening there was a reception for Women in International Trade. I know that I’m a woman in international trade, but things like this do make me cringe a little. I mean, why not an event for men in international trade as well? But I had to go, and I’m glad I did. Just because I’ve never felt held back or kept under by being a female just means I’ve been lucky or too stupid to notice, and this is partly thanks to the society I grew up in, I suppose. Other countries in the world are much more blatantly male-dominated but even in these developing markets women have made a significant mark on customs administrations.

This is quite exceptional because, despite strong evidence of the vast benefits women’s empowerment has on the economy of a country, in many parts of the world women remain poorer and lack access to the same opportunities as men.

Yet, somehow, the areas of international trade compliance and customs authorities are seen as an acceptable job for women and many can make it into senior roles, such as: Ms Agnes Katsonga, the Commissioner of Customs and Excise for the Malawi Revenue Authority; Ms Allen Kagina, Commissioner General, Uganda Revenue Authority; and Ms Claudia Maria Gaviria, Customs Director General, Republic of Columbia, to name just three. It is amazing how women in the developing world are becoming increasingly engaged in international trade. Economic empowerment of both men and women, supported by trade, can support positive social, economic and national revenue outcomes.

The next day was day one of the Knowledge Academy and my first study group was on Trade Facilitation. Let’s get this straight: as my new friend Omar from the Brazilian Customs Agency reminded everyone, Customs Trade Facilitation is about making things easier, not about customs officials collecting facilitation fees. The first is good news; the second, well, illegal.

The presentations made me realise that there is a lot of change ahead for everyone involved in international trade. This “trusted trader” partnership between customs and industry is going to make a big impact on supply chain costs and times very soon. There was a lot of interaction from the delegates. For once, I resisted the temptation to ask questions, happy to listen to the others, and what struck me was that the people here to learn about customs procedures and trade facilitation had flown in from far more distant places than myself. In fact, apart from the organisers and speakers I met no one from Europe, Canada or the USA until later in the week. The conflict between facilitating trade and maintaining a secure supply chain came across good and strong — it’s facilitation of legitimate trade that is being developed, hence the need for accredited businesses (AEO as we call it in the EU).

Key moments: the ICC talking about its new initiative of accrediting the bodies that issue Certificates of Origin and having an on-line checking system; the WTO nearing the end of the Doha Round after nine years (Bali, December 2013 — maybe, perhaps) with the signing of the Trade Facilitation Agreement; the cost of customs administration on exports (in Chad, one container takes 101 days of work at US$8525 to export; in Singapore, that’s four days of work, cost US$425); and learning about the WCO Economic Competitive Package (ECP) aimed at facilitation. Of course, best of all is meeting such great people from all over the world who share the same interests in customs issues as I do (nice to know I’m not the only sad person around!).

My other sessions were on more standard customs topics: tariff classification, customs valuation and origin. I knew it took a long time to get the Harmonised System (HS) amendments to the tariff through, but I was surprised to learn that the final drafts for inclusion in the next revision (the HS Codes are revised about every five years —currently known as HS2012) have to be ready by November 2013 for publication in 2017.

The HS is a brilliant system of coding goods internationally for customs and trade purposes, but it will always be out of date. A little titbit: new headings for LED lights, lamps, modules and panels are to be added, and possible new heading for tripods, monopods, etc for digital cameras. We had a great “professor” for valuation for one of the mornings — Leonardo from Brazilian Customs working at the WCO. He loves valuation — the philosophy, the history, the practical, the legal; fantastic sessions with jazz, classical music and dancing were used to enhance our understanding. Did you know that determining intercompany pricing was like a dance? Neither did I, until this morning.

After 60 hours of training over 8 days I was almost ready to pass out. The Customs and Trade WCO Knowledge Academy ended with an awards ceremony with our certificates being presented by Kunio Mikuriya, Secretary General of the WCO. He made a nice (short) speech about collaboration between trade and customs being important to forge a safe international trading future with interaction, communication and understanding.

After the presentation, most of the delegates started their journeys home, with 12–30 hour flights not unusual. I have offers to visit Trinidad & Tobago, Jamaica, the USA, India, Papua New Guinea, Brazil, Sweden, the DR Congo and Nigeria. Who knows?

One thing I do know for sure is that there is nothing wrong with the knowledge and commitment of Customs and Trade in the big “bad” world. I am a proud member of the WCO Class of 2013!