Diary of a WCO Professional Associate
18th October 2023By Sruti Vijayakumar, National Customs Targeting Centre, Central Board of Indirect Taxes & Customs, India
Dreams are for real
For Customs officers across the globe, working for the WCO Secretariat is a prestigious opportunity not to let slip. I’m no different. So when the chance came knocking to ply my trade via the Career Development Programme (CDP), I was eager to grasp it with both hands.
The CDP, a Japan Customs-financed initiative, allows selected candidates to undertake work at the WCO Secretariat in Brussels for ten months. Fortunately, with the support and encouragement of my Administration, the Indian Central Board of Indirect Taxes & Customs, I was nominated to participate in the 2022/2023 Programme.
I fondly recall the news of my selection as a Professional Associate (PA) lighting up my screen on a rainy day during the monsoon of June 2022 in Mumbai. I was overcome with excitement about what lay ahead. My previous visit to WCO Headquarters in 2018, as part of international training for officers of the Indian Revenue Service (Customs & Indirect Taxes), had already left a profound and lasting impact. But little did I know that it was just the start of a thrilling journey – one filled with intellectually invigorating, professionally inspiring and personally exhilarating experiences.
In September 2022, I joined the team responsible for the Risk Management and Intelligence Programme in the Enforcement and Compliance Sub-Directorate. The onboarding process was a breeze, thanks to the incredibly supportive CDP team. They helped with relocating, made it easy to acclimatize to a new city and readily addressed a host of other concerns. The team continued to be a guiding force throughout the Programme, enabling me and the other PAs to maximize our learning from our time working for the WCO.
My first major task was to help organize the Global Information and Intelligence Strategy Working Group meeting. My role was not confined to making preparations for the meeting. I was to deliver a presentation on behalf of the WCO Secretariat on the topic of data analysis. Taking the floor in the presence of such a large distinguished gathering was a rewarding and unforgettable experience.
Moreover, I was provided with the opportunity to work on updating the WCO Customs Risk Management Compendium, which required in-depth discussions about data analysis, e-commerce, and passenger and trusted insider threats. The drafting process also instilled great insights into the best practices of Customs administrations in risk management.
Providing technical assistance is an intrinsic function of the WCO Secretariat and I assisted in organizing numerous workshops and other activities related to risk management. Through this, I developed know-how on proficient planning, preparation, coordination, logistical and travel arrangements. I also had the opportunity, as a WCO expert, to conduct a risk management workshop in Moldova. The knowledge gained from this activity boosted my capabilities as a trainer.
Being part of the Risk Management and Intelligence Programme, which holds relevance in various areas of Customs, allowed me to familiarize myself with various topics and practices. For instance, I visited the Customs facilities at the port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands as part of a workshop on risk management applied to environmentally sensitive commodities. I also supported the work undertaken to build enforcement capacities related to Illegal Wildlife Trade by conducting training on the risk management process and the development of risk indicators in this domain. Each of these experiences widened my perspectives on the various aspects of risk management.
The beauty of the CDP is that it teaches you that the sky’s the limit if you set your mind to it. It consistently opens up various avenues for you to explore and grow, depending on your interest. During my tenure at the WCO Secretariat, I familiarized myself with the Customs Enforcement Network (CEN) Suite, with the support of hands-on training on the use of CEN applications. It was a delight to use the CEN Data Visualization tool funded by Indian Customs. Further, I assisted in drafting the Illicit Trade Report and was involved in the work of the Working Group on Data and Statistics. Having actively participated in the conduct of Time Release Studies in India, I associated myself with the work being done by the TRS team.
I was also able to participate in various meetings and learned invaluable lessons on how to work as a team in an international environment, how to understand everyone’s ideas, derive insights from conversations, and take on board the different viewpoints expressed.
Never stop learning
As part of the CDP, we were expected to undertake a research project in our area of interest. Having experience working in the National Customs Targeting Centre of Indian Customs and a keen interest in the area of Customs risk management and data analytics, I decided to delve into data-driven risk management and the use of technology to address risks in the supply chain. I garnered inputs for my research from various fronts. My tutor, whose insights added immeasurable value to my research, was my primary mentor and guide for all my tasks in the WCO. With teamwork at the heart of all things good at the WCO, my colleagues shared their valuable thoughts, which also helped shape my research.
There was never a dearth of avenues for knowledge enhancement. The WCO Technology Conference & Exhibition in Maastricht enriched my understanding on the use of technology and the role of data in the changing landscape of global trade. So did the WCO’s first Data Innovation Hub, the PICARD Conference, and the WCO Knowledge Academy for Customs and Trade.
Among a plethora of highlights as part of the CDP was the Study Trip to Japan. The field visit to various Customs formations under Japan Customs provided a greater understanding of their working and the use of cutting-edge technologies such as E-Gate, an AI-based form of X-ray image analysis. We also participated in the engaging WCO-UPU Global Conference and witnessed the signing of the Joint Declaration between the WCO and UPU on facilitating safe, secure and efficient global trade. The richness of the country’s culture, the warmth of the people and the irresistible Japanese cuisine remain etched in my heart forever.
These opportunities served as a catalyst for professional knowledge enhancement and also provided a wealth of ideas for my research. I presented my research paper, titled “Embracing a Technology-centric and Data-driven Customs Risk Management”, before the honourable Secretary General and senior management of the WCO Secretariat in June 2023. It was a rare, extraordinary and encouraging experience to present my research findings before such learned officers in the Customs domain.
I also had the opportunity to participate in an engaging two-week WCO Leadership and Management Development Workshop. It was extremely well-structured and inspiring and addressed important aspects needed for efficient leadership, self-awareness, strategic management, people management, negotiations and change management. The workshop has truly helped me understand myself better and positively impacted my thoughts, behaviour and actions.
Borders divide, Customs connect
Since returning to my home Administration, I have been involved in sharing my newly acquired knowledge with my colleagues and contributing to Customs reform and modernization projects. My experiences and international work exposure in the WCO have not only widened my horizons, but also strengthened my capabilities as a Customs officer and provided me with global perspectives. The wealth of information collected on best practices in the area of Customs risk management has been immensely helpful in my current role in the National Customs Targeting Centre. It has enabled me to assess the possibility of introducing some of the functional best practices in the area of risk management. In the spirit of global Customs, I hope to be an accelerator in my Customs Administration towards further modernization, as well as utilize my learning, networks through the CDP, and relationship established with the Secretariat, to play a leading role in addressing the challenges facing the Customs community.
The CDP illustrates the unwavering commitment of the WCO to empower Customs, in keeping with the WCO’s theme for 2023 – “Nurturing the next generation: promoting a culture of knowledge-sharing and professional pride in Customs”. I am thankful for this brilliant opportunity that has equipped me with enriched experiences, enhanced capabilities and broader perspectives.