Dossier: Engaging partners

Customs Engaging Traditional and New Partners with Purpose – Some thoughts about the theme of the year

22 February 2024
By Ian Saunders, WCO Secretary General

Each year, the WCO Secretariat invites the Organization’s Members to focus on a theme it considers critical to the effective and efficient delivery of their missions. In 2024, under the slogan “Customs Engaging Traditional and New Partners with Purpose”, the Secretariat is inviting Customs administrations both to reaffirm longstanding partnerships and to boldly forge new alliances.

International trade is critical to all economies and societies. Our global interdependencies became more evident with the COVID-19 pandemic: the specialized imports essential to the production of vaccines; the very nature of preparing products with a short and sensitive shelf life for transportation, export, import and delivery; and the sheer number of basic items that reached us via cross-border movements all came to light.

While keeping the safety, openness, fairness and integrity of the system has always been challenging, the task has become even more demanding due to the greater complexity of supply chains; higher expectations of efficiency from the global public, governments and trade operators; and increased risks of trade disruption following political, environmental or health crises. Moreover, those seeking to circumvent the rules are becoming more sophisticated in their organization, means and methods.

In such a context, it is now, more than ever, essential that Customs administrations take a forward-thinking approach to their work and develop solutions that are not only based on their own knowledge, experience and wisdom, but are also developed collectively with the Customs community, including companies and the many entities with which Customs administrations interact in their daily practice. But engagement should extend beyond internal Customs and trade discussions. The private sector is, without a doubt, an essential stakeholder but Customs recognizes that there are many others. Issues such as integrity, gender equality and diversity, environmental protection and human rights for example may require engagement with governmental and non-governmental actors specialized in these fields.

We need to take a fresh look at the network of those who can help us to accomplish our work. Engaging traditional and new partners will enable administrations to collect information, improve resources and access to expertise, increase compliance, ensure greater impact and reduce uninformed opposition. It will also enhance transparency and accountability.

The WCO theme for 2024 not only asks Customs to strengthen existing relationships and challenges them to find new and diverse contacts, it also calls on them to be intentional: to identify what they want from each relationship, to understand what outcomes they can expect if interactions are successful, and to calibrate their efforts so that they are positioned not just for single accomplishments, but instead for ongoing and mutual success.

The theme for 2024 is a call to action for WCO Members and for the WCO itself. The WCO needs access to the views, expertise and experiences of all groups affected by Customs and trade issues. This engagement with others that have the ability to help is enshrined in the terms of reference of most WCO working bodies, which provide for the participation of observers in discussions and in the development of tools and instruments.

Members of the private sector may apply to join the Private Sector Consultative Group, which was formed for the purpose of informing and advising the WCO Secretary General, the Policy Commission and WCO Members on Customs and international trade matters. Memoranda of Understanding and cooperation agreements have also been signed with a number of organizations to provide structure for their engagement with our Organization.

Many WCO instruments such as the Harmonized System, the WCO Data Model, the E-Commerce Package and the Unified File Format, as well as guidance and training material, have been developed through extensive collaboration with stakeholders, if not co-created with them. The WCO Secretariat also relies on a wide range of stakeholders to support its training activities, from specialized government agencies to international organizations, intellectual property rights holders and NGOs.

It is essential, however, to ensure that the potential offered by the WCO engagement mechanisms is being fully exploited. In the coming months, the Secretariat will conduct a mapping of its network of partners and assess the relevance and effectiveness of its engagement against expected outcomes, the goal being to identify positive opportunities and direct our interactions toward efforts that will help the WCO develop concepts, standards, and tools that can help Members translate their aspirations into real-world improvements in Customs practice. Entities wishing to engage with the WCO are also invited to contact the Secretariat.

Dossier contents

In the Dossier for this edition of the magazine, we present some pioneering initiatives carried out collectively and involving various stakeholders.

The first article is written by several representatives of Brazil’s public and private sectors and a representative of the World Bank Group who is also a former Director General of Brazil Customs. It introduces an innovative solution enhancing certainty in the classification of products. The article not only describes the solution, but also explains how public- and private sector forces and skills were mobilized and combined to achieve what had seemed to many to be an impossible task.

We stay in Brazil for the second article written by the national Customs Administration and the Procomex Alliance Institute, a coalition of over 130 business associations. It tells the story of the creation of a voluntary compliance programme – called Programa Remessa Conforme (PRC) – open to national and foreign companies using e‑commerce platforms, websites or digital tools to sell their products. Launched in August 2023, the programme is another a testimony to how Customs-Business partnerships can shape regulatory frameworks and foster innovative solutions.

Both articles remind us that it is one thing to create an opportunity for stakeholders to provide input, but quite another for stakeholders actually to participate in the process, especially when resources are scarce.

Next comes an article by the United Kingdom Cabinet Office and HM Revenue and Customs on the Ecosystem of Trust (EoT) project, which aimed at testing whether supply chain data, alongside those generated by connected devices such as smart seals and smart containers, could be integrated into government systems to improve border processes. The project involved regulatory agencies, technology firms, logistics providers, academics and port operators, confirming how vital it is for government and industry to work together to modernize border operations.

An article by the World Shipping Council (WSC) then looks at how shipping lines can support Customs in combating drug trafficking. Building on the work done during Operation TIN CAN, WSC, the WCO and UNDOC have identified several action points that they will address together in the coming months in what appears to be a very promising collaborative effort.

It is then the turn of Singapore Customs to present recent initiatives achieved through sound partnerships with fellow Customs authorities, law enforcement agencies and business communities. The progress made relates in particular to digitalization and exchange of information at the national, bilateral and regional levels, with a view to facilitating legitimate trade, fighting illicit trade and securing the supply chain.

This is followed by an article by the WCO Secretariat team in charge of the Anti-Corruption and Integrity Promotion (A-CIP) Programme on using stakeholder engagement to combat corruption and on building communities of practice in matters of integrity at regional level. The objectives of such communities are to share procedures, best practices, experiences and case studies, standards and regulations, as well as guidance and handbooks.

The final article in the Dossier presents the four studies commissioned by the WCO Secretariat from the NGO Transparency International, highlighting the value of working with specialized organizations on issues which go beyond the realm of Customs.

My sincere thanks go to all those who have contributed to this Dossier and to our magazine, enabling us to shed light on some of the outstanding work carried out by Customs and its partners and to raise awareness of their invaluable contributions.