WCO Mercator Programme: pioneering innovative partnerships

20 June 2017
By Nathan Taylor, Programme Manager, and Johanna Tornstrom, Programme Coordinator, Capacity Building Directorate, WCO

With the entry into force of the WTO Agreement on Trade Facilitation (TFA), some governments face a renewed urgency to modernize and reform their Customs administrations over the next few years. Fortunately, one of the main priorities for the international donor community is to ensure the effective implementation of the provisions of the TFA, providing a unique opportunity for these countries to access a wide range of technical assistance and capacity building support.

This support often comprises the undertaking of an analysis, in order to ascertain how a Customs administration is organized in terms of legislation, organizational governance, processes and systems. Having delivered sustainable and cost effective assistance to Customs for decades, the WCO reinforced its existing support towards enhanced trade facilitation through the launch of the Mercator Programme in 2014.

Designed to assist governments in implementing the Customs trade facilitation measures outlined in the TFA, the Mercator Programme provides capacity building for WCO Members on the basis of a comprehensive needs assessment and development plan, which is part of the new results-oriented Mercator Programme operating model. This article highlights the need for donor coordination when it comes to capacity building and the WCO’s specific added-value when it comes to supporting Customs, and then provides details about the Programme operating model.

Customs-to-Customs approach

With the coming into force of the TFA, combined with clear evidence that trade and trade facilitation generates economic growth and employment, while reducing poverty, it is not surprising that a wide range of bilateral and multilateral development partners have prioritized support in this area. Given the benefits, most major development banks and development agencies are committing significant financial and human resources to trade facilitation, supporting capacity building, technical assistance and infrastructure programmes in developing countries.

The growing levels of support accorded to trade facilitation among a large and complex donor community present a familiar coordination challenge, where coordination is desired, yet ‘being coordinated’ is not always welcomed. One of the best ways to promote coordination in this environment is to understand and leverage each development partner’s specific added-value, while building strong ownership and leadership at the national level.

The WCO’s unique asset in this complex international donor environment is its ‘Customs-to-Customs’ approach. This approach supports the building of professional alliances between Customs officers and their administrations that are unlike the traditional expert-consultant models, widely used in trade-related technical assistance and capacity building. The approach has many merits, including its cost effectiveness, its ability to engender trust between partners, and most importantly, its foundations in international standards and norms established by the WCO.

However, this peer-to-peer approach is not without challenges. The WCO Secretariat has to balance requests from its Members for expert contributions, with the operational realities that WCO Members face every day. It must ensure a fair distribution of opportunities among its membership, while ensuring quality delivery that is consistent with WCO standards. In addition, it must remain engaged with its Members, despite not having a field presence at the level enjoyed by other development partners.

Taking this unique asset and the challenges in the context of the WCO’s key objective of supporting its Members to become self-sustainable in the implementation of international standards, has led to a change in the WCO’s approach to capacity building delivery. In 2016, there was a seismic shift from activity-based support – often measured in terms of the number of missions delivered – to results-oriented support. This new form of support is delivered under a more disciplined project management basis, with nationally defined, multi-year implementation plans monitored against identified results and performance indicators.

Programme operating model

Given the heightened urgency for Customs reform and modernization as a result of the entry into force of the TFA, and in anticipation of an increase in requests from its Members for trade facilitation-related capacity building support, the WCO created a new pool of strategic advisors – Mercator Programme Advisors (MPAs).

They are experienced Customs managers who play a key role in supporting administrations to implement the TFA provisions on the basis of international best practices and standards. Besides their contemporary knowledge and experience, MPAs are also able to leverage the WCO’s extensive range of instruments and tools to support their engagements. Thus far, MPA accreditation workshops have led to some 40 MPAs being fully accredited as of April 2017, with broad representation from developed, developing and least developed countries.

The Programme operating model adopts a specific national-level approach. This includes the assignment of a designated MPA to oversee the delivery of a multi-year development plan, while maintaining an ongoing dialogue with the beneficiary administration. This approach has ensured a more strategic, orderly, consistent and higher tempo delivery of capacity building support.

Starting in 2016, this delivery methodology was piloted in Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Sierra Leone, with the generous support of MPAs from the South African Revenue Service, the Swaziland Revenue Authority and the Uganda Revenue Authority. This approach has resulted in much greater trust between the designated MPAs and the beneficiary administrations.

MPAs, through multiple in-country engagements, gain a thorough understanding of an administration’s operating context, its key internal and external stakeholders, and the activities of other development partners. They provide a consistent WCO face – ensuring a more sustainable commitment to the reform and modernization process, while also presenting themselves as trusted colleagues from the global Customs community. The unexpected yet beneficial result of this operating model has been the emergence of ‘South-South Cooperation.’

For example, landlocked Afghanistan gained considerable inspiration for its modernization programme from similarly landlocked and developing Uganda, as part of the MPA engagement between the two countries. Ethiopia, on the other hand, was convinced of the importance of investing in leadership and management development on the basis of Swaziland’s experiences, which were effectively communicated by the designated MPA as part of a strategic conversation on organizational development.

The operating model is particularly powerful when the MPA’s role is combined with perspectives from the WCO’s pool of Technical and Operational Advisors (TOAs) and other recognized experts. MPAs bring a broad strategic understanding of the trade facilitation dynamics in a country, while TOAs provide focused technical advice on particular measures, such as risk management and the authorized economic operator (AEO) concept.

In fact, the engagement of the MPA ensures that technical advice is appropriately timed, pitched at the right level and integrated into a larger reform and modernization agenda. More importantly, their understanding of the internal dynamics and personalities within a country’s Customs administration provides an ideal framework where technical assistance can be most effectively delivered.

Member perspectives

From a WCO Member’s perspective, engagement with the tailor-made track of the Mercator Programme requires stronger project management competencies, which are now provided for through a newly developed WCO project management training package that is available to all Members.

The challenge for National Contact Points (NCPs) will be integrating all donor support and national initiatives into a comprehensive TFA implementation framework that is properly sequenced and strategically sound. MPAs will, therefore, continue to actively contribute to building the project management, coordination, monitoring and evaluation capacities of NCPs and local Customs modernization units.

For example, in Sierra Leone, close to a dozen experts with a wide range of expertise in strategic planning, valuation, risk management and post-clearance audit have supported the reform and modernization agenda of the National Revenue Authority (NRA). Collectively, the group is moving the country towards a more predictable and cost-effective trade facilitation regime, taking into account the need to eliminate destination inspection fees, improve and automate risk selectivity systems, and facilitate movements for compliant traders.

The oversight and management role of the MPA in Sierra Leone has been critical in maintaining the WCO-NRA relationship, ensuring ongoing senior management engagement and buy-in, and contextualizing the WCO’s support in the broader donor environment. At the same time, the NCP in the NRA is building his capacity to effectively manage WCO and other international inputs within the context of the NRA’s Strategic Plan.

The importance of the collegial, Customs-to-Customs approach cannot be understated. With strong, collegial, trust-based relationships, there is a higher degree of honesty and frankness in terms of feedback, with respect to both WCO support and support delivered by other development partners.

With more established Customs-to-Customs relationships, WCO Members are more forthcoming about their specific technical needs. In this regard, the Mercator Programme offers further potential for the WCO to play an honest broker role, promoting adherence to international standards and Members’ best interests, while ensuring the most efficient use of development partner resources.

The road ahead

As the global centre of expertise on Customs matters, the WCO is well-placed to deliver sustainable and cost effective assistance to its Members, while ensuring that they are in a position to make the best use of the broad range of assistance that is available through regional and international development partners.

Customs administrations seeking additional information or wishing to engage with the Mercator Programme are encouraged to contact the WCO Capacity Building Directorate.

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