WCO C-RED Project: unprecedented cooperation between Customs administrations and humanitarian organizations to develop a more effective response to epidemicsBy Eve Gerard, WCO C-RED Project Manager
During a natural catastrophe or epidemic, it is essential for Customs administrations to facilitate or even speed up the delivery of relief consignments to victims, thereby helping to reduce the number of possible deaths. In fact, it would be unacceptable should this number increase as a result of ‘red tape.’
In practice, when a humanitarian emergency is declared, Customs administrations are often ill-prepared to process relief consignments which arrive en masse in a very short period of time. Import formalities are frequently too lengthy, particularly if another administration is involved in the Customs clearance, such as when a certificate or authorization is required, for example.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) believes that climate change will increase the risks of droughts, flooding, storms and related phenomena such as outbreaks of epidemic diseases. It is, therefore, more urgent than ever for Customs and their partners to be prepared to respond to these tragic events so as to minimize the associated human and economic costs.
In 2011, when submitting the ‘Resolution on the Role of Customs in Natural Disaster Relief’ for approval by its Members, the WCO Secretariat wished to encourage them to take adequate measures, allowing effective border procedures to be put in place.
The Resolution particularly advocates the implementation of the measures set out in Chapter 5 of Specific Annex J to the WCO Revised Kyoto Convention (RKC) and, where applicable, urges countries to sign the Model Agreement to expedite the import of relief consignments and possessions of relief personnel in the event of disasters and emergencies – a document drawn up jointly by the WCO and OCHA, which lists all the measures set out in various international instruments, or in instruments recognized as effective in practice.
Following the adoption of the Resolution, the WCO Secretariat co-organized four regional seminars with OCHA and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). These regional seminars brought together representatives of Customs administrations and humanitarian organizations to share experiences and perspectives on the future needs and constraints facing Customs when managing natural disasters.
Technical assistance gained new momentum in 2016 when a capacity building project was launched for Customs administrations in West African countries that had been affected by the Ebola epidemic, which broke out in south-east Guinea in December 2013. According to William Vannier, Supply Chain Director with Médecins Sans Frontières, “the Ebola response was not primarily a medical response, but more about logistics and supplies. Doctors were not the main need in Liberia during its peak.”
Once the humanitarian response had been set in motion, problems arose, in particular, with respect to the importation of relief consignments: warehouse space at ports and airports was inadequate, inventory capabilities were chaotic, and the contents of containers were not specified or were indicated in an unknown foreign language.
Equipped with the findings of the analysis of shortcomings during the crisis, the WCO and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs took the initiative to launch an innovative project on the role of Customs in natural disaster relief, under the title C-RED – an acronym for ‘Customs for Relief of Epidemic Diseases.’ Six Customs administrations in West African countries that had been directly affected by the Ebola crisis – Guinea, Liberia, Mali, Nigeria, Senegal and Sierra Leone – are the beneficiaries. The aim is to ensure that they are better prepared to combat the consequences of epidemic diseases and natural disasters in their country or region. To do this, the project seeks to:
- ensure that administrations provide border authority staff in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone with self-protection equipment – this equipment, which is ready to be distributed in the event of new risks of epidemics, will allow staff to protect themselves against the risks of transmitting the virus, while remaining operational during the period of the crisis.
- optimize procedures for releasing relief consignments based on international best practices and ensure that they are understood and implemented on the ground – such support is individualized according to the needs of countries and existing facilitation procedures.
The WCO is cooperating closely with OCHA to implement this project. Both organizations also continue to further their cooperation with other international organizations, such as the World Food Programme (WFP), the IFRC, and the World Health Organization (WHO). The combined participation of this network of international organizations makes it possible to channel efforts and boost the effectiveness of action taken in the countries concerned.
The first component of the project involves the provision of self-protection equipment to the most seriously affected Customs administrations. This equipment, which was selected and delivered by the WCO’s partner, the United Nations Humanitarian Response Depot (UNHRD), is now stored in the UNHRD centre in Accra, awaiting delivery to the three beneficiary countries: Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. The WCO has also published 1,000 brochures (in English and French), which detail how to use this equipment correctly in the event of a crisis.
With respect to the second component of the project, the WCO offers support to each country as follows:
- support for the development or updating of standard operating procedures (SOPs) relating to the delivery of relief goods in the event of an emergency;
- support for the implementation of these SOPs, particularly through the production of training material and the provision of assistance to Customs in carrying out simulation exercises;
- the strengthening or development of cooperation between bodies present at borders to ensure coordinated border management.
More notably, the WCO has provided very active support within a limited period of time to five out of the six target countries: Nigeria, Guinea, Mali, Sierra Leone, and Liberia.
Three WCO/OCHA missions were carried out in Nigeria between July 2017 and March 2018. These missions enabled bottlenecks during the Customs clearance of relief goods to be identified and SOPs to be developed in response. Recommendations regarding the Customs clearance of relief goods will represent a roadmap for future action.
The WCO hopes to ensure that SOPs will soon be validated at governmental level, and that the recommendations will be followed up within the time limits established by the Nigerian authorities. The Nigeria Customs Service has reiterated the need for all stakeholders involved in the Customs clearance procedure to take part in C-RED meetings to ensure effective border coordination with other supply chain stakeholders and other government agencies.
Two missions were organized in Guinea in July and October 2017, when meetings were held between public and private stakeholders, in parallel with talks on the difficulties that arose during the Ebola crisis and the bottlenecks that had been identified by humanitarian aid workers.
The Customs administration gave a presentation to other authorities on its crucial role in controlling passengers and baggage at borders, highlighting occasions when cumbersome administrative procedures can lead to blockages that slow down the entry and distribution of relief goods. Lack of regulation will, in contrast, lead to poor quality action and uncoordinated efforts.
The WCO missions resulted in the drafting of a national guide that humanitarian aid stakeholders and the various Customs administrations concerned can refer to. As in Nigeria, SOPs and recommendations were also drawn up with the various agencies and their implementation was monitored in 2018.
In Mali, which had hosted a diagnostic mission in September 2017, the Customs administration decided to enhance its SOPs on its own initiative, and to ensure that they were approved by all the relevant parties. The WCO subsequently funded the organization of a seminar bringing those involved in the diagnostic mission together, and now monitors the adoption and implementation of the recommendations.
The first diagnostic mission took place in Sierra Leone in late October 2017, and the project to draw up SOPs was begun, with recommendations to improve current national procedures having already been drafted.
A diagnostic mission was held very recently in Liberia in May 2018, when the SOPs in force in this country were revised. The project will conclude in October 2018. During its final months, efforts will focus on training the managerial personnel of Customs and other ministries to enable them to pass on the knowledge they have acquired to their staff and to representatives of humanitarian organizations so that all parties are familiar with the SOPs.
Workshops are organized on a regional basis to bring together all the representatives of various government agencies of beneficiary countries and regional partners, such as the WCO Regional Office for Capacity Building for West and Central Africa (ROCB WCA) and the Secretariat of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
The first workshop in Freetown, Sierra Leone was held in November 2016 and focused on the creation of a regional network of contact points and the identification of each beneficiary country’s specific needs. The second workshop, held in Senegal in May 2018, brought together more participants (over 60 people), where they consolidated the lessons learned and examined the follow-up to this innovative project. A third workshop is planned to be held in Guinea before the end of the project.
Customs administrations, other border management agencies and humanitarian aid stakeholders had already worked together on other capacity building projects led by the WCO and its partners. The C-RED project, however, established an unprecedented and exceptional new level of cooperation, allowing the joint drafting of procedures which take the constraints and regulations of the various government stakeholders into account. A new synergy has arisen in the target countries that will allow them to ensure a more effective response to future crises.
– Chapter 5 on relief consignments in Specific Annex J to the revised WCO International Convention on the Simplification and Harmonization of Customs Procedures (Revised Kyoto Convention) lists several facilitation measures, such as authorizing the lodging of a simplified or incomplete goods declaration subject to completion of the declaration within a specified period.
– Annex B9 to the WCO Convention on Temporary Admission (Istanbul Convention) stipulates that temporary admission can be granted without a Customs document or security being required and that the Customs authorities may require only a simple inventory of the goods, together with an undertaking to re-export them.
– Other appropriate measures to speed up the delivery of humanitarian assistance may also make provision for eliminating the requirement to provide certificates of origin, consular invoices and fumigation certificates or dispensing with import/export licences.
These provisions and measures have been brought together and set out in the ‘Customs Model Agreement to expedite the import of relief consignments and possessions of relief personnel in the event of disasters and emergencies,’ drawn up jointly by OCHA and the WCO.