Working as a WCO Professional Associate: a participant shares his experienceBy Maurice Emiola Adéfalou, Director of Legislation and International Relations, Benin Customs
After a 10-year career in various positions at Benin Customs, I felt the need to go and acquire some skills at the WCO in order to gain a better understanding of the rules and operation of the Organization and to fulfil my dream of working for an international organization, even if only for a few months. Therefore, in 2016, when the invitation to submit nominations for the Career Development Programme (CDP) had been sent out by the WCO, I was keen to submit an application.
At the time, I was heading up the rapid intervention service, also known as the “mobile brigade,” with responsibility for the Atlantic and coastline, and was the spokesperson for my administration. I was already aware of the CDP, which – need I remind you – is a WCO Secretariat initiative financed by Japan Customs that provides Customs officers from developing countries with an opportunity to work for 10 months at the institution’s Headquarters in Brussels.
When I informed the Director General of Customs of my keen interest in this programme, he was somewhat taken aback at first, but then, once he understood the potential benefits that could be derived from the experience, he supported my nomination with a letter of recommendation. My approach had the desired effect, and I was selected.
From a dream to reality
I relocated to WCO Headquarters in Brussels in September 2016 and joined the team responsible for the Intellectual Property Rights (IPR), Health and Safety Programme in the Enforcement and Compliance Sub-Directorate. The first challenge was to refresh my English skills, and so I immediately enrolled in a course of lessons offered by the WCO to any interested officers. The second challenge involved my adapting to the way the institution operates, and adhering to its code of conduct.
I soon felt at home among the group of Professional Associates, which that year, was made up of representatives from Angola, Belize, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Guinea, Mexico, Mongolia, Senegal and Ukraine. The team in charge of coordinating the programme took care of our every need and dealt with all our concerns.
Our birthdays were celebrated, and I was very appreciative of the special attention given to the smallest details. Every month, we would have a meeting to take stock of our activities in our respective Directorates. This meant that the coordinating team could review our progress and advise us on how to take full professional advantage of our placement at the WCO.
A golden opportunity
From a strictly professional perspective, I had had a number of responsibilities in my home administration and had held some important positions, but, before leaving, I had to brush up on a good many subjects in order to upgrade my skills, bearing in mind the vast subject areas covered by Customs matters, let alone the areas covered by the WCO as a whole.
I had opted to work at the WCO in the IPR field, and my first task in the Organization was to help the IPR Team prepare for the meeting of the Counterfeiting and Piracy (CAP) Group. I was, therefore, very quickly called upon to contribute, and the pace of work was intense. I was required to translate and conduct research, correct letters, and report to my tutor about my activities. If I demonstrated any shortcomings, I could always rely on my tutor to give me a few words of encouragement.
The CAP Group meeting was a success. Furthermore, my contribution was not confined to its preparation: I was, in fact, also requested to give a presentation on behalf of Benin Customs, because the administration had been unable to send a representative to the meeting. Taking the floor in the presence of such a large gathering at the WCO to share my country’s experiences was very rewarding.
At the same time, the operational expert in the IPR Team requested my help in preparing an accreditation workshop for countries in the WCO Asia/Pacific region. As is customary at the WCO, accreditation is awarded in close collaboration with the Capacity Building Directorate, and the expert was, therefore, working in partnership with a colleague from that Directorate. They both spoke in English most of the time, at such a speed that I found it difficult to follow their views. However, I did not let that discourage me and, determined to prove my worth, I learned to adapt.
With the support of both experts, I was able to manage the administrative aspects of this matter. I would have to respond to all emails in English, and handle all the files of those attending the workshop. On a proposal from the WCO experts, I took on the facilitator role during the workshop, which was held in Shanghai, China, in December 2016 and conducted in English.
Since I was involved at every stage of the preparation, I learned a great deal from the experience, namely how to work in a team in an international environment, how to set up a real conversation in which everyone not only shares his or her ideas, but also listens and takes on board the viewpoints expressed by other team members. Teamwork is a WCO requirement and continues to be the linchpin governing the success of the Organization’s tasks.
After Shanghai, I went back to WCO Headquarters where I would draw up my mission report before returning to Benin for the Christmas holidays. I was greeted by a lovely surprise: all the staff in the Compliance and Facilitation Directorate had gathered to celebrate the birth of my youngest child, who had been born just a few days earlier. I was moved by this new display of attention, which demonstrated the solidarity that exists between Customs officials, even at the international level.
When I came back to Brussels, I had work to do. I had to make headway in drafting the study paper that each programme participant must complete as well as carry out the new tasks entrusted to me by the members of the IPR Team. I was also required to be involved in organizing major enforcement operations, namely ACIM, PANGEA and PEGASUS, not to mention preparing the 35th Session of the WCO Enforcement Committee.
During my placement, I also familiarized myself with the Customs Enforcement Network (CEN), a central depository for enforcement-related information, the objective of which is to promote the production of analytical reports and informational bulletins from seizure data reported by Customs administrations. In fact, I helped my Senegalese colleague in particular to enter data on drug seizures carried out as part of the WCO’s COCAIR operations.
I also had the opportunity over a two-week period to take part in the intensive WCO Leadership and Management Development Workshop. This was an exceptional experience, combining questioning and learning. This course really resonated with me: I was now able to appreciate my strengths, evaluate my limitations and understand myself better so as to become a true force for change in my home administration.
At the end of their placements, Professional Associates go on a field study trip to Japan: yet another highlight of the programme. We each presented our study paper in English to senior Japanese Customs officials who gave us their comments and feedback. We also had the opportunity to go on cultural trips. My absolute favourite moment in this beautiful country was when we visited the wonderful city of Kyoto.
We also paid a visit to the Customs facilities at the port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands, where we were able to see the innovations made in the management of Customs operations at one of Europe’s largest ports. Finally, I must not forget to mention the recreational outings organized by the team coordinating the programme, all aimed at enabling us to become acquainted with restaurants and other interesting locations in and around Brussels.
I also presented my study paper to senior representatives of the WCO Secretariat in June 2017, as the programme ended in July. I had the honour of being accompanied by Benin’s Ambassador to Belgium on the day the certificates were awarded. A few days before leaving Brussels, I learned that Benin Customs had promoted me to the position of Director of Legislation and International Relations. I could not have wished for a better outcome, as this position entails maintaining close links with the WCO.
On returning to my home country, I had to reorganize the service where I had once taken my first steps as a young Customs inspector fresh out of college. One of my tasks was to strengthen the links between my administration and the WCO, in order to take advantage of the rules and practices adopted by the Organization, and to be able to derive maximum benefit from its programmes and activities.
With the support of the Director General, we decided to make participation in WCO meetings one of our priorities, and it is not unusual for him to go and see the Minister in person to obtain his approval in this regard. Furthermore, I was elected as Vice-Chairperson of the WCO Revised Kyoto Convention Management Committee, the instrument par excellence on the simplification and harmonization of Customs procedures.
I also played an active role in the 14th Meeting of the CAP, which was held in November 2017, by presenting Benin’s experiences with regard to collaboration between Customs and the health authorities during enforcement operations, and was elected Chairperson of the Group at its latest meeting in December 2018. In addition, I represented my Director General at the December 2017 Session of the WCO Council, the Organization’s highest decision-making body. I am always delighted to come back to Brussels as it enables me to continue boosting my understanding of the WCO’s rules and operations.
Seeking to be part of the group of experts which the WCO may consult when conducting its capacity building initiatives was another of my goals. In February 2017, I was fortunate to be selected to take part in an accreditation workshop for the Programme on Customs Operational Practices for Enforcement and Seizures (COPES).
The COPES programme covers border security, the collection of evidence, seizures, investigations, and prosecutions. The idea is that, although not all Customs administrations have the authority to conduct criminal investigations, they can still benefit from the programme because they are a key link in the criminal justice system in respect of Customs matters. I was selected at the end of a very tough selection process.
And yet, to complete the accreditation process, I had to organize a national COPES workshop in Benin, which ultimately took place in September 2018. I am the first African expert to be accredited to the COPES programme, something of which I am justly proud.
On a different note, in September 2018, demonstrating a desire to be involved in the work and activities of the WCO, Benin Customs hosted a workshop organized as part of Operation MIRAGE, which targeted counterfeit and illicit medicines at 15 African ports. Once the workshop was over, MIRAGE’s operational phase began, and I left for Togo at the WCO’s request, performing my function as an operational expert to assist Customs officers involved in the operation.
Still focusing on IPR, I very recently attended the international conference “Respect for IP – Growing from the Tip of Africa” that was held in South Africa by the World Intellectual Property Organization in conjunction with the WCO and other institutions. During one session devoted to the challenges facing the bodies responsible for ensuring that IPR are respected at borders and to the collaborative mechanisms between stakeholders, I gave a presentation on the initiatives adopted by Benin Customs with a view to protecting IPR.
There is no shortage of work at the national level, and I occasionally have to turn down some offers of work. For instance, I manage the “Scanner Committee” and the “Committee for Selectivity and Implementing the Authorized Economic Operator (AEO) Programme.” In addition, bolstered by the Director General’s support, my colleagues and I have made two publications available to users, namely “Customs Measures set out in the Finance Law” and the “Practical Guide to Duties and Taxes Collected at Customs in the Republic of Benin.”
My involvement in the CDP has enabled me to relaunch my career and to broaden my horizons. Because of the knowledge and expertise I have acquired, I am able to make my own modest contribution to the reforms under way in my country. I have also developed a broad network of contacts and am able to call on my former colleagues if I need advice or feedback.
I wholeheartedly recommend this programme to all the young people at Benin Customs and in my region alike. They will most definitely come out the other side as stronger and more confident individuals. Finally, I should like to thank the WCO Secretariat and the Government of Japan for setting up this programme, the merits of which need no further demonstration.