Reflections on the Implementation of the WTO’s Trade Facilitation Agreement

17 May 2017

More than three years after its adoption at the Bali ministerial conference, the WTO’s Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA) entered into force in February 2017. The time has now come for the multilateral trade body’s African member states to set in motion their implementation efforts. According to WTO estimates, Africa is the region that may benefit most from the TFA, with trade costs expected to decrease by over 16 percent on average. Least developed countries in particular could experience a significant fall in trade costs as they progress towards implementation of the agreement. For a continent impaired by limited intraregional trade and also seeking to better integrate the world economy, easing the flow of goods across borders could constitute an important step towards economic transformation.

Although the potential benefits are large, the scale of the task at hand should not be underestimated. Despite the well-established presence of trade facilitation on most national and regional policy agendas throughout Africa, progress in this area has been fragmentary. According to the Trading Across Borders indicators from the World Bank’s Doing Business database, Africa is by far the region where exporting is the most onerous and affected by time delays. Although these indicators have their limitations, they offer a telling glimpse at why burdensome customs procedures constitute one of the biggest constraints weighing on African businesses’ international competitiveness.

Against this backdrop, why is it that only 19 of the continent’s 44 WTO members have ratified the TFA so far? How does the agreement interact with Africa’s own regional trade-related processes and priorities? In what ways can the agreement support African countries’ development aspirations, and how can these opportunities be realised? This issue aims at shedding light on those questions.

In the first article, Memory Dube and Patrick Kanyimbo offer insights on how African countries could make the most of trade facilitation to bolster their regional integration agenda, suggesting that looking beyond the TFA might be necessary. This piece is complemented by another article in which Stephen Karingi and Robert Tama Lisinge reflect on the interplay between the TFA and existing efforts deployed by African countries in the area of trade facilitation. Another contribution to this issue, written by Paul Batibonak, underlines the opportunities and challenges associated with the implementation of the TFA and insists on the importance of turning the agreement into a development tool for the continent.

Finally, two additional articles approach the trade facilitation issue through a more specific angle. While Ahmad Mukthar shows how the TFA could contribute to ensuring food security across Africa, Ben Shepherd emphasises the importance of trade facilitation in enhancing African businesses’ capacity to join and benefit from global value chains.

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