Since December 2019, when the first cases where identified, the global coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has spread with dramatic consequences for people, governments, and companies. Although we will only be able to make a preliminary assessment of its full consequences in the coming months, most analysts agree that the crisis will have a long-term impact.
All the professionals that have taken risks for the benefit of communities during what is one of the major challenges the world has faced in the past decades must be warmly praised. Some, such as health and care professionals, fully committed to their responsibilities to fight the virus, have put their own safety at risk to perform their missions. Others did as well, including those who worked to ensure that people’s basic needs were met. Customs administrations too have kept operating throughout this challenging situation to ensure the smooth supply of goods, including key medical equipment, and to prevent attempts by smugglers, counterfeiters and criminals to enter illicit and sometimes dangerous goods.
Eventually, humanity will prevail and the pandemic will come to an end with normal operations resuming all over the world. However, the current crisis should lead society’s key actors, including those involved in the management of the international trade supply chain, to deeply reflect on how to better respond to pandemics in the future.
Very recently, in September 2019, the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board (GPMB), co-convened by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Bank, published its first annual report on global preparedness for health emergencies entitled “A World at Risk.” In this report, it is said that “For too long, we have allowed a cycle of panic and neglect when it comes to pandemics: we ramp up efforts when there is a serious threat, then quickly forget about them when the threat subsides. It is well past time to act.” This statement should be seen in the light of the fact that 1,483 epidemic events in 172 countries were tracked by the WHO between 2011 and 2018 and that specific recommendations were made to raise preparedness throughout this period.
The developments since December 2019 show that this assumption was right: decisions were taken at a time the virus already represented a serious threat, whereas higher preparedness to combat pandemics would definitely have delivered sharper responses and better results. In general, a higher preparedness to cyclical or emerging threats, including clear action plans and coordination mechanisms to be implemented when a threat arises, would enable better country responses in dealing with such crises.
Actionable policies and measures
Pandemics are recognized as one of the major global catastrophic risks for human societies, but they are certainly not the only ones: among others are natural disasters, wars, and cyber-attacks, as well as, in general, the criminal use of new technologies. Knowing the existence of these global risks is one thing, but translating knowledge into actionable policies and measures has always been a dilemma for governments.
Customs often operate under pressure to meet the objectives set by governments, including financial objectives, and is an executing agency that follows a governmental strategy. It is also operating in a complex environment and, when adopting measures or reforms, it must take into account the concerns and constraints of a wide range of actors, including private operators.
Customs is well placed to know which policy works or which resources, regulations, and operational set up are needed to implement it. As stated in Chapter 3 of the WCO Development Compendium dealing with strategic development: “It is important that policy makers ensure that national Customs services are engaged at the strategy and policy development stage. The involvement of Customs in this process ensures that they understand and influence the policy and will be better positioned to implement it.”
However, to be engaged in policy dialogue requires that one be informed, i.e. to understand the environment in which one operates, the emerging trends, and the opportunities and threats. To assist in this regard, the WCO Secretariat publishes an Environmental Scan every year, which helps WCO Members to understand the social, political, economic, technological and legal developments as well as the impact that these developments could have on the way Customs operates.
In the next WCO Council and Policy Commission sessions, Members of the Organization will be invited to endorse the proposal for stronger linkages between the Environmental Scan and the WCO’s Strategic Plan. The idea is to make the WCO strategy more relevant to all social, political, economic, technological, and legal developments.
The Strategic Plan 2022-2025 will be drafted following the inclusive process that was used during the drafting of the previous plan. The process will be led throughout the 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 financial years. Members of the WCO will be strongly encouraged to actively engage with one another and with the Secretariat in order to deliver an overall strategy that takes into account diverse current priorities as well as emerging risks and challenges, using foresight methodologies, thereby switching the focus to proactivity instead of reactivity.
Implementation and high-level support
Many administrations seem to regard the Strategic Plan as a document that engages the WCO Secretariat only. It should not be. The COVID 19 crisis brings unforeseen challenges to the global Customs community and has helped us clarify the provisions of some of our instruments and has highlighted the importance of speeding up the modernization of some Customs processes. It also has clearly shown that many guidance and internationally agreed standards, including those related to natural disaster management, are still not fed into national policy development or not implemented properly.
It is, therefore, imperative that working methods, identified practices, norms, and standards must be implemented. Although some initiatives taken at the WCO-level have not been, or only partly, taken into account by various governments when developing and drafting policies, such as the instruments developed to ensure automatic information exchange, other initiatives simply require better understanding and high-level support.
By improving its strategy and closely linking it to emerging trends, the WCO, as the voice of the global Customs community, will be able to fulfil its leadership role. Indeed, a better strategy may also encourage WCO Members to commit to it. Working together, the WCO and its Members can go from reactivity to proactivity, for a safer and more prosperous world.