At the turn of the new Millennium international trade facilitation, in the relatively restricted sense of simplification of trading procedures, was a pedestrian activity with few political overtones. A few months later a new and elevated level of inter-governmental, and so commercial, interest was reached in the run-up to the WTO Doha Ministerial Conference and its programmed debate on an additional negotiating “package” of four unfamiliar items including “Trade Facilitation”.
Today, in the wake of 9/11, the authoritative, obligatory elements of official national border controls, applied at least twice in every international trade transaction, are being transformed to meet acute political and public concern at threats from global terrorism.
Trade Facilitation, also focused for a quite different WTO set of international economic objectives, on Customs requirements, is the sole survivor of the original Doha Four and has produced an impressive volume of interesting and innovative Communications on a range of facilitation topics. A number of World Bank projects are carrying out and acting on facilitation audits in several developing countries.
In summary, over the last five years, trade facilitation has made spectacular gains in political status and attention as well as in practical commercial applications. One unhelpful by-product of this success is a noticeable trend to slap the general “facilitation” label on many products and propositions that are either far more extensive or much more limited than the systematic analysis, agreement and activity build up and deployed, over the last half-century to simplify and standardise international trade procedures and associated information flows.
Facilitation is in considerable danger, therefore, of losing effective focus, falling behind business changes and dissolving out into a proliferation of high-level conferences and economic analyses, designed to advance institutional territorial ambitions or support often ill-defined political objectives and priorities.
This Paper sets out a short history of internationally organised trade facilitation activity, examines its scope and objectives and suggests some immediate pressing responsibilities, focused, for the most part, on the new, very convenient consultative and co-operative mechanism of the World Bank Global Facilitation Partnership.