Time to harmonise trade and transport regulations

A report released by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) last week entitled ‘Facilitating cross-border trade through a coordinated African response to Covid-19’ is a key report that our authorities should take note of, if they require guidance on how to strike an appropriate balance between curbing the long term spread of the virus and facilitating emergency and essential trade.

This is on the basis that Covid may become the ‘new normal’ for some time, which will force Government to adapt and innovate in order to facilitate new ‘safe’ ways of conducting cross-border trade.

For a vulnerable economy like Namibia, it is a public secret that maintaining trade flows as much as possible during the pandemic will be crucial in providing access to essential food and medical items and in limiting negative impact on jobs and poverty.

Following the Covid-19 outbreak, nearly all African countries have imposed various degrees of restrictions on cross-border movement of goods and people, including suspension of international flights, quarantine requirements for entrants, and closures of land and maritime borders. Under a set of strict regulations, these closures target reducing movement of people while allowing exemptions for the movement of emergency and essential freight supplies. Such regulations typically cover mandatory testing, sanitising trucks, limiting the numbers of crew members, and designating transit resting areas. These restrictions and regulations have helped in the continent’s Covid-19 battle, but they have also had negative impacts on cross-border trade and economic activity. This risks impeding the continent’s progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals set out in the 2030 Agenda and the aspirations in Agenda 2063.

In light of these challenges, it is crucial that Namibia cooperates with other African countries to harmonise Covid-19 border regulations in order to reduce delays, while not undermining the safety of trade. To that end, the report proposes fast tracking implementation of existing Regional Economic Community (REC) Covid-19 guidelines, including through establishing regional coordinating committees with the primary task of addressing operational issues at national borders.

In addition, these regional efforts must also be coordinated at the continental level through the African Union. A common Covid-19 AU protocol on trade and transport is needed given the overlap in membership of RECs and shared trade facilitation goals of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). In developing such a protocol, the experiences and best practice of RECs need to be taken into account. A common African Union Covid-19 test certificate for truck drivers and crew members will also be required to facilitate movement of essential personnel across borders with the least possible interference.

In some instances, new Covid-19 border regulations and concerns of cross-border transmission of the virus have caused clashes between truck drivers and border authorities, and even disputes that have required diplomatic intervention. Amid the pandemic, Namibia should not let Covid-19 undermine regional integration and must maintain the momentum and ambition of the AfCFTA process. The landmark agreement offers a tool to hasten economic recovery while protecting Africa against future adverse global shocks. As AfCFTA state parties finalise tariff offers and gear up to begin trading, Namibia can already start to prioritise the implementation of elements of the agreement that are complete and ‘ready to go’, including the non-tariff barrier mechanism, and annexes on trade facilitation and customs cooperation.

The role of digital solutions in the fight against the spread of Covid-19 along trade corridors must not be overlooked. Contact tracing through electronic cargo tracking systems, electronic signatures and documents, and the use of mobile banking and payment systems, can help to support safe and efficient trade. In this respect, the upcoming AfCFTA negotiations on e-commerce should be utilised to fast-track digitalisation of procedures and systems so that Africa’s exporters are at lesser risk of losing access to markets in future crises.

The primary take-away of the report is that by magnifying Africa’s cross-border inefficiencies, the pandemic presents an opportunity to reinvigorate efforts targeted at overcoming long-standing trade facilitation challenges. Covid has increased the urgency to do better and find innovative solutions to facilitate safe and efficient cross-border trade. It will be important for Namibia and the rest of Africa to maintain and upgrade these solutions post Covid, to lower trade costs, boost competitiveness, and support more resilient cross-border trade in the face of future shocks.