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Persisting ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic, escalating geopolitical uncertainties, and soaring inflation continue to plague international commerce. Yet, in the face of these worldwide disruptions, nations are making significant strides towards a streamlined, efficient trade environment through the simplification and digitalisation of international trade protocols.

The latest report by the United Nations, the Fifth Global Survey on Digital and Sustainable Trade Facilitation, provides insightful data from 161 countries. It indicates that the implementation rate of both general and digital trade facilitation measures has increased by over six percentage points from 2021 to 2023, with the global average now standing at a promising 68.7%. 

Developed economies lead the pack with a rate of 85.3%, closely followed by nations in South-East and East Asia at 76.6%. The Pacific Islands, however, lag behind with a 42.3% implementation rate.

The Asia-Pacific region has made encouraging progress, increasing its implementation rate by approximately three percentage points since 2021. Australia, New Zealand, and East and North-East Asia are ahead of the curve. 

Simultaneously, North and Central Asia, along with the Pacific Island Developing Economies that have made the most noteworthy advances over the past two years. Measures from the WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement have been widely embraced, with paperless trade facilitation measures seeing the greatest improvement. 

Despite cross-border paperless trade measures being lower in adoption, substantial progress has been made in areas like e-transaction laws and electronic exchange of Sanitary & Phytosanitary Certificates, showcasing the region’s drive to modernise trade and foster international collaboration.

Key to this global advancement have been regional and subregional initiatives like the Framework Agreement on Facilitation of Cross-border Paperless Trade in Asia and the Pacific (CPTA), the broadening of the ASEAN Single Window Agreement, and the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) Agreement. These initiatives could accelerate the transition to less paper-based, and eventually completely paperless and cross-border paperless trade, by offering a dedicated, inclusive, and capacity-building platform.

On the flip side, the 2023 Survey also points out the need for greater focus on sustainable trade facilitation measures and support for vulnerable groups, such as SMEs, agricultural sector entities, and female traders.

Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana, United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of ESCAP, said, “Countries need to actively implement the sustainable trade measures outlined in the Survey to foster inclusive and sustainable trade and development,” she urged.

The Survey, a collaboration between several UN Economic Commissions and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, lends support to the WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement and newer regional and global initiatives on paperless trade or e-trade like the recent CPTA. The report encourages advanced paperless and cross-border trade facilitation measures and those supporting more inclusive and sustainable trade, aimed particularly at supporting sectors and groups with special needs.

The results of the Survey, including detailed data analysis, can be found here.