Trade facilitation – making trade easier and faster

SDG indicators

SDG 10: Reduce inequality within and among countries
SDG target 10.a: Implement the principle of special and differential treatment for developing countries, in particular least developed countries, in accordance with World Trade Organization agreements

SDG 16: Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels
Target 16.6: Develop effective, accountable and transparent institutions at all levels

SDG 17: Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development
SDG target 17.11: Significantly increase the exports of developing countries, in particular with a view to doubling the least developed countries’ share of global exports by 2020
SDG target 17.12: Realize timely implementation of duty-free and quota-free market access on a lasting basis for all least developed countries, consistent with World Trade Organization decisions, including by ensuring that preferential rules of origin applicable to imports from least developed countries are transparent and simple, and contribute to facilitating market access

Administrative hurdles and cumbersome border procedures can account for 75 per cent of all delays to shipments. The main objective of trade facilitation is to reduce the complexities and costs associated with lengthy border procedures and controls, while maintaining efficient compliance controls. Trade facilitation contributes to the achievement of the 2030 Agenda, in particular to the integration of developing countries to global trade, tackling trade barriers and improving the efficiency of trade by reducing delays and transaction costs.

To facilitate the implementation of the technical and institutional obligations arising from the 2017 WTO TFA, the UNCTAD Trade Facilitation Programme UNCTAD (2020a) improves trade processes and competitiveness of developing countries, including economies in transition, LDCs, LLDCs and SIDS. The programme aims to support trade facilitation reforms and countries’ capacity to comply with related international and regional rules and standards, including WTO commitments.

I have learned so much in this programme. Now, I think of trade facilitation in a different way. I understand better all the things that the Sudan can do and how important it is to mainstream trade facilitation in its development policy.Mohammed Adam, rapporteur of Sudan NTFC

Supporting national trade facilitation committees

By providing intensive professional training - via the Empowerment Programme for National Trade Facilitation Committees – UNCTAD helps committees fulfil their mandate and implement, in a coordinated manner, trade facilitation reforms, including the provisions of the Agreement on Trade Facilitation, and monitor implementation. UNCTAD also supplies technical assistance, including: tailored training in trade, transit and transport facilitation1; advisory services on ratification of the Agreement; and assistance in the creation and sustainable operation of national trade facilitation committees.

The UNCTAD Trade Facilitation Programme assists developing countries with the implementation of trade facilitation measures, such as needs assessments and development of national trade facilitation and project plans. UNCTAD capacity building and advisory services help countries to monitor and evaluate trade facilitation initiatives, establish legal frameworks for trade-related single windows, simplify trade procedures and train national transit coordinators. UNCTAD also supports regional trade facilitation initiatives.

The effectiveness of the programme stems from strong cooperation not only with external partners such as the World Customs Organization and the International Trade Centre, but also with other experts within UNCTAD, working at the crossroads of trade facilitation with customs automation and e-commerce or non-tariff measures.

Trade facilitation – has assisted 56 countries since 2016

Since 2016, UNCTAD has developed capacity in 56 countries around the world to improve their trade facilitation. Of these, 34 countries were in Africa, 10 in Latin America and the Caribbean and 12 in Asia and Oceania. In total, 21 countries were SIDS and 17 LLDCs (see Map 1). 60 per cent of capacity development was done in English, 35 per cent in French, and 5 per cent in Portuguese.

Map 1. Countries receiving UNCTAD trade facilitation support in the empowerment programme (4 categories)

Of those 56 countries, 45 are WTO Members. 89 per cent of them have ratified the WTO trade facilitation agreement and 96 per cent have notified to the WTO Committee on Trade Facilitation their category A, B and C provisions.

The UNCTAD Trade Facilitation Programme builds on the cooperation with other related UNCTAD technical assistance programmes, such as the UNCTAD ASYCUDA , which is used by the Customs administrations of over 90 countries, and UNCTAD Trade Portals. These programmes are key instruments for the implementation of various provisions of the WTO TFA.

UNCTAD Empowerment Programme

The UNCTAD Empowerment Programme (UNCTAD, 2020b), as part of the wider Trade Facilitation programe, provides an intensive professional programme for NTFCs. The main objective is to help them implement trade facilitation reforms in a coordinated manner, including the provisions of the WTO FTA. This programme is undertaken in cooperation with a number of partners, including the ITC, Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit, UNECE, UNIDO, World Bank Group, World Customs Organization and the WTO.

Almost 2,500 participants trained since 2016

Since 2016, the Empowerment Programme has trained almost 2,500 people in 34 countries. Of these, 24 countries completed the full empowerment programme and 10 received other support to their NTFCs. 26 countries are African, and eight were from Latin America and the Caribbean (see Map 1). On average female participation was 42 per cent, but this ranged from as high as 73 per cent in some countries to no female paticipation in one country. 19 per cent of participants were from the private sector and 81 per cent from the public. Members of the NTFCs accounted for 57 per cent of course participants on average. 80 per cent of participants sat the exams, with 91 per cent of those successfully passing. In 2020, a further eight countries in Africa began receiving support.

Table 1. Total capacity development training provided by Empowerment Programme
 Number ofPer cent
NTFC Members
Sitting Exams
Passed Exams
2017141 16230329697184
2016-2019342 49192342578091
Source: UNCTAD, based on answers received to an UNCTAD survey circulated from July to September 2019.

Empowerment programme supports NTFCs

The knowledge shared by the resource experts has encouraged greatly the inter-agency collaboration in Nigeria to enhance trade and reduce time as well as cost of imports and exports.Austin Oko Opiege, Member of Nigeria NTFC

UNCTAD evaluates the training by collecting feedback from participants. According to this feedback, 94 per cent of respondents reported using the knowledge acquired during training. 87 per cent reported improved knowledge of trade facilitation, and 78 per cent felt they were in a better position to support their NTFCs.

Table 2. Feedback on training
YearImproved knowledge
of trade facilitation
Improved specific
Taking exams
Practical Exercices
Participants better
able to support NTFC
Source: UNCTAD, based on answers received to an UNCTAD survey circulated from July to September 2019.

All countries make changes after training

All 34 countries reported making changes during and after taking the UNCTAD Empowerment Programme. 10 countries introduced supporting legislation, 20 drafted terms of reference, 20 prepared trade facilitation roadmaps and 26 issued notifications in preparation for the WTO TFA.

Table 3. Number of countries implementing changes
(by type of changes and year)
Types of changes implemented
YearLegislationToRsProject proposalRoadmapKnowledge Transfer
Repository CaseNTFC WorkplansNotifications
Source: UNCTAD, based on answers received to an UNCTAD survey circulated from July to September 2019.

The feedback shows that the Empowerment Programme has helped countries prepare for the WTO trade facilitation negotiations and for the Agreement itself. Today, according to data gathered in the UNCTAD Repository for NTFCs (UNCTAD, 2020c), 103 countries have established NTFCs. 29 of these committees have only been established since 2016.

Figure 1. "Year of establishment and cumulative number of NTFC

In 2019, UNCTAD launched a series of online courses which recapitulate some of the key lessons of the Empowerment Programme. Since their launch in September 2019, up to March 2020, the online courses had registered 3,500 users, who have benefited from over 1,000 training hours. During 2020, UNCTAD plans to make these courses available additionally in French and Portuguese.

The courses show that trade facilitation is much more than just the Trade Facilitation Agreement, in that they also help to put the Agreement into a broader perspective by addressing the intricate interplay of the various provisions with commerce and the wider sustainable development agenda.Ricky Jnbaptiste, Attaché, Mission of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States in Geneva


UNCTAD’s approach to supporting NTFCs in developing economies, including LDCs, seems to be working. This is reflected in the results of a survey undertaken during the summer of 2019, where countries benefitting from the Empowerment Programme reported being more optimistic about the sustainability of their Committees. On a scale of 0 to 100, LDCs that have been supported by UNCTAD rated the sustainability of their Committees at 63, compared to 50 for those committees that were not assisted by UNCTAD.


  1. For more information, please see UNCTAD transport and trade facilitation newsletter (UNCTAD, 2020d).


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