Lesotho National Trade Facilitation Committee (article 23.2) and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic

Oct 11 / Author name
In response to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Trade Facilitation, all around the world there are emerging response and recovery trends, as the National Trade Facilitation Committees (NTFCs) figure ways to cater for the emerging needs and how to pre-emptively address obstacles to their work. Regionally, the SADC Guidelines on Harmonisation and Facilitation of Cross Border Transport Operations across the Region During the COVID-19 Pandemic recommends an expansion of the Mandate of NTFCs1. The Guidelines affirm that NTFCs’ mandate and scope of action need to be broader and adaptable to current needs of each country. Only then can the committees effectively lead trade facilitation efforts in response to crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

It is against this background that the Lesotho NTFC continues to serve as a focal point for coordination of initial response to the COVID-19 pandemic and to sow the seed for further cooperation at the regional and international levels. While adapting to new emerging needs as per the impact of the pandemic, the Committee in Lesotho understands the need to evolve in aspects such as mandate, scope, institutional framework, and composition. One of the initiatives currently being implemented is to ensure both public and private sectors work together, not only to address current bottlenecks to trade as exacerbated by the pandemic, but to further prepare for recovery2. Through the World Bank Group (IFC) technical assistance, the Committee facilitated the speed-up of coordination of the establishment of the Lesotho Trade Information Portal (LTIP) to ease trade by simplifying and explaining procedures and processes, as well as utilising the platform to disseminate information related to COVID-19 emergency measures being adopted by the country3.

The Lesotho Trade Information Portal (LTIP) Lesotho re-launched the LTIP, a single integrated website that provides complete, timely and up-to-date information about the Kingdom of Lesotho’s import, export, and transit procedures, on 9 December 2020. The LTIP is aimed at improving the access, predictability and transparency of the country's trading laws and processes.  This is in fulfilment of government's commitment to the requirements of the World Trade Organization (WTO) to comply with Article 1 of the Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA), which states that countries shall provide the public with information on the internet regarding import, export, and transit procedures as well as the way such services are provided.

Challenges Faced by the Lesotho NTFC During COVID-19
Notwithstanding, the Committee is faced with several challenges that restrain it from being more proactive in addressing challenges related to trade facilitation during the COVID-19 crisis, some of which are summarised as follows:
With the highlighted challenges, the question, therefore, remains on how the Committee can effectively mitigate against the impact of COVID-19 on trade facilitation. This brings to the fore the need for the Lesotho NTFC to have in place the COVID-19 Risk Determination & Mitigation Plan.

COVID-19 Risk Determination and Mitigation Plan
The proposed trade-related COVID-19 Risk Determination and Mitigation Plan can be a collective effort of both the public and private sectors, as represented by the NTFC members. The horizon for the measures within the Plan should cover both short-term response and medium-to long-term recovery initiatives as highlighted below:
The basis for the objectives within the COVID-19 Risk Determination and Mitigation Plan could refer to the best trade facilitation practice measures as adopted in other countries; these being centred around the following four categories:

  1. Process Optimization
  2. Cost Reduction
  3. Transparency and Cooperation Enhancement; and
  4. Full display of Technology


For each Criterion, the following details would have to be observed to ensure effectiveness and efficiency of the Lesotho NTFC:

1.    Process Optimization
2.    Cost Reduction
3.     Transparency and Cooperation Enhancement

Increasing transparency helps expand and deepen cooperation and vice versa. The two have mutually reinforcing effects. They both play an essential role in responding to the pandemic as well as facilitating trade across borders.
4.     Full Display of Technology

Making full use of the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) not only ensures the continuity of cross-border trade, but also reduces the direct contact among people through remote operation.
The Technology related measure further involves the following TFA reforms: Electronic Single Window System (TFA Article 10.4); Electronic Submission of Customs Declarations; Electronic Application and Issuance of Import/Export Permit; Electronic Application and Issuance of Preferential Certificate of origin; and E-Payment of Customs Duties/Fees (TFA article 7.2).    

Conclusion

The COVID-19 disruptions have been wide-ranging and unprecedented. As such, the effective response of the NTFC to the pandemic will transpire as an illustration of the prominent role the Committee plays, not only in relation to trade facilitation issues, but in disaster relief. The implementation of both the response and recovery measures, aimed at facilitating trade amidst the pandemic, should be key in terms of mitigating against the effects. Likewise, for inclusive trade, the proposed measures should further support and facilitate the continuous flow of trade for Micro and Small Medium Enterprises (MSMEs)4 and Informal Cross Border Traders (ICBTs) even during the period of the pandemic. Given that Lesotho is landlocked, for effective trade facilitation during the pandemic, there is an urgency, therefore, for the NTFC to propose mitigation measures that are realistic, inclusive, and encompassing of all the realities on the ground.
1 Check: file.html (tralac.org)
2 The NTFC is currently reviewing the ToR to find ways to expand the mandate, including a consideration to have the private sector co-chair the Committee.
3 Lesotho Trade Portal Website: Lesotho Trade Information Portal (lesothotradeportal.org.ls)
4 About 80% of Lesotho’s private sector is represented by informal traders, majority being ICBTs (due to the country’s proximity to South Africa).