Global Trade Helpdesk: the MSME gateway to trade

Summary

What: An online Global Trade Helpdesk to improve the quality and transparency of trade-related information, and strengthen public-private dialogue. Building on existing ITC, UNCTAD and WTO services as well as partner organisations’ information, the Global Trade Helpdesk aims to support economic actors by:

The beta version will be launched at the 11th WTO Ministerial Conference as a concrete deliverable for MSMEs.

Why: Access to trade and market intelligence is critical to export success. ITC’s surveys of 28,000 enterprises in 56 countries find that “information transparency issues” are among the main obstacles experienced by companies, particularly MSMEs, across countries.

Countries need reliable data for economic operators, institutions and policy makers to make better informed trade decisions.

How: Global Trade Helpdesk will draw on ITC and partner organisations' extensive experience in collecting trade related data, building a network of data providers from national, regional and international institutions worldwide and providing capacity building on online analytical tools to companies, trade and investment support institutions and government bodies worldwide.

To ensure sustainability and to allow the Global Trade Helpdesk to reach its full potential, the project requires a coordinated response from international organisations and their members. From this perspective, financial support is needed to effectively develop, maintain and disseminate the tool in collaboration with other international organisations.

Context and Rational

Access to trade and market intelligence is critical to export success. However, micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) often lack the resources and skills to acquire and process trade-related information, which places them at a disadvantage and prevents them from exploring trade opportunities. At the same time, policy makers require detailed information to make fully informed trade and investment related policy decisions.

ITC’s surveys of 28,000 enterprises in 56 countries on the obstacles to trade that they face found “information transparency issues” are among the main obstacles experienced. The analysis shows that the smaller the company, the more it is affected by information transparency issues. Reasons for this include the fixed cost nature of researching and complying with market requirements.

Countries need reliable data for economic operators, institutions and policy makers to make better informed trade decisions. This information should be filtered in order for them to easily find the relevant elements that will help them in their respective activities. They also need to be alerted to any regulatory change to avert potential challenges and turn them into concrete opportunities.

To address this challenge, an online Global Trade Helpdesk will be developed to improve the quality and transparency of trade-related information, strengthen public-private dialogue and transform this data into intelligence.

Objective

This multi-agency project aims, over 3 years, to build a global online Global Trade Helpdesk with relevant and up-to-date market information that facilitates the trade and investment related decisions of MSMEs. It will address the problem of the lack of information transparency and the complexity of information sources. The aim would be to support MSMEs to make fully informed trade and investment decisions that could lead to greater international trade activity. The Helpdesk will include an email alert system for registered users to receive individual, timely information on markets and products of their interest. The Helpdesk will gather the best market information available from the databases of ITC, UNCTAD, WTO and partner organizations and turn it into practical trade intelligence for the use of MSMEs and also of policy makers and trade and investment support institutions.

The Global Trade Helpdesk will integrate comprehensive information from various sources on market requirements (customs tariffs, taxes, rules of origin, non-tariff measures, notifications of WTO Members, etc.), export/import procedures (e.g. pre-shipment formalities, certification and inspection processes, transport documents, etc.), business opportunities (market prices, company directory, upcoming events, etc.) and policy outlook (trade statistics, export potential analysis, trade agreements etc.). Annex 1 below provides with the preliminary list of information that will be included in the portal.

The initiative aims at complementing current public and private trade information services, not displacing them but addressing information asymmetries in particular for users left on the side-lines. This would particular apply to MSMEs who often do not have the resource to access fee-based information as well as companies in developing and least developed countries where information is not always available and up-to-date.  While access to information is only one part of the complex problem – which includes capacity constraints in national administrations and technical infrastructure - it is clear that lack of information increases the time and cost to firms of doing international business.

While the tool will contain cross-country information, it will also integrate country or region-specific functionalities upon request, such as a trade obstacle reporting mechanism, local news and tailored capacity-building materials. The sensitisation and training of the economic operators will be a key factor in the project's success. Capacity building activities will be developed and implemented in beneficiary countries in collaboration with international organisations, in particular the ITC for market analysis, the WTO for SPS/TBT notifications and UNCTAD for NTMs.

The Global Trade Helpdesk will be modelled on the existing ITC Euromed Global Trade Helpdesk (http://euromed.macmap.org/) that has been developed for 9 Mediterranean countries with the financial support of the European Union. It will draw on ITC and partner organisations’ extensive experience in collecting trade related data, building a network of data providers from national, regional and international institutions worldwide and providing capacity building on online analytical tools for companies, trade support institutions and government organisations.

In addition to leveraging MSMEs’ capacity to take better-informed trade decisions, the Global Trade Helpdesk will also play a role as an important accelerator for shaping policy on trade liberalization in the context of the WTO.

Outcomes and activities

Building on existing ITC, UNCTAD, WTO and other partner organisations’ services, the Global Trade Helpdesk aims at supporting economic actors by:

  • providing a unique entry point to existing trade-related information;
  • translating trade-related information into trade intelligence;
  • raising awareness and capacitating MSMEs in the use of trade information and intelligence.

This objective will be reached through the implementation of three sequential phases of three years each, and their related outputs:

Phase 1 – development (3 years): integration of trade-related data, development and testing of the web portal Output 1: Information collected, processed, analysed, combined and available on the Global Trade Helpdesk Output 2: Online Global Trade Helpdesk developed and operational Output 3: User support material and capacity-building programme available Phase 2 – consolidation (3 years): coordination of data collection and implementation of capacity building activities on the use of the portal and its update Output 4: MSMEs and public authorities are capacitated to use and update the portal Output 5: the data is updated and processed Output 6: the website is maintained and upgraded Output 7: Public authorities are capacitated to update the data Output 8: MSMEs are trained on the Helpdesk Output 9: the website is regularly maintained and updated

Gender dimension

The Global Trade Helpdesk will contribute to advancing the gender equality agenda in various ways:

  • Information for women entrepreneurs: Information available as global public goods benefit women entrepreneurs more than men. Research shows that women entrepreneurs and women traders in particular are disadvantaged when it comes to access to information because if information is not publicly (and anonymously) accessible, it is usually obtained through formal or informal networks (formal networks including TISIs) – women entrepreneurs are usually under-represented or less-well connected in / to such networks.
  • Visibility of women-owned businesses: The Global Trade Helpdesk will contribute to ITC’s goal to connect 1 million women to markets by 2020. The business corner will allow the flagging of women-owned enterprises, for example by linking to ITC’s SheTrades initiative, and, as such, facilitate sourcing from women vendors.
  • Targeted capacity building: Capacity building on how to use and benefit from the comprehensive trade information available will ensure a strong representation of women entrepreneurs.
  • Gender-disaggregated tracking of user statistics and feedback (see Monitoring): User statistics will allow monitoring which information is most used or demanded by women entrepreneurs and will allow improving the Helpdesk in line with users’ needs. In the design of the Helpdesk, equal representation of female and male test users of the platform will be sought.

The Helpdesk will continue to be maintained and upgraded to overcome any bugs or technological improvements. New features will be implemented based on users’ feedback and decisions of the steering committee. The information contained in the portal will mainly be updated by local partners, which have benefited from capacity building activities, and under the overall guidance of ITC, UNCTAD, WTO and international partners. The IOs will remain involved in the processing of the information and the collection of new types of data.  They will also continue to fill the gaps where local capacities are not yet operational. The objective will remain to provide the most comprehensive and up-to-date information to the users.

Business model

By providing information to MSMEs, the Helpdesk aims at contributing to more efficient processes and reduced trade costs, rendering cross-border business transactions more predictable in terms of time and cost. To make the tool beneficial to any company in any country, it must be provided free of charge as a global public good.

The increased visibility of the tool will provide impetus to increase the updating frequency, data granularity, scope and overall quality of the tool, which, in turn, will increase the use of the tool, thereby creating a virtuous circle.

Keeping the tool free also makes sense in light of the various WTO agreements (Trade Facilitation, SPS, TBT, etc.). For instance, Article 1 of the TFA on “Publication and Availability of Information” requires countries to “publish in a non-discriminatory and easily accessible manner in order to enable governments, traders, and other interested parties to become acquainted with them” information on trade flows, customs tariffs, fees and charges relating to trade and rules of origin amongst others. The Global Trade Helpdesk will cover all these aspects and enable users to compare data across countries.

To reach this objective, the costs of maintaining and updating the Helpdesk must be sustained in the long term. The proposed strategy is to assimilate these costs into local capacities and the regular activities of international organisations. After a development phase (Figure 1) which will consist of building the backbone of the portal, ITC, UNCTAD, WTO and associated partners will gradually capacitate local and regional beneficiaries to update the information while continuing to maintain the website. The Helpdesk will then operate based on local data collection efforts supported and coordinated by IOs, and the website maintenance will be assimilated into ITC’s Global Public Goods platform.

Figure 1. Business model
figure

In addition to the contributions of local and international organisations to sustain the Helpdesk, it is envisaged to develop private partnerships in particular with large companies and multinationals, which could benefit from customized features in the tool in return for supporting the updating of data.

The sequential implementation of the three phases will gradually reduce the need for financing, which will be progressively absorbed by local, regional and international partners.

Annex 1.   List of information* included in the Global Trade Helpdesk at the product and country level

Topic Type of information
Market requirements Tariffs (MFN and preferential tariffs)
Tariff rate quotas
Trade remedies (ADP, CVD and SVD)
Taxes
Rules of Origin
Export / Import requirements (non-tariff measures)
WTO notifications (SPS, TBT, ADP, TRQs, etc.)
Voluntary Sustainability standards
International standards
Etc.
Trade procedures Export / Import Procedures
Certification
Registration
Licensing
Authorization
Customs clearance
Fees and charges
Etc.
Business opportunities Business directory
TPO/TSI/Government agencies directory
Market News
Trade Events
Public tenders
Etc.
Policy outlook Market Prices
Trade statistics
Infographics on FTA, customs tariffs, WTO agreements
Export potential assessment
Etc.

* Based on preliminary discussion with potential users and partner organisations. This list will be modified and completed upon further feedback from partners.