Tuesday, 18 September 2007

Business needs to show more dynamism if it wants customs "transformation"

In a meeting in Arusha, Tanzania from the 11-13th of September 2007, SITPRO and the World Customs Organisation (WCO) brought the Commissioners of Customs from Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda together with other Business Action for Improving Customs Administration in Africa (BAFICAA) taskforces, the EAC secretariat (Customs Directorate), East African Business Council, donors and others. The aim of the meeting was to develop a list of priority areas for improvements in customs with an aim to transform customs administrations in the region in the 21st century (to use the term “reform” somewhat lazily in this context is to ignore the good work and progress that has gone on). The meeting also aimed at examining ways the private sector could play a partnership role in this transformation.

In a display of dynamism, vitality and political will which seems to characterise the region these days the Commissioners over a very short timeframe produced a thematic list of priorities that acknowledged most if not all the list of business priorities identified in the BAFICAA report (see earlier blog entry). Jokingly called the “Impala Roadmap” (named after the meeting venue - the “Arusha Declaration” was a bit overused!), the list not only recognised the gaps that existed but more importantly mapped out in some considerable detail what the possible remedial steps could or should be.

However the commissioners did not restrict themselves to high-minded and well-meaning political statements but to further indicate that they meant business (pun intended) individual customs administrations were identified with the responsibility for taking this roadmap further. The commissioners were determined to get a roadmap that was workable and could be implemented. One DG remarked that he wanted a result that was anchored in concrete action and not just aspiration – he needed to go back to the Commissioner General to justify the expense and time involved in attending a meeting over three days!

In a technical trade facilitation sense the Commissioners made a huge conceptual leap in this meeting. The Commissioners reiterated that revenue maximisation is and will be for the foreseeable future the top priority for customs administrations in the region (customs revenue accounting in most cases for over half of government budget). But the conceptual leap was that they also accepted that there are better, more business friendly ways to achieve the same if not higher levels of revenue collection such as the implementation of Authorised Economic Operator schemes (where accredited business would receive simplified procedures and quicker clearance times), the better use of risk management techniques amongst other measures.

The role of business is an integral component of this roadmap and welcomed a more proactive and constructive engagement. As part of the forward work plan SITPRO and others will help fashion a role for business in more concrete terms. In addition to recognising that business should be consulted as widely and thoroughly as possible before changes happen (eg. legislation, IT systems, procedures), the BAFICAA taskforces suggested that the private sector could provide more practical contributions such as transfer of business skills to customs (how to manage change/change management; retaining institutional memory) or better communication skills (how to get your message across; PR and media skills).

The challenge now will be to operationalise the various possibilities nationally and regionally. But the agenda for change now exists with the private sector firmly at its core. In the East African region I have seen customs administrations that are ready to lead from the front and do not shrink from a challenge. If change is going to really happen, business needs to step forward (more readily than it is doing currently) to come up with the innovative solutions and ideas that are needed to make this process of transformation a success.

Thursday, 13 September 2007

Invest Don’t Give?

We here at the Shell Foundation have long argued that we need to be putting Africa’s entrepreneurs at the heart of the poverty equation - not more aid and debt-relief; the subjects that dominate the mainstream development agenda. You could sum this message up as: ‘Invest Don’t Give.’

That is crudely what we do. By acting like an investor, we identify financially sustainable solutions to poverty and environmental challenges - rather than ones reliant on the next aid cheque (that so often doesn’t come).

Of course the reality is we need to ‘Invest AND Give’. While some aid is poorly spent, other aid is spent well and much needed.

The trouble is that most mainstream NGOs consistently pedal negative images of Africa - of fly-covered children with extended bellies. The media, with its eye for dramatic stories and pictures does the same. The result: the ‘give more aid to save Africa’ message dominates, while attempts to show how we could really help African entrepreneurs fulfill their potential - and in turn create much-needed jobs and economic growth - get drowned out.

This is a real shame because it could be so different. Imagine a world where people ‘invest’ £1 in an African entrepreneur rather than give. They could get £1.05 back as the entrepreneur repays the loan (which they could then re-invest in another entrepreneur) - and the entrepreneur would be free to build a business, rather than being treated as an aid victim.

We have just published a new report Down to Business: New Solutions to Old Problems that outlines how we are ‘investing not giving’. It also explains how we deploy ‘Business DNA’ - business thinking, disciplines and models - to create sustainable enterprise-based solutions to poverty and environmental challenges. We hope that by publishing reports like this we will begin to turn the tide away from talk about ‘aid’ and towards talk about ‘investing’ in Africa.