Global Trade Helpdesk: A one-stop shop for MSMEs to access market information
In business, time is money and knowledge is power. Acquiring the information needed to trade internationally is a time-consuming and costly process for businesses, disproportionately so for micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs). Simply put, for MSMEs, access to information is a barrier to participation in global markets.
Over the past decade, many trade-enabling information resources have been developed and placed online by national governments, private companies and international agencies.
These range from ITC’s own suite of digital information resources to fee-charging commercial services to tariff navigation tools offering data on imports or exports. The plethora of separate tools, each providing answers to different questions with varying degrees of quality, presents MSMEs with an unintended labyrinth of online digital services, defeating the objective of easing access to information.
Businesses surveyed by ITC routinely point to access to information as a key obstacle to increasing their participation in cross-border trade; delegates from countries belonging to the Friends of MSMEs working group made a similar point at a World Trade Organization (WTO) workshop in October 2017, adding that solutions needed location-specific customization.
In conjunction with the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and WTO, ITC in December 2017 launched the Global Trade Helpdesk initiative. Designed to be an easy-to-use, centralized tool to solve the access to information problem, the helpdesk will be a one-stop-shop for MSMEs to access information on tariffs, non-tariff market requirements, trade procedures and documentation, business opportunities and the policy environment.
ITC, UNCTAD and WTO bring complementary perspectives to addressing trade information. The three organizations already work together to compile and disseminate data on applied tariffs and non-tariff measures. By teaming up on the Global Trade Helpdesk, they will increase their impact on transparency for businesses.
The helpdesk’s information is customizable by product and for the source and destination country in question. For instance, a Bangladesh-based company seeking to export shrimp to France would be able to access information on any applicable tariffs (zero, thanks to the European Union’s trade preferences for least developed countries), relevant taxes such as France’s 20% value-added tax, and European health and safety standards with which the shrimp will have to comply. Through the helpdesk, the company would be able to find step-by-step explanations for the trade-related procedures and documentation requirements it would need to meet in order to ship shrimp to the EU. It would also find a list of shrimp importers in France along with data about demand trends and the dates and locations of trade fairs. These are all types of information that MSMEs typically struggle to find.
To date, the helpdesk available online is a beta build, meaning it is a preliminary version to which data will steadily be added over a three-year period, initially by ITC and progressively by organizations within the countries covered by the system. Future functions will include e-mail alerts on sectors and markets of interest to users and customized dashboards featuring the information most relevant for a user’s business.
The helpdesk has been demonstrated to the Friends of MSMEs working group and to audiences at the WTO Public Forum as well as its Ministerial Conference in Buenos Aires. The response has been overwhelmingly positive.
The Global Trade Helpdesk will be a one-stop-shop for MSMEs to access information on tariffs, non-tariff market requirements, trade procedures and documentation, business opportunities and the policy environment.
In addition to drawing on data from ITC, UNCTAD and WTO, the helpdesk will pull resources from a number of international organizations and development banks, including the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) and the World Bank Group. The HelpMeTrade.org portal is scheduled to be fully functional in 2020.
The helpdesk initiative is not only about disseminating information but also about collecting it. In developing and least developed countries, ITC and its partners will offer tailored support to national administrations, as well as to educational and other institutions such as trade promotion agencies to overcome capacity constraints in sourcing and updating trade information. The goal is to empower local stakeholders to update the helpdesk and develop country- or region-specific interfaces. Meanwhile, national and regional interfaces would simultaneously serve to meet governments’ commitments under the WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement to publish information about border procedures online in a clear and accessible manner.