Cross-border paperless trade to cut business transaction costs by 30%

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ESCAP helping Bangladesh assess legal and technical gaps so that it can accelerate implementation and reduce its trade costs, says the UN body’s Executive Secretary  

The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) is actively promoting cross-border paperless trade in developing countries of the Asia-Pacific region. Once materialized the paperless trade holds potential of reducing up to 30 percent of current costs of transactions. Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Secretary of the Bangkok-based largest regional intergovernmental platform, ESCAP, Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana, now on a visit to Bangladesh, made time to sit with Dhaka Tribune’s Executive Editor Reaz Ahmad to share some progress achieved in that direction and other issues concerning sustainable developments. With 53 member states and 9 associate members, ESCAP serves as the United Nations’ regional hub promoting cooperation among countries to achieve inclusive and sustainable development. Prior to joining ESCAP, Alisjahbana was a university professor, and a government minister in Indonesia. She also served as Co-chair of the Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation from 2012 to 2014. From 2009 to 2014, she was Alternate Governor of the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank representing the government of Indonesia.          

Here are the excerpts from the interview:

What brought you to Dhaka?

I am mainly in Dhaka this week for the Asia-Pacific Conference on Financing for Inclusive and Sustainable Development, co-hosted by ESCAP and Bangladesh government along with the International Chamber of Commerce-Bangladesh and the Asian Development Bank. The conference explores how we can mobilize sufficient financing to pursue the 2030 Agenda (Sustainable Development Goals – SDGs). ESCAP has estimated that financing SDGs in the Asia-Pacific would require an additional investments of $1.5 trillion per year or five percent of the region’s GDP. I also took the opportunity during my visit to bilaterally meet with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, and several ministers as well as BIMSTEC Secretary General in Dhaka.     

What role the UNESCAP is playing to promote greater trade and connectivity in the Asia-Pacific Region.  

ESCAP has been very active in promoting cross-border trade and connectivity. It provides the secretariat for several intergovernmental transport and trade agreements, as well as related capacity building activities. The most recent agreement negotiated by ESCAP is one to facilitate paperless trade implantation in developing countries of the region. Bangladesh is among the first signatories of that framework agreement and we have helped Bangladesh this year in assessing its legal and technical gaps so that it can accelerate implementation and reduce its trade costs.  

On the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative, we very much welcome South-South regional initiatives to enhance regional and greater connectivity. What’s important is that each country should carefully evaluate each project under this initiative in terms of cost-benefit and sustainability. 

 Under your leadership UNESCAP is now at the forefront of helping member states achieve SDG targets. Can you tell us in brief about the SDG efforts put in place?

ESCAP is fully committed to supporting country efforts to achieve progress on the 2030 Agenda and we are doing so on several fronts. For example, to support countries capacities on infrastructure financing, ESCAP has established the ‘Infrastructure Financing and Public Private Partnership Network of Asia and the Pacific’. The network, which has 30 members, has facilitated exchanges of experiences and discussions of demonstration projects across countries. 

We have also established the ESCAP Sustainable Business Network to engage with leading members of the Asia-Pacific business community which are proactively aligning their business strategies with the SDGs. 

Data availability is another real challenge which must be overcome to target our region’s response and investments. Currently only 36% of the SDG indicators in the Asia-Pacific have sufficient data. We are unable to accurately measure our progress on 50 percent of the SDG targets the world has set for 2030. ESCAP is working closely with governments to strengthen national statistical capacities. 

You signed an agreement recently with IBM to collaborate on the application of frontier technologies including Artificial Intelligence. How do you foresee a tech-driven future Asian markets would absorb the growing numbers of educated unemployed youth?

We are discussing this at ESCAP and also more broadly within the UN system. How new technologies and automation are affecting jobs is an important issue, but it is important to keep a balance view. For example, Artificial Intelligence may reduce demand for translators or interpreters, but it may also enable Bangladeshis to provide online services to new markets where companies and people speak different languages. What is important is that access to technology be facilitated and ESCAP and the UN are working hard in this area of technology transfer. 

South Asia saw a good reduction of poverty incidence in recent years. But the rich-poor income gap gets further widened. What role, do you consider, UNESCAP can play in this regard.

South Asian countries have the region’s highest levels of inequality of opportunity. The gaps between those who have access to clean energy, clean water and basic sanitation, education, health care, and those who have not are very high. For example, inequality in Bangladesh is particularly high in access to clean fuels, in ownership of bank accounts and in attainment of higher education. Across the sub-region, households in the bottom 40 of the wealth distribution have much lower access than those in top 60. 

For South Asia, it is important that countries cooperate at all levels to address common challenges. Regional cooperation, connectivity, economic integration and the creation of decent jobs are important to reduce the inequality. ESCAP is committed to help governments in implementing eight policy interventions – strengthen social protection, prioritize education, protect poor and disadvantaged from disproportionate impact of environmental hazards, address the digital divide and ICT infrastructure, address persistent inequalities in technological capabilities among and within countries, increase effectiveness of fiscal policies, improve data collection and deepen regional cooperation.  

Bangladesh is well poised with a robust GDP growth and LDC graduation. How UNESCAP can help Bangladesh to further accelerate its current growth momentum? 

The economic performance of Bangladesh has been impressive in recent years. GDP growth accelerated to 8.1% in 2019 from 7.9% the previous year. The year 2019 marked the highest growth rate in the country’s history and represented a 6-year run of continuous increase in the country’s GDP growth rate. ESCAP projects the economy to grow by 7.4% and 6.8% in 2020 and 2021 respectively, making the country one of the fastest growing in Asia-Pacific. However, there are a number of challenges to ensure long-term growth – the country needs to ensure a stable macroeconomic framework by addressing the issues of exchange rate volatility, banking sector and fiscal management.

A key long-term economic challenge is diversifying the economy of Bangladesh. The growth in the garments sector is dominated by a few selected products and Bangladesh could take advantage of expanding global apparel demand to diversify the garments export basket. Given the evolving dynamics of global trade, Bangladesh should also expand its export profile beyond garments. The rise in production costs in China and other emerging economies could induce some relocation of business to Bangladesh if the domestic investment environment was further improved.

The country needs greater trade integration and investments in energy and transport connectivity. To expand the potential of the workforce, a coherent skills development strategy is required. 

Bangladesh is now hosting world’s largest share of refugee population. Hearing of a genocide case against Myanmar has just begun at the International Court of Justice. Please share your take on probable solution to the Rohingya refugee crises.

The UN’s position remains that any repatriation must be voluntary, safe, dignified and sustainable, with adequate safeguards in place to ensure respect for international norms and standards.

Ultimately, it is Myanmar’s responsibility to address the underlying issue and create conditions conducive for returns in accordance to international standards. These should include the question of a pathway toward citizenship and freedom of movement, which would also be an important confidence building measure for the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. This must also be supported by accountability, reconstruction, inclusive development, and reconciliation and upholding basic human rights.