Interview with Dr. Serguei Kouzmine Head, Trade Facilitation Unit Trade and Sustainable Land Management Division UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE)

When the computer “revolution” started about forty years ago, and even up until today, we believed that we were moving away from a paper-based society towards a digital one –– and yet this has not happened. Mr Kouzmine (and his colleagues) is working on a new initiative at the Economic Commission for Europe (ECE) with the aim of standardizing and facilitating trade documents and data exchange. This will be done electronically in order to assist trade and, in particular, to make export/import easier across Europe and Central Asia. We asked Mr Kouzmine for more information about the ECE’s current projects. Even if you are not thinking about it, what the ECE is preparing now will be part of our lives tomorrow. So here is Mr Kouzmine …
Q: Could you tell us what this is all about?
We are living in an electronic world, but we still have the mentality of living in a paper world. This sometimes is a real problem when it comes to the implementation of e-documents because we are talking e-things, but dealing with technology. People think that such matters should be left to the technology people –– engineers, etc. With all due respect, they are good at technical issues, but they do not know often much about administration, rules and regulations. Thus, they set things up in the way they believe they should be. But the way things are done is not always very convenient or user-friendly. To excuse themselves they say that if there is an electronic mess, this is because there was a paper mess in the beginning, thus leading to more problems.
We can « computerize  » the famous Napoleon’s words and say that « computers are too important to be left only for computer experts » .
It is true that computers require more discipline in presentation of data. That’s why working with e- and paper documents have various aspects relating to technical and legal/ administrative issues and they all shall be taken into account . For example, from the point of computers, we need an uniform « common computer language ». In theory, it seems to be an easy task as computers use their own language which is a composition of figures, letters and other signs (space, etc.). In reality, each of us knows problems with opening a file received in an unknown format.
If you write a word ’’dog’ in English, in French (« chien « ) , or in Russian ( » sobaka’), a human being would be able to understand that we are talking about the same thing but in different languages, for the computer there will be three totally different words. So for a computer « dog » shall be expressed in a uniform form/language, which can be read by any person even he/she speaks only English, French or Russian.
Another example. The easiest way to have an e-document is to transfer an existing paper version in e-format. It might be right , it might be wrong. We promote the idea that first you should understand why and for what purpose you need specific information (document it is only a format to present information) and only then decide on its future e- (or paper) presentation.
Such approach requires a thorough analysis of the world of documents and papers we are living in and their legal role/status. Take a basic document such as, for instance, a birth certificate. For most of us, a birth certificate is an original document, but in fact it is not. It is a copy taken from a registry book about the date you were born. As nobody is able to access this registry book, a birth certificate is issued as a copy of the entry in the registry book about your birth. This means that if you could have access to this registry book online, you would not need a birth certificate. This is how things could be simplified. If government agencies had access to this basic information, you would not need birth certificates.
I have the diploma of my university education on paper. It’s a real diploma; it’s not a fake or a forgery, so I do not have to go to a notary and make a certified copy. If someone wants an electronic copy –– not a falsified copy –– they need to make sure that they are copying my original. Once again, you are facing the same problem (as currently with paper) about how to certify electronic documents.
One solution is to have a special certifying agency for e-documents (sort of « e-notary »), but then we are back to paper certification issues. A more simple solution is to give access to the basic information. If you can access the list of students from a given university, then you can see my name on the list and know that I was awarded such and such a diploma. You do not need to see a certified copy of my degree.
Q: On the Internet, how are you going to protect these basic documents from fraud?
This is the major problem. In the trade there is a mechanism that we promote in our work called “the single window”. For example, in trade you export goods; you need customs control, sometimes currency control –– all kinds of controls. To cross each border you are issued with special certificates, and the custom official at the border has to go through all of these papers one by one to find the right one and to verify its content. You could submit all this information in one go, and if it’s “ok” it is enough to click the information about your products in a central database (single window). However, if this database is stolen, you will find there all the information regarding the selling price, the customer, his address, etc. My competitors could find out everything that I’m doing, my profits, etc. So the question is once again, how can we protect this information? If you use the Internet, you will always have problems protecting this information.
The idea is for governments to have access to citizen’s information online and thus eliminate requirements to submit justification papers. If any bureaucrat in any agency were able to access all my data, then he/she knows everything –– where I studied, if I was a good student, etc. Once more, it’s very convenient, but it becomes a huge headache if somebody steals this information.
We must also talk about this inconvenient side of the electronic documents. I feel that often we are reluctant to talk about these potential problems in order not to frighten people.
Q: So what exactly are you proposing?
We are trying to raise the awareness of governments because it’s clear that if these e-documents are already being used by business since they are more convenient. In international trade it becomes almost a “must” to have this information electronically to avoid security problems. In the past, it was convenient but nowadays it becomes an obligation because countries would like to know in advance precisely what goods are being imported. By analysing this information about goods they are able to use risk management. This means that they will analyse different parameters: where the goods originated, where they are going, what companies are involved in the transaction, etc. They can then decide whether they need to check this container or not. So there is a lot of interest in submitting all this information beforehand and having your gods released without additional controls.
However, the formats for information presentation are different in each country. You have to submit the information in different documents, whether it’s your country’s customs, or those of another country. We are promoting the idea that it would be good if countries are using, perhaps if not the same (ideally it will be great ), but harmonized documents, papers and software allowing the information to be easily processed in each country. And, of course, not to forget about protecting such information.
Q: What is your area of priority when it comes to standardizing documents?
This UNECE programme is for trade. We are talking about trade facilitation namely we are aiming at simplifying procedures for trade export/imports, and at standardizing the documentations which are being used. On this basis, we are trying to introduce electronic means for the transfer of information. Whenever somebody is exporting, the idea is to make sure that as a start up they are using the same definitions. For example, if you look into papers used in various countries you will find, for example, different terms used for places of un- and loading (or unlaiding) of goods. It can be a « domestic port of loading (or unloading or unlaiding ), an international port of loading, or it could be a railway station –– there may be twenty different terms. Sometimes there may be twenty different boxes on a document to choose from, but if you can simplify and reduce the number to two if you use a term « place of loading » and place of unloading » plus codes of these places. The codes will show whether it is a port or airport and in which country it is (domestic or foreign).
If you use codes, computers (and people) will not make mistakes. For instance, there are five different places called Paris in the world. One is the French capital, one is in Canada and the remainder are in the United States. If you are sending your goods to Paris, France, I’m sure they will not get lost, but if you send them to one of Paris(s) the United States –– unless you clearly indicate for which state the goods are intended, they could easily end up in Paris, France. Therefore, the “codes” are something that can be understood well. This is an important element in our work, promoting “codes” for places, for currencies, load units, etc. We are using this computer language and attempting to promote it in all countries. It’s important also because if you receive these forms in Chinese or Russian, once you see “codes” you do not need to understand the language. You just look into the list of codes, and it therefore allows you to overcome the language barrier.
Q: ECE are doing this for the Europeans. How do you collaborate with other agencies worldwide?
Right now we are working for the European region –– it’s a regional programme. However, in this particular area, we have participants coming from other regions as well. There is strong participation on the part of trade companies, and in this way companies are also pushing to obtain these e-documents. One way in which companies are becoming more competitive is through the supply chain. There is hardly any small company selling goods directly to its customers; they all go through supply chains. Companies do not want to have large stocks in reserve; however, this implies that it is crucial that goods must be delivered at regular intervals. If you take into consideration that in Europe it takes about ten days to two weeks to deliver a product, in developing countries, it can take one month or even more. If the goods are sitting two weeks or more in a customs shed, it is not good. You need to ensure that your clients in Europe will receive the goods on time. If not, the customer in Europe may choose to buy more expensive products from another European manufacturer, who can deliver on time rather than waiting for cheaper products from abroad. While countries are trying to promote exports, inefficient procedures at their borders may hamper development.
Q: What about the other trade organizations, such as WTO, ITC, etc.?
Every player has its own area of competence. Our emphasis is primarily on preparing the technical documents and standards. For example, UNCTAD emphasizes capacity-building and technical projects on traditional trade facilitation matters to ensure that these tools are used, and WTO sets the general policy rules on how things should be done.
Q: How long will it take to develop this approach?
We often joke by saying that developing countries are now in a better position than developed countries –– since they have nothing they can at least start by using the latest tools. Europe and United States, who have invested a lot in e-tools, will not throw them away –– therefore, we find situations where developed countries sometimes are using outdated tools, not the most recent. Some countries are using yesterday’s tools because others (their partner) are using them. It’s not easy to throw things away. What we are working on now is preparing for the future.
Q: It’s not easy to promote change.
What we need now is to start thinking electronically. We still rely on paper, although in practically all countries there is legislation stating that electronic documents enjoy the same value as paper. In real life, however, most people still see an electronic document as a copy of the paper one.
We are only in the beginning of this process, but what we have forgotten right now is what to do about the storage of documents. What will happen if tomorrow you change the e-format (software), what will happen to your files? In ten or twenty years’ time, will they still be compatible with new technologies? You may have information now, but will you have to change it now or later. For instance, take videos. At the moment, it’s the DVD technology that prevails. Imagine that you have an archive of your documents on videos and you need to check your document. It is already a headache today ? And in 5 years ? So we are much safer with paper. We are not fully aware of the problems that we might be facing; we only see the advantages. So there are many questions –– should we go quickly or should we be more cautious, keeping both paper and electronic documents, etc.? A wrong decision now may have long-term implications.
Q: How long will it take to develop this kind of formula and apply it in the area of trade and business?
I think in a decade more –– then at least in the field of trade and maybe in the supply chain between companies. It’s a very difficult trade-off between the people in trade who would like things to go fast and governments who would like to be sure before embarking on costly e-investments the results of which sometimes are still unclear.