The Pandemic as an Opportunity for Digital Transformation in Customs



Sandra Corcuera-Santamaria, José Martín García Sanjinés | Inter-American Development Bank

Customs authorities in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) can leverage new technologies and innovations to boost their digital transformation and streamline foreign trade logistics. This, in turn, can help improve competitiveness and bolster the countries´ economic growth. 

The pandemic highlighted the importance of trade and foreign trade logistics. In March 2020, COVID-19 transformed daily life as we knew it. Yet, trade has primarily withstood the disruptions caused by international transportation restrictions and social distancing policies. It has even grown substantially in some areas, such as e-commerce and online trade, for instance. According to an Amazon report, its international net sales increased by 28.3 percent between the first half of 2019 and the same period in 2020.  

By shining the spotlight on the opportunities brought by digital transformation, the pandemic has put customs authorities and their response capacities to the test. The urgent need to clear the critical goods needed to respond to the health emergency while keeping regular trade flows moving forced authorities to transition to digital customs systems almost overnight.  

Even before the pandemic hit, LAC was lagging North America, Europe, and Asia in implementing the commitments it had taken on under the World Trade Organization’s Trade Facilitation Agreement, according to 2019 data. Therefore, the region needs to create efficiencies in its international trade logistics.  

LAC’s economic recovery depends mainly on how its foreign trade logistics perform, which rests on the appropriate physical and digital infrastructure and related transportation services.  

Innovating and transforming customs administration through technology  

In response to these challenges, the new IDB publication Logistics in Latin America and the Caribbean: Opportunities, Challenges, and Lines of Action discusses some of the technologies that the region’s countries could implement to innovate and transform their customs administration.  

The optimization, automation, and digitization of customs and border processes are among the areas that new technologies address. These factors are the cornerstones of modernization and lay the groundwork for generating the high-quality data needed to implement robust and effective risk management systems. 

For example, the ability of customs to obtain, process, and analyze large amounts of quality data is key to strengthen regional value chains and make them agile and secure. Automation also requires other innovative components, such as electronic signatures and authentication mechanisms for internal and external users.  

Another ingredient in the recipe for effective and efficient customs is the traceability of goods. New technologies like radio frequency identification systems (RFID), the Internet of Things (IoT), geolocation tools, electronic seals for container and trailer doors, and OCR license plate readers make it possible to track cargo, vehicles, and the people driving them.  

These systems can be deployed at critical points such as production centers, bonded warehouses, and road corridors that connect land border crossings, seaports, and airports. One example is the system developed in Brazil to track and trace cargo vehicles, packaging, and products by integrating this data with electronic tax documents. Likewise, physical traceability can be accompanied by digitally documented data from each transaction. 

The data that customs authorities capture has immense value for customs and border risk management by digitizing and associating them with freight and transportation documents (cargo manifests, bills of lading, customs declaration data, and electronic invoices). Once the data is captured, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and big data tools allow the processing and analysis of large volumes of information to identify patterns and potentially risky or fraudulent operations.  

Coordinated Border Management based on the use of new technologies 

For the benefit of supply chains and foreign trade logistics, it is also essential that the use of new technologies is carried out in the context of Coordinated Border Management between customs and other authorities involved in border processes. 

This coordination is streamlined with interoperability between authorities and economic operators through Single Windows for Foreign Trade (SWs) or Port Community Systems to reduce times and costs for operators and increase control capacities. For example, the adoption of a SW system in Costa Rica is associated with a 1.4 percentage-point increase in the exports of companies that used the system compared to those that did not. 

There is also an opportunity to promote and strengthen regional value chains through interoperability initiatives between customs systems and other border entities. These include the Central American Digital Trade Platform (PDCC) and the CADENA application, which uses blockchain to facilitate  data exchange from companies whose reliability has been certified, such as authorized economic operators.  

Finally, these components would not be effective without functional infrastructure at the entry and exit points of goods at land borders, seaports, and airports. Likewise, the effect would not be the same if the infrastructure did not include advanced technological entry, exit, inspection, and monitoring systems. The Mexican customs authority’s Customs Technological Integration Project (PITA) is an example of a comprehensive technology-based border infrastructure intervention. The customs authorities of Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panamá are following suit and implementing border crossing reform processes that cover border facilities and include the use of cutting-edge technologies, with support from the IDB.  

IDB support for the modernization of customs and border management 

Through the Trade and Investment Division of the Integration and Trade Sector of the IDB, we support an innovative agenda of projects to modernize customs and border management in LAC. Two examples of these are the digital transformation and automation projects for the customs authorities of Colombia and Peru, including smart traceability plans for cargo and vehicles. We are also providing support for regional initiatives involving the use of blockchain to exchange data between eight customs offices in LAC and the application of artificial intelligence to improve customs risk management in several countries, among other projects. 

LAC countries should embrace the availability of new technologies, the fast-track innovation induced by the pandemic, and the support of international organizations, such as the IDB, to expedite the digital transformation of their customs administrations. 

Sandra Corcuera-Santamaría is a customs and trade specialist at the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington DC since 2006. She is responsible for several national and regional projects for customs modernization and coordinated border management, and trade facilitation initiatives, including the coordination of the Authorized Economic Operator Program in Latin America and the Caribbean. Prior to her career at the IDB, Sandra spent six years in the Economic and Commercial Office of the Spanish Embassy in Washington, and was a project coordinator at the consulting firm EuropeanDevelopment Projects in Brussels, Belgium. Sandra has a Master in Public Administration from the University of Leuven, Belgium and a Bachelor of Political Science from the Complutense University of Madrid, Spain.

José Martín is a consultant at the Trade and Investment Division of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). Previously, he was the Representative in Washington, DC, for the Ministry of Finance of Mexico and the Mexican Tax Administration Service for more than 26 years. José Martín was one of the negotiators of customs provisions, trade facilitation, certification and verification of origin, and supervision of foreign trade operations of the recently concluded Mexico-United States-Canada Agreement (T-MEC).

To read the full commentary from the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB), please click here