Since 2017, USAID/Timor-Leste’s Customs Reform Project (CRP) has been working with the Government of Timor-Leste (GOTL) Customs Authority (CA) and private sector stakeholders to provide support for trade facilitation and domestic resource mobilization. As the prime contractor for CRP, International Business Initiatives (IBI) is strengthening institutional and human capacity to reduce trading costs, streamline information and processing, improve customs revenue collection, and shorten customs clearance times. Despite a total lock-down of the country, IBI has collaborated with USAID to maintain continuity of operations and flexible project implementation to mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 crisis.
COVID-19 and CRP
As a small island nation heavily reliant on trade, Timor-Leste needs to import supplies quickly, safely, and efficiently, especially during a crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Having been a prime contractor in Liberia during the Ebola crisis, IBI was able to quickly adapt our CRP work to respond to the challenges and opportunities presented by COVID-19. This support resulted in keeping the nation’s most important entry port – Dili Seaport – open, classifying critical goods for expedited import processing, and implementing telework and distance learning. IBI’s long-term project staff have remained in country throughout the crisis, and short-term staff have been brought on to work remotely.
Leveraging Relationships: Opening the Seaport to Imports
Dili Seaport accounts for nearly 90% of all import transactions in Timor-Leste, making it the most important entry port in the country. With many government entities shutting down operations at the beginning of the country’s State of Emergency, the IBI team for CRP immediately intervened and was able to exercise influence with CA and other authorities to provide support that allowed the seaport to stay open. A closed port would have crippled the country and severely inhibited the government’s ability to effectively tackle the COVID-19 pandemic. As trusted experts, the IBI team was able to facilitate discussions between health, trade, and private sector stakeholders that allowed the port to operate safely under rapidly changing conditions.
Adapting Proven Processes: Classifying Critical Goods
Anticipating the need for emergency supplies to be used in responding to COVID-19, IBI helped the CA identify a list of goods that would be eligible for an expedited clearance procedure. The CA created a list of critical COVID-19 related goods—including test kits, disinfectants, protective clothing, sterilization products, thermometers, respirators, foodstuffs, building materials, and other goods. Using a three-tiered goods classification system developed by IBI, all 34 different types of critically important goods are now subject to fast clearance following submission of the declaration to the CA. Since the list was activated, nearly 60 tons of goods have been imported to tackle the pandemic.
“When the CRP approached us with the idea to create a fast-track clearance list for COVID-19 supplies, we quickly recognized how valuable this would be to helping fight the disease in Timor-Leste.”-Customs Authority Director General Jose Antonio Fatima Abilio
Telework and Distance Learning
After the declaration of a State of Emergency in Timor-Leste, the number of staff allowed to attend work, training, and face-to-face meetings was restricted. IBI instituted telework procedures that allowed all project staff to remain in country and continue to support the response. Instead of cancelling trainings, the IBI team, in collaboration with the Customs Training Department, changed their training approach to accommodate social distancing guidelines by creating a 21-page training manual and implementing a distance learning program. The training manual focuses on teaching Customs staff about tariff classification in line with international standards. Trainees were each given a set of 50 questions that tested their retention of the manual’s information and required written answers. With the assistance of USAID, each trainee’s answers were graded, and one-on-one feedback was given to each student.
Through its partnership with USAID, IBI’s continued commitment to working in Timor-Leste and its ability to positively respond to unprecedented challenges has proven extremely important as the uncertainty of COVID-19 continues. IBI’s successful response throughout COVID-19 has been a combination of continuity and creativity: prioritizing the response to COVID-19 and adapting existing activities to new health guidelines.