Meeting with other customs officials in a UN meeting room on a frosty European winter’s day, Ben Malas is a long way from his home in Vanuatu, a tropical archipelago of 83 Pacific Ocean islands strung out across an area the size of France.
He and his colleagues — from Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, and the Solomon Islands — have come far in another sense too. Fifteen years ago, they introduced UNCTAD‘s automated customs system, ASYCUDA, shifting customs procedures from paper to computer.
The computer software simplified customs clearance from an average 35 steps to less than 10. It also standardized procedures and eased trade within the Pacific Ocean region, including with Australia and New Zealand.
“ASYCUDA has actually facilitated trade — it has helped us in the region to connect,” says Mr. Malas, director of Vanuatu’s Customs and Inland Revenue Service, noting that tax collection has risen too.
“When we shifted from manual to automated, the revenue increased and it has continued to increase since then,” he adds, saying that the extra revenue has helped the island states to finance ASYCUDA themselves.
Receiving ASYCUDA as foreign aid, the Pacific nations took charge of the programme in 2001, keen to make it more sustainable. Building knowledge and experience since then, they are open to help smaller islands join the programme too.
One of the larger Pacific island nations with a population of 250,000 people, Vanuatu’s main exports are copra (a coconut product for making coconut oil), cocoa beans, and beef. And for Mr. Malas, trade is central to his country’s survival.
“We are remote, isolated islands, so we must import all the items we need to survive,” he says.
Survival may include humanitarian items too. Sitting on the so-called rim of fire, a 40,000 kilometre chain of volcanoes, Vanuatu and the other Pacific islands are vulnerable to volcanic activity, earthquakes, and tsunamis, as well as the occasional seasonal cyclone.
Designed with the UN’s Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, a separate module — ASYREC — will ease imports of humanitarian aid, in case of need, while keeping unwanted objects out.
For all this, though, Mr. Malas seems most impressed by the impact on corruption.
“It is a system, an automatic system, and you can’t corrupt the system,” he says. – text and photo from UNCTAD