General Assembly Concludes Midterm Review of Vienna Action Programme amid Calls to Help Landlocked Countries Meet Transport, Energy, Finance Priorities

GA/12222
6 December 2019
High-Level Meeting on Vienna Programme for Landlocked Developing Countries, AM & PM Meetings

General Assembly Concludes Midterm Review of Vienna Action Programme amid Calls to Help Landlocked Countries Meet Transport, Energy, Finance Priorities

Landlocked developing countries still face significant hurdles in trade, infrastructure and financing, and risk falling short of development targets, delegates heard today as they concluded the Midterm Review of the Vienna Programme of Action aimed at helping the world’s 32 inland countries surmount their geographic constraints.

In closing remarks, Under-Secretary-General Fekitamoeloa Katoa ‘Utoikamanu, High Representative for the Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing States, said the two-day Midterm Review “capitalized on the unprecedented global consensus and momentum for the concerns and needs of landlocked developing countries”. 

To be sure, she said gaps in implementing the Vienna Programme remain.  Structural economic transformation is limited.  Trade and transit transport must also be improved, she said, citing a further need for substantial financing and capacity development to support country priorities for energy, industrialization and regional integration.

Tijjani Muhammad-Bande (Nigeria), President of the General Assembly, said the Political Declaration adopted on 5 December set the foundation for discussions on the challenges and opportunities.  Seizing the momentum to implement the Vienna Programme of Action “is critical as we enter the decade of action and delivery” he said, urging Member States to support landlocked developing countries and to collaborate with partners, including the private sector and civil society.

Throughout the day, delegates interacted with experts on how to meet the Vienna Programme’s six priority areas of transit policy, infrastructure development, regional integration, economic transformation and means of implementation.

In the first of three panel discussions — on “Promoting trade, trade facilitation and structural economic transformation in landlocked developing countries” — panellist Achim Steiner, Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), said today’s energy agenda prioritizes a transition to low-carbon economies, presenting a potential advantage for countries to establish themselves as leaders in that field and in communications. 

While a multilateral trade system supports inclusive growth, jobs and poverty reduction in those countries, panellist Yonov Frederick Agah, Deputy Director General of the World Trade Organization (WTO), also cited a sharp increase in constrictive measures, warning that a trade war would have severe and enduringly damaging economic effects.

Panellist Fatou Haidara, Managing Director of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), meanwhile, emphasized slow regional integration, poor infrastructure and gaps in information and communications technologies have prevented landlocked developing countries from adequately sharing in global trade.  The challenge in accessing export markets “starts at the factory gates”, she said, also noting the speed of the fourth industrial revolution offers opportunities but may also widen technology gaps.

Calling customs-related mechanisms a form of “soft infrastructure for trade”, panellist Kunio Mikuriya, Secretary-General of the World Customs Organization, said illicit trade and terrorist threats necessitate risk management at national borders.  As customs agencies share those borders with immigration and health counterparts, there is a need for coordinated management, a standardized data set and a “single-window” system for trade facilitation. 

Panellist Paul Akiwumi, Director for Africa at the Least Developed Countries and Special Programmes of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), said that despite abundant natural capital, 26 of the 32 countries depend on primary commodities for exports and lack long-term structural transformation, generating increased trade deficits and imperilling the Vienna Programme targets.  He called for increased allocation of Aid for Trade facilitation to landlocked developing countries.

In the ensuing dialogue, Mexico’s representative asked about the role local governments can play in fostering economic development.  A representative of the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) asked how to remedy the problem of imports being less expensive than the products landlocked developing countries produce.  A representative of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) asked how to address the issue of food prices.

Replying, Mr. Steiner said local authorities can function as both incubators and accelerators.  The solution to food loss can often be in the private sector, given its links to transport and storage.  Mr. Agah emphasized the importance of addressing a broad spectrum of issues in deciding what to import, adding that using administrative measures to restrict imports results in higher prices.

Local authorities play a vital role at border crossing points, Mr. Mikuriya observed.  Improving competitiveness in Central Africa requires taking best practices from the developed world for corridor management.  Mr. Akiwumi noted that an even playing field for import-export pricing demands access to comparable interest rates, as landlocked countries often face 15 to 20 per cent rates compared to 3 per cent rates externally.

The Midterm Review also held panel discussions on “Challenges and opportunities for the Vienna Programme of Action and its interlinkages with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”; and “Regional integration and infrastructure connectivity”.

Leaders from around the world launched the two-day meeting — formally titled the High‑level Midterm Review on the Implementation of the Vienna Programme of Action for Landlocked Developing Countries for the Decade 2014‑2024 — with the adoption of a Political Declaration reaffirming their commitment to that development framework. (For information, please see Press Release GA/12221.)

Panel 1

The High-level Midterm Review held a panel discussion on “Challenges and opportunities for the Vienna Programme of Action and its interlinkages with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”, featuring presentations by:  Mona Juul (Norway), President of the Economic and Social Council; José Antonio Dos Santos, Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs of Paraguay and Chair of the Group of Landlocked Developing Countries; Fekitamoeloa Katoa ‘Utoikamanu, High Representative for the Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing States; and Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the United Nations Sustainable Solutions Center and the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University.

Ms. JUUL highlighted a range of encouraging results in the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals in landlocked developing countries, including a decrease in the number of people living below the poverty line and improved access to safe drinking water and sanitation services.  The upcoming Financing for Development Forum and the Development Cooperation Forum will provide platforms for reality-based, action-oriented and results-focused discussions with relevant stakeholders.  In addition, in July, 50 countries ‑ including 13 landlocked developing nations ‑ will present their voluntary national reviews at the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development and report on their progress towards achieving the goals set out in the 2030 Agenda.

Mr. DOS SANTOS recalled that the 2030 Agenda was designed to determine how countries could become more collectively prosperous while respecting the environment.  However, there is evidence of a link between a country’s lack of a coastline and its poor ability for distributing wealth.  While the Vienna Programme of Action focuses on concerns that are commercial in nature, with measures designed to make economies more competitive, the prosperity that is generated may or may not impact the quality of life.  In this vein, States must design policies to translate money earned into development that advances society.  Pointing out that the Vienna Programme of Action was adopted before the 2030 Agenda, he said that harmony between these plans will ensure sustainable development.  Noting that the Vienna Programme of Action does not indicate how to earmark funds raised towards development, he said the international community’s assistance is essential, in that regard.  As many landlocked developing countries have deficient statistical systems, regional and global indicators are needed so these countries can design appropriate public processes.  Cautioning that some advocacy and outreach groups have an anti-United Nations stance and have led some landlocked developing States to take “missteps” in development efforts, he encouraged the Organization to address this challenge with effective and efficient communications campaigns.

Ms. ‘UTOIKAMANU said the Vienna Programme of Action and the 2030 Agenda are mutually self-reinforcing, with the former recognizing the rights of these countries and turning to context-specific trade facilitation and integration.  At the same time, the 2030 Agenda addresses broader human initiatives.  This high-level review presents an ideal opportunity to draw on lessons learned and chart the way forward.  Highlighting tangible gains in implementing the Vienna Programme of Action since 2014, including upgrading railways, roads, ports and waterways, she said physical connectivity and hard and soft infrastructure remain fundamental issues for integrating landlocked developing countries into global trade markets.  Yet, much more must be done on trade facilitation in particular, as the countries struggle to add value to exports of commodities that remain vulnerable to price fluctuation.  Technological innovations are now available, and diffusing them to these countries is critical, as is fostering climate change mitigation strategies.  Noting that landlocked developing countries need infrastructural development and maintenance, she called on all financial sectors to back those initiatives.  For its part, the United Nations system is committed to support these efforts, which must be redoubled over the next five years.

Mr. SACHS said the geographical constraints of landlocked developing countries represent a major structural factor.  The issue was addressed as long ago as 1776 by economist Adam Smith, who observed that water carriage opens development and industry opportunities, he said, noting that the obstacles are the high cost of transport and “your neighbour”.  While 32 of the world’s 45 landlocked countries are developing States, they do not represent “32 specific cases to address”, but rather several regional challenges.  Central Asia and the Sahel are the largest, most populous landlocked areas and present the biggest challenges, which cannot be addressed country-by-country, but with broad, coordinated cross-region efforts.  Citing several examples of such initiatives, he said the Asia Belt and Road Initiative is the world’s largest and boldest infrastructure project, suggesting Europe and China work together to support the countries in the middle.  Meanwhile, the Sahel is the world’s poorest and most difficult development area, with geographic, climatic and disease challenges and a lack of financing to address them.  The “Sahel solution” rests in “the highest potential of solar power in the world”, he said, adding that the problem must be viewed regionally and globally, for both its challenges and opportunities.

Panel 2

The High-level Review then held an interactive dialogue on “Promoting trade, trade facilitation and structural economic transformation in landlocked developing countries”,  Moderated by Under-Secretary-General ‘Utoikamanu, it featured presentations by Achim Steiner, Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP); Yonov Frederick Agah, Deputy Director General of the World Trade Organization (WTO); Fatou Haidara, Managing Director of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO); Kunio Mikuriya, Secretary-General of the World Customs Organization; and Paul Akiwumi, Director for Africa at the Least Developed Countries and Special Programmes of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).

Ms. ‘UTOIKAMANU observed that the Vienna Programme of Action targets are increasingly farther out of reach, with exports focused on few commodities that are exported at a low value and provide limited employment opportunities.  Meanwhile, these countries’ heavy dependency on commodities makes them vulnerable to climate change consequences and economic shocks.

Mr. STEINER said challenges facing these countries have a bearing on their ability to meet Vienna Programme of Action requirements.  As such, international infrastructure and investment agendas must focus on their special needs, he said, citing unique development opportunities, including energy generation and usage, that are available to them.  Noting that the energy agendas of the 1980s and 1990s were based on simple broad access, he said the difference today includes priorities like transitioning to low carbon economies.  Landlocked developing countries can have an advantage and establish themselves as leaders in that field and also in communications, representing another unique opportunity to redefine their role in global trade.  For its part, UNDP aims at determining where the innovative development is happening or can be found in landlocked developing countries where entrepreneurship and start-up opportunities exist, citing examples such as a mobile payment system in Kenya.  Emerging digital economies could allow partners and landlocked countries to translate innovation into investment decisions, including in the education sector.  In this regard, UNDP aims at connecting to the innovations and aggregating lessons into national policies with accelerator labs and other programmes, he said.

Mr. AGAH said a multilateral trading system supports inclusive growth, jobs and poverty reduction in landlocked developing countries by fostering their structural economic transformation.  Trade increases a country’s economic growth and allows it to use its own resources more efficiently, he continued, adding that it can also help to implement development targets in social and environmental areas.  Mainstreaming trade policies into development plans enhances coherence and allows countries to use such measures as a practical tool.  The Trade Facilitation Agreement will help landlocked developing countries to participate in international trade and improve their abilities to attract investment.  Noting challenges facing the WTO today, he observed a marked increase in constrictive measures and an impasse of appellate body judges, which threaten to paralyze the mechanism.  Cooperation and confidence in the trading system are essential for it to survive, he said, warning that allowing a trade war to play out would have severe, long-lasting and damaging economic effects.  Highlighting improvements and reforms at the WTO, he said efforts have been made to improve transparency.  It is vital that members meet obligations in that regard, although some may need assistance to do so.  At the same time, he highlighted an urgent need to advance WTO negotiations on fisheries subsidies, which is a sustainable development issue.  Failing to conclude these negotiations will damage the credibility of the WTO and multilateral decision making.  Turning to a forthcoming ministerial conference, he encouraged landlocked developing countries to participate and come up with proposals for concrete deliverables.

Ms. HAIDARA pointed out a range of challenges, including slow regional integration, structural vulnerabilities, poor infrastructure and gaps in information and communications technologies.  Such structural factors have led the countries to possess a low share of global trade.  A level playing field is required for a sound trading environment.  To address these challenges, UNIDO offers trade facilitation programmes and focuses on building capacity for effective trade and its policies.  Critical steps include strengthening quality regional infrastructure and generating the ability to produce goods suited for the global market.  The challenge in accessing export markets “starts at the factory gates”, she said, also highlighting a need to address this issue through partnerships across multiple sectors, including Governments, financial sector and civil society.  For its part, UNIDO operates a programme for country partnership, an innovative tool supporting Member States by focusing on national ownership, enhancing relationships with private sector and linking technical assistance to investment.  Turning to information and communications technologies, she said the speed of the fourth industrial revolution offers opportunities but may also widen technology gaps.  She recommended partnerships for innovative policies, enabling business environments and infrastructural capacity building in implementing the Vienna Programme of Action.

Mr. MIKURIYA said customs-related mechanisms constitute a form of soft infrastructure for trade.  Outlining some of the work of the World Customs Organization, he said it sets guidelines and promotes international cooperation and capacity building, with all 32 landlocked developing countries among its 183 members.  Other activities include developing a transit handbook launched in 2014 and working to finalize a compendium of best practices.  Highlighting several challenges, he said societies must be protected from illicit trade and terrorist threats, requiring risk management at borders empowered by commercial data obtained in advance.  Addressing multilateral trade, he said regional integration must be in line with global standards, lest the countries involved fail to connect with rest of the world.  The use of information and communications technologies is inevitable in trade facilitation and should be shared between countries.  With customs agencies sharing borders with their counterparts in such sectors as immigration and health, there is a need for coordinated management, a standardized data set and a “single-window” system for trade facilitation.  The actual movement of goods requires streamlined border procedures and tracking systems.  Highlighting the current trend of disruptive technologies, he said data analysis can improve risk management and security concerns.  At the same time, e‑commerce is a “game-changer” for small- and medium-sized enterprises, and also for consumers.

Mr. AKIWUMI said that while many landlocked developing countries surpass developed and developing countries in terms of natural capital, 26 of the 32 of them depend on primary commodities for exports and lack economy-wide improvements and long-term structural transformation.  This has led many such countries to suffer an increased trade deficit.  If these socio-economic conditions continue, the countries will not meet Vienna Programme of Action targets.  The challenge is how to move from a commodity-driven model to a diversified economy based on productive capacities.  Indeed, natural capital can be a good starting point for transformational development.  This paradigm represents an opportunity for a new generation of domestic policies.  Current isolated projects have reached their limits, he said, calling for the formulation and implementation of coherent and consistent policies with multi-sector and multi-year approaches.  Highlighting the importance of the Trade Facilitation Agreement, he said a greater proportion of Aid for Trade facilitation should be allocated to landlocked developing countries.  There must be robust international support in that regard, and aid needs to be realigned with national development plans and priorities.

In the ensuing dialogue, participants asked the panellists to elaborate on certain issues, including identifying obstacles and solutions.

The representative of Germany requested further details on how trade facilitation has brought about progress.

The representative of Ireland asked the panellists to identify specific blockages to a greater drawdown of resources.

The representative of Ethiopia wondered how the WTO can accommodate countries at the risk of being left behind if the policy of preferential treatment is being contested at the outset.

Mr. STEINER said the digital economy is a fast transformer, as illustrated by a new UNDP inequality report, to be released 9 December.  The report identifies new challenges that centre on new technology drivers and climate change.  Digital advances, including in communications and energy sectors, could both help to address inequalities or exacerbate them in landlocked developing countries, he said, noting an emerging divergence on these variables.  Market investment and public policy will determine if countries leave significant parts of the population behind.  On the energy front, he said new technology can sometimes provide a shortcut because landlocked developing States do not need to wait for the development of a national grid.  The two most traditional restraints that remain in leveraging new technologies are national regulatory frameworks and financing.  The impact new technology and energy sources will have on developing economies will depend on a sophisticated policy mix, he said.

Mr. AGAH, noting that trade as a development tool is only an opportunity if it is used.  Even if a country enjoys market access, if the associated cost is more than the duties it is exempted from, the national economy will remain uncompetitive.  With regard to preferential treatment, he said that in a multilateral system, all members agree to work for common good, but their interests are not always the same.  For example, some members are finding that the challenges identified in the Doha framework are no longer relevant.  As such, he encouraged landlocked developing countries to join multilateral conversations, which are about rules, not just marketplace accessibility.  Stakeholders must determine how to maintain two tracks of discussions that preserve special treatment provisions while addressing new challenges.

Ms. HAIDARA said the idea of “leave no one behind” was, for a long time, more about assistance to social sectors, but now, the conversation has turned to economic and sustainable development with a view toward inclusiveness and shared benefits from economic growth.  These efforts will need to include providing an enabling environment, upgrading skills, transforming national policies and moving from commodity-led growth to manufacturing products.  Public-private partnerships will be crucial in securing financing for those activities, she said.

Mr. MIKURIYA said landlocked developing countries have a primary need to cooperate with neighbouring countries.  Highlighting the importance of regional economic communities, such as the African Union-established free trade area and similar movements in other regions, he said such cooperation and integration has been spurred by the facilitation of trade.

Mr. AKIWUMI said commodity-led economies must be able to produce goods and services in order to diversify.  However, most of the United Nations system’s support is focused on the social sector, with relatively little allocated to infrastructure and production sectors.  More focus must be paid to where investments in the private sector actually go, he said, adding that there is often a missing link to national firms that would be able to absorb new technologies.  However, micro-credit firms cannot focus on absorbing such technologies, and many national policies focus on poverty alleviation instead of innovation and moving the economy forward.  He also highlighted the importance of distinguishing between entrepreneurship through necessity and through innovation.  On energy investments, the focus has been purely on access and not its production, he said, calling for more emphasis on regulatory frameworks that would facilitate producing electricity, as many landlocked developing countries do not need to rely on a centralized system but could have micro-grids across the country.

The representative of Mexico asked what role local Governments can play in fostering economic development.

A representative of the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) asked how to remedy the problem of imports being less expensive than the products landlocked developing countries produce.

A representative of the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) asked how to address the issue of food prices.

The representative of Morocco asked how to engage the private sector.

Mr. STEINER said local authorities can function as both incubators and accelerators.  At the local level, the logic of the Sustainable Development Goals can become a practical reality.  There is an underestimation in Africa of how access to digitization can be extended to rural economies, driving their e‑commerce worldwide.  Landlocked developing countries do have private capital resources, but require assistance investing them locally.  The solution to food loss can often be in the private sector, given its links to transport and storage.

Mr. AGAH emphasized the importance of addressing a broad spectrum of issues in deciding what to import, adding that using administrative measures to restrict imports results in higher prices.

Ms. HAIDARA said local Governments understand local conditions and can therefore set the right policies.  The United Nations can be a bridge between investors and project developers, especially in clean energy, by providing technical assistance and facilitating access to finance.

Mr. MIKURIYA said the role of local authorities is vital at border crossing points.  Improving competitiveness in Central Africa requires taking best practices from the developed world for corridor management.  Addressing Morocco’s representative, he said the private sector can provide a better business environment, but also requires capacity building to aid economic development.

Mr. AKIWUMI stated there must be a move toward agro-processing to access regional and global value chains.  An even playing field for import-export pricing demands access to comparable interest rates, as landlocked countries often face 15 to 20 per cent rates compared to 3 per cent rates externally.

Panel 3

The High-level Review then held an interactive dialogue on “Regional integration and infrastructure connectivity”.  Moderated by Ashish Shah, Director for Country Programmes at the International Trade Centre, it featured presentations by:  Valentine Rugwabiza, Permanent Representative of Rwanda to the United Nations; Elliott Harris of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs; Bience Gawanas, Special Adviser on Africa to the United Nations Secretary-General; Umberto de Pretto, Secretary General of the International Road Transport Union; and Ricardo J. Sánchez, Senior Economic Affairs Officer at the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC).

Mr. SHAH outlined some of the challenges facing landlocked developing countries, including that they are, on average, 1,370 kilometres away from an ocean port.  This increases transport costs by 50 per cent, reduces trade volume by 30 per cent and has resulted in their share in the global merchandise trade being under 1 per cent at a time when the value addition in agriculture and manufacturing has fallen, between 2000 and 2015.  To demonstrate how some factors impact competitiveness, he said that for every $1 of cost in an Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development country, a landlocked developing country has $1.45.  Meanwhile, the average number of Internet users in these countries is less than half compared with the rest of the world.  The Vienna Programme of Action calls for solutions to their challenges, he said, adding that regional integration can be a key driver for economic growth.  Connectivity remains a priority as it makes crossing borders more efficient and helps to reduce transit costs.  The digital revolution has opened new corridors of growth for these nations, particularly when one in every four people in the world are involved in online shopping, representing an enormous opportunity for landlocked developing countries to be active in e-commerce.

Ms. RUGWABIZA agreed that costs are much higher for these countries, including for trade, moving goods and services, along with related logistical expenses.  As a result, it is much harder to be competitive, but with deliberate policies and focused actions, it is possible to compensate for higher trade costs.  Turning to the East Africa region, she said Rwanda works with the World Bank and has gone through each and every element, including energy and electricity, to ensure that businesses have access in a competitive way.  It has also invested in logistics platforms and dry ports to allow companies to be able to process goods from Rwanda and to build links with different ports in the region.  “We are not doomed by geography,” she said.  On digital technology, she highlighted the harmonizing of some of national frameworks, noting that it used to cost more when someone called from Kigali to Kenya, than from Kigali to the United States.  It was decided that the frameworks should be harmonized so that calling within the region would be registered as local calls.

Mr. HARRIS, highlighting some commonalities among developing countries in special categories, said landlocked developing nations are dependent on trade for development and typically have relatively small populations and domestic markets.  Challenges persist regarding both soft and hard infrastructure.  On the soft side, it is about reaching agreements with neighbouring countries on the procedures that govern trade and setting up transit corridors that create a reliable framework for transportation between the landlocked country and the seaport.  The hard infrastructure relates to the physical transportation of goods to the ports, and this cuts across jurisdictions.  It deals with not just one but two or three sets of country authorities involved in every part of a trade decision.  Another common challenge is their exposure to climate change consequences.  Any infrastructure built must be climate resilient.  In addition, the countries involved in setting up the transit corridors have to be in agreement on the choices to be made on the type of infrastructure to be put in place.  The continental free trade agreement is a game changer, but it also puts a further urgency into a need for these to reach such agreements.

Ms. GAWANAS said addressing poverty, inequality, exclusion and the other root causes of conflict and promoting peace are part of supporting the development needs of landlocked developing countries.  “Regional integration is not just connecting bridges; it is about connecting the peoples of Africa,” she said.  Recalling that the continent is known for having the highest burden of disease, she said Africa imports all its medicines from abroad.  In this vein, regional integration goes beyond building bridges, roads and rails, and must include addressing Africa’s capacity to take care of its needs.  Promoting infrastructure development is a core component of Sustainable Development Goal 9 and is part of some of the flagship projects of the 10-year implementation programme of the African Union’s Agenda 2063:  The Africa We Want.  On the African continental free trade area, she said that if she was asked some years ago if this was possible, she would have said “no”.  For the first time, there is hope for Africa.  The continent has said to the world that it is open for business and that its countries will trade among themselves, first and foremost, she said, emphasizing that the trade agreement is a major milestone in the efforts to strengthen regional integration.

Mr. DE PRETTO said that, from a business perspective, it is futile to spend billions building beautiful roads and then getting stuck at borders.  Up to 40 per cent of transportation costs is represented by bribery payments because it is an environment conducive to corrupt activities.  Trucks are also obliged to idle at borders so as to not lose their spot, resulting in increased fuel costs and emissions.  “If you find a regional solution, let me burst your bubble:  trade is not regional, it’s global,” he said, citing the example of making a vehicle, which requires 10,000 suppliers from all over the world.  Harmonized trade practices are required to get goods to market, he said, pointing to the Customs Convention on the International Transport of Goods.  Since this agreement has been in use, there has not been one major security breach, he observed, imploring Member States to familiarize themselves with its provisions.  “Start off with something that will allow you to trade more freely,” he said, noting that while the Convention is not a panacea, it is the right first step.  So far, 76 contracting parties are on board, he said, pointing out that only 11 of 32 landlocked developing countries are part of the system.  As such, he cited an African Union study finding that trade would double if all the countries on the continent put the Convention system in place.

Mr. SÁNCHEZ cited an ECLAC report about Bolivia and Paraguay, noting that they are performing far above the Latin American average in terms of infrastructure development.  While they are investing more than the regional average in this area, it is not sufficient, and they are still lagging behind in global terms.  Paraguay has performed very well in terms of transport, including building inland roads and railway restoration, but it faces bottlenecks in terms of roads, only 9 per cent of which are paved, and improvements are also required in signalling, waterways and airports.  Meanwhile, Bolivia has built tunnels and two-way roads and works tirelessly to improve access to navigation systems, with its private sector investing significantly in such efforts.  For both countries, more cost efficiency gains are needed.  The connection from Paraguay to east Brazil through the construction of a bridge is crucial, with similar progress made connecting Paraguay and Bolivia.  A North-South connection between Bolivia and Argentina is also underway.  Rivers and waterways provide the primary routes through Paraguay and Bolivia, he pointed out, adding that investments in this area are critical to regional integration.  This is in turn essential for prosperity and equality, and as such, regulatory barriers hindering infrastructure investment must be addressed.

In the ensuing dialogue, delegates elaborated on their own country experiences, posing questions for the panellists about opportunities and challenges.

The representative of Switzerland said that his country is wealthy and developed and thus has one of the biggest ecological footprints.  In the early nineteenth century, however, it could have been classified as a landlocked developing country.  The 1815 outbreak of the Tambora volcano in Indonesia led to the “year without a summer” in Europe, causing famine.  It also led to a rethinking of agricultural patterns and reflection on how to cope with climate disasters.  Over the next decades, Switzerland began its journey to a highly industrialized nation and established itself as a transit country par excellence.  Therefore, successful countries must find a sound balance between tradition and innovation, he observed, adding that new technologies and patterns must be compatible with nature.

The representative of Austria wondered if Member States’ reluctance about signing up to the Customs Convention is because it was developed by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (ECE).  Noting that China has signed up for it, he observed that the Belt and Road Initiative is transcontinental and can be replicated and asked if the Convention also entails rail and inland waterways or if Mr. De Pretto is just a truck lobbyist.  Asking other panellists about the opportunities and challenges posed by new technologies, he asked about the implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement.

The representative of Turkmenistan said his country will host the next Global Sustainable Transport Conference in March.

Mr. DE PRETTO said that China, Pakistan and India have joined the Convention [which replaced the Transports Internationaux Routiers Convention from 1959].  The Gulf States, all except Yemen, will very soon be in the Convention system.  With a global system, everyone will play by the same rules, he said, recalling the Convention’s modification in 1975 to include containerized movements, with a condition that there is a road movement at the beginning or end.  The future is digital and intermodal, and the Convention will be able to facilitate both.  Political will is critical, citing the example of Switzerland’s industrialization.  This has to happen in every country, he said, calling for the harmonization of customs, trade and transport practices through the more than 56 instruments that already exist for this purpose.

Ms. RUGWABIZA, responding to questions on the African Continental Free Trade Agreement, said that with regard to services, they are not overlooked and are the largest part of its economy, some 55 per cent.  The agreement contains protocols, including one on the free movement of services.  Opened for signature in Rwanda in 2018, the instrument entered into force in July 2019, with an implementation deadline in 2020.  Trade is indeed global, she said, adding that African countries cannot continue to trade with the rest of the world more than it trades with itself.  On the sea cable, she said it is in place and has been for a while.  Most of the cables that are supporting Internet connectivity in her part of the world are underwater.  At the same time, it is important to realize that connectivity is changing very fast and will constitute the key driver of competitiveness and development.  Today, connectivity is such an important determinant of progress that landlocked developing countries are not as disadvantaged any longer. 

Ms. GAWANAS said that the implementation of the agreement tells the world that there must be power in numbers and that 55 countries should make a difference, not only to the continent but to the world.  By promoting inter-African trade, it creates an environment where the people of the continent benefit.  In terms of implementation, the adoption of the protocols in Niger is the basis on which the implementation will begin.  What makes the Agreement different from others is the involvement of the African private sector.  Talking about investment in Africa does not just mean investments from outside of Africa but from the African private sector itself.  More broadly, Africa is very fortunate in that it has the African Union bringing together 55 countries.  As such, several policy frameworks and instruments are in place, but they must be implemented.  Also, strategic partnerships are required for Africa’s development, she said, calling for the continent to be supported on its own priorities and not on outside agendas.  “Africa has spoken; I’m sure the world is listening,” she said.

Mr. HARRIS said that in February he spoke with some senior engineers at a mobility conference about the digital divide that plagues Africa today.  Their view was that if the right regulations were put in place and if there was reasonable access for individuals to the Internet, then the private sector would be willing to provide the financing for the physical infrastructure for these markets.  Creating the digital infrastructure is expensive, but these are potentially lucrative markets, he said, also highlighting the importance of harmonizing investment frameworks and policies, noting that global instruments can be used towards this goal.

Mr. SÁNCHEZ said the most important challenge faced is harmonizing and coordinating common policies between neighbouring countries.  While efforts may be taken towards better procedures or investment, if different regulations between countries persist, opportunities for progress are missed.

For information media. Not an official record.