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UNECE tools for document dematerialization reduce human contact in global supply ‎chains ‎

In the global fight against COVID-19, how can we reconcile reducing physical interactions to limit virus transmission with the need to keep supply chains operating efficiently? This is particularly important for essential products like medical supplies and food. However, keeping goods moving across borders is also critical to mitigate the immediate and longer-term socio-economic consequences of the crisis.

Launching a global call to action to address these impacts, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres had urged all countries to facilitate the free flow of goods within and across regions. Among the measures recommended is the use of innovative tools that enable electronic information exchange without physical contact and ease cross-border transit.

UNECE and its United Nations Centre for Trade Facilitation and Electronic Business (UN/CEFACT) have longstanding expertise on developing automated document and data exchange, electronic trade documents, and other e-business tools that reduce human-to-human contacts in the international supply chain.

Among these is UN/EDIFACT, a cornerstone standard for the electronic exchange of data that is widely used in international supply chains, transport and logistics. For example, shipping companies and terminals remotely exchange more than 1 billion UN/EDIFACT messages per year covering more than 75% of sea freight worldwide (2017). The standard is also used by 100,000 traders in the retail sector alone. UN/EDIFACT messages have removed dozens of human interactions in each transaction, from dematerializing signatures and ink-seals to the actual paper documents which no longer need to be passed from hand to hand.

These messages also specifically cover health standards for medical prescriptions, medical service requests, medical service reports, health care claims etc., facilitating rapid and contactless exchanges.

By enabling a common language and harmonized processes, UN/CEFACT standards expedite the international delivery of critical supplies - such as the medicines and ventilators urgently needed in the COVID-19 crisis - from their place of manufacture, across borders, right to hospitals. On top of the efficiency gains generated throughout the supply and logistics chains, these standards enable the speedy completion of formalities by regulatory authorities like customs, trade ministries, certification and quality control agencies. They also enable regulatory agencies and businesses to efficiently exchange information in the development of medical prototypes and equipment catering for the exact needs of hospitals. In the healthcare industry, over 1 million messages based on UN/EDIFACT are used per year, mostly on commercial messages such as commercial purchase order, commercial invoice, order response and despatch advice.

Furthermore, UN/CEFACT’s best practice recommendations on National Trade Facilitation Bodies and Single Windows for export and import clearance provide the basis for countries worldwide to develop highly efficient and paperless customs clearance processes, reducing countless person-to-person interactions.

For instance, the Port Community System (PCS) – a form of Single Window – set up with UNECE assistance in Odessa, Ukraine, has removed the need for drivers to go out of their trucks and physically present the documents on their cargo to the inspection officers. Alexander Fedorov, the CEO of the PCS, stressed that the standards of UN/CEFACT clearly support speeding up the movement of goods and, in the current situation, help ensure the safety of all involved.

Among the hundreds of other UN/CEFACT tools and standards that make it possible to exchange electronic information without the need to go physically to an office, or to pay online or to exchange health information online are: Single Submission Portals, Data Pipeline (capturing data earlier in the supply chain in order to improve data quality in electronic messages), and Smart Containers, which allow automatic information exchange across the logistics chain without any human intervention.

Developed collaboratively by thousands of experts from the public and private sectors, UN/CEFACT’s instruments are also used as common standards and guidelines by other organizations – development banks, UN agencies such as UNCTAD, ITC, FAO and development aid agencies; and regional organizations such as the European Commission – which uses many UN/CEFACT standards and best practice recommendations ranging from its Single Administrative Document (SAD) to its Single Window projects – and the Eurasian Economic Commission.

UNECE has collaborated for years with the Eurasian Economic Commission on trade facilitation, including for the implementation of UN/CEFACT recommendations on data harmonization and Single Window. Partners in the EEC now stress that the various regions of the world should collaborate, especially through the United Nations, on the development of Single Window and data pipeline solutions to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of trade and trade data exchange.

Now is the moment to renew this global cooperation. UNECE will continue working with all stakeholders to forge and harness these freely-available public goods – both to contribute to the ongoing emergency response, and to build more efficient and resilient trade to help drive the global economic recovery.