In the 1980s, exporting goods from Singapore often meant running a gauntlet of Dickensian bureaucracies. A Singaporean trader hoping to ship goods abroad might have to fill out up to 35 forms, in duplicate, and submit them in person to at least two different offices. Shipments would regularly be delayed for days awaiting bureaucratic approval. But in 1989, Singapore became the first country to introduce a single electronic window, a one-stop shop for traders that reduced delays, increased customs revenue and, ultimately, boosted trade.
Since then, the single electronic window has proved to be one of the smartest investments a country can make in its economic infrastructure. In 2000, Ghana became the first country in Africa to introduce a single window for exporters and importers. In its first year of operation, Ghana’s single window increased customs revenue by 35%, while significantly improving the accountability and transparency of the entire system.
When African government officials and business people meet this week in Washington, D.C. for the 11th annual African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) Forum, I hope they will share their experiences with potential advances in trade technology such as the single electronic window. For one of the lessons Ghana and others teach us is that lumbering, cumbersome bureaucracies can do just as much to strangle trade as rutted roads or a decrepit rail system.
Agoa has greatly benefited Africa by stimulating trade, allowing billions of dollars worth of African goods, including $3b n in South African exports in 2010, to enter the US duty free. This global trade has, in turn, created new jobs, new companies and even new industries. Yet even with the preferential market access provided by Agoa, African exports are still too often not competitive globally, and trade within Africa lags behind other regions. Regional trade drives growth.