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    Insights on Exports at the Executive Forum


    © International Trade Centre, International Trade Forum - Issue 4/2004 

    Photo: Antonio Diaz In 2003, ITC held its annual Executive Forum meeting for business and government leaders in Cancún, Mexico, to provide a lead-in to the WTO's Ministerial Meeting. This allowed participants to position export competitiveness in the wider context of the Doha Development Agenda.

    Improving a country's export performance requires much more than just winning more foreign contracts. Over the past six years, many government officials and private business leaders in developing countries and transition economies have come to understand this - thanks to ITC's Executive Forum on National Export Strategies.

    To help their countries compete in today's fast-paced, challenging trade environment, trade strategy-makers have to be broader in their outlook and more encompassing in their working partnerships. It's no longer enough to focus on promoting existing export goods and services - they have to look at developing exports. In 1999, ITC held the first Executive Forum to fill a gap in research on practical, working strategies for successful export development. Government-business teams from developing and transition economies share experiences from their country and learn from others.
    The idea for the Executive Forum took shape after years of contact between ITC staff and government and business leaders from across the developing world and the new economies emerging from the former Soviet Union.

    "Back in 1999," says ITC Executive Director J. Denis Bélisle, "our intention was to advance the idea that decision-makers in developing and transition economies needed to broaden their approach to export development if they were to achieve a sustained improvement in national export performance. The purpose was to promote the importance for every country of putting in place a realistic national export strategy and the capacity to manage it. And that remains our basic philosophy today."

    Mr Bélisle, whose home country, Canada, has built up a successful national brand as an international trader as well as in ice hockey, argues that strategy-making is "a team sport". This, he says, "is not a discipline to be tackled by a single institution. To be relevant, a national export strategy must reflect the input of a spectrum of public sector organizations. And it must involve the direct and continuous participation of the private sector. Participation is a precondition of ownership." Every country attending the Executive Forum has to send representatives from government and business in a national team.

    Debate, not lectures

    To get that message over, says ITC specialist Brian Barclay, the key organizer of the Executive Forum from the first, it was vital to bring representatives of private and public sectors in all participating countries together in a relaxed but businesslike atmosphere, well away from their daily pressures. They could learn from each other how to make their countries more competitive in global markets and what resources they would need to create and maintain national programmes to do that.

    "Our ideal format was to have open debate and discussion, not lectures and speeches; not to teach but to spread awareness of all the issues involved," explains Mr Barclay. "It is for our partners to come and talk about what 'best practices' they have adopted and how successful they have been, but leave it to others to decide what is possible and practicable to adapt to their own national conditions."

    A break from the ordinary

    "There is nothing quite like this on the international business conference circuit," remarks Femi Boyede, Chief Executive of Nigeria's Koinonia Ventures, an export services company, over coffee at a Montreux hotel one warm Indian summer day at the end of September 2004. "There is real interaction. We all learn from each other."

    "This gathering is absolutely unique, and we are in a good position to know because we organize a lot of conferences ourselves," notes Wang Jinzhen, Assistant Chairman and Spokesman of China's Council for the Promotion of International Trade. "No other international forum deals with the issues we discuss here in such depth and with such a practical focus."

    Their comments, echoed by participants from many other countries, illustrate the achievements of the Executive Forum on National Export Strategies five years after it was launched in 1999 - "a modest project at the time," as Mr Barclay puts it.
    Since 2000, the meeting has been held annually in Montreux, at the eastern end of Switzerland's Lake Geneva. Montreux is now likely to be its permanent home in late September every year under a partnership between ITC and the Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (seco).

    From export promotion to export development

    Mr Boyede explains the problems in his own country that the meetings have helped to address: "In the past, Nigerian companies were everywhere at international trade fairs, waving the flag and promoting our goods. They would return with their order books full, announce what a success it all had been… and then find that they didn't have the capacity to carry out the contracts they had signed. That certainly didn't help our image as a reliable trading partner."

    Attitudes, says Mr Barclay, were similar in many other developing countries: "This was a mindset that had to be changed."

    In preparing for that first meeting, says Mr Bélisle, "our fundamental premise was, and remains, that export strategy involves more than just trying to sell what you already produce. It is more than just protecting access into traditional markets. In our view, national export strategy is about export development, not export promotion. It should be designed to build long-term competitiveness at the level of the enterprise, the product sector and the nation as a whole."

    Participants take over

    What started as a consultation among a select few has grown into a much larger venture. In Montreux in 2004, national teams from 43 countries attended. Participants come from Amman to Abidjan, from Bangkok to Bucharest and from Lima to Lusaka. The nature of the gathering has also changed. Whereas ITC set the programme in 1999, the Executive Forum has now been taken over by its participants. "It has built a network of its own alumni and they get together to decide what it will discuss," says Mr Barclay. In 2004, that network, and not ITC, set the agenda for the debate and carried out most of the research on which the "best practice" propositions to be presented were based. "ITC has become the facilitator rather than the initiator, no longer a catalyst but a service organization," he adds.

    Every participating team provides a paper setting out its own experience in building a national strategy, showing setbacks as well as successes. At the 2004 Executive Forum, Cambodia's strategy team offered its view that it was not necessary to create a large sector of medium-sized firms to generate economic, and export, growth. "Rather, a healthy, growing economy is characterized by a healthy small business sector, with impediments to growth like excessive regulations and procedures that are eradicated," its paper notes.

    The Bangladeshi team focused on some countries' need for a predominant orientation towards established sectors in export policies, pointing to the success of its own clothing industry in penetrating global markets. However, it noted that this success had also been built on the guaranteed quota access to major economies provided by the Multi-Fibre Arrangement, which will be replaced from January 2005 by a global tariff system. Only when that change has taken place will it be possible to determine whether the industry is truly competitive. "Evidence suggests that sectoral orientation may be a good option in formulating an export strategy if the comprehensive action plan takes into consideration the situation in the external market," the team's paper says.

    Other issues covered at the 2004 Executive Forum included: The 10 Essential Elements of a Successful National Export Strategy; Sustaining the Public-Private Partnership; Competitiveness through Export Clusters; Export Value Addition through Integration of the Tourism, Entertainment and Productive Sectors; and The Gender Dimension - Best Practice Scenarios.

    Sparking new ideas

    Jacqueline Emmanuel-Albertinie, a financial consultant from St Lucia currently serving as coordinator of her country's National Export Development Strategy Team, was enthusiastic about the programme for the Executive Forum, which she attended for the first time in 2004. "This really gives us an insight on where we should be going," she says. "It wouldn't be easy for me to get my hands on the kind of research and information that we pick up here. The Executive Forum gives us the chance to compare notes with others who are working in the same direction. And that helps us to learn from other people's errors. That is very important for a small country like ours, where mistakes can turn out to be very costly. Not everything we have been hearing about could be applied on the scale of St Lucia, but the discussion certainly helps clarify for us what it is that we must do."

    China's Wang Jinzhen found a presentation from the Thai team, about its creation of export clusters linking villages around the country, of special interest. "Maybe this is a technique that we can apply because export growth in our country is focused in the main cities and along the coastal areas. This may well help us in our efforts to reduce poverty in rural areas."

    Ricardo Estrada Estrada, Executive President of Ecuador's Export Promotion Corporation, says: "We first came here as a young institution, only two years old, and we were learning from scratch what a trade promotion organization must do to be efficient. What we have picked up from the Executive Forum has been invaluable in our own development. Every year we learn new things that help us to continually evaluate what we're doing. We try to keep up with developments in our business, and attending this forum is the best way of doing it. It gives me an opportunity to think on a strategic level, which it is very difficult to find time for back home. I think we also make a good contribution. We have many interesting experiences to share, both positive and negative. And, above all, where else do you have the opportunity to share experiences with so many top-level executives from private and public sector bodies in the trade area from around the world?"

    Each Executive Forum is attended by one-third of alumni and two-thirds of newcomers, with a view to maintaining a balance between tradition and new ideas. All then join the Executive Forum network.

    Writer: Robert J. Evans

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