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    Are TPOs Still Needed?


    © International Trade Centre, International Trade Forum - Issue 2/2001

    Nearly 900 participants from 108 countries enthusiastically debated this question during a recent ITC electronic discussion forum (23-27 April 2001). All summaries of the discussion were e-mailed to participants in their target languages and posted on the discussion web site (http://www.tpo-worldnet.com/ediscforum.htm) in three languages.

    The e-mail contributions were mostly from representatives of developing countries and from trade promotion organizations (TPOs); some were from business and academia.

    Yes - but not as sole service providers

    The overwhelming majority of respondents agreed that trade support services are needed and there is a role for TPOs, but that they should not be the only source of trade support services. The group also commented that the services needed and how they are delivered will vary with the development stage of the country. However, a few felt that the development stage of the particular business may be a more important consideration for the TPO than the development stage of the particular country.

    On payment for services, the general view was that some services should be provided at no charge to SMEs, but specialized and company-specific services should be paid for, even if nominally. Several commentators drew attention to the high level of free support available to companies in developed countries.

    For TPOs to be more effective, participants felt most strongly the need for:

    - coordination between stakeholders;
    - better links between the TPO and private sector;
    - adequate financial and human re-sources;
    - identifying and meeting client needs;
    - delivery of quality services;
    - willingness within the TPO to change, to be flexible and, in particular, to become familiar with, and to use, new technologies; and
    - training and retraining, as an ongoing requirement.

    An imperative: change to match a new business environment

    A frequent comment was that TPOs must change with the changing business environment. Some respondents indicated that TPOs, as extensions of governments, are too bureaucratic, and need to become more customer-oriented rather than public sector-oriented. Contributors also opined that excessive influence by governments on TPO activities, poor infrastructure, and lack of focus and specialization by TPOs were factors inhibiting effectiveness.

    Many respondents indicated that there would be great value in networking of TPOs at international level, but that they needed assistance in accomplishing this goal. They suggested that multilateral development organizations such as ITC might be well positioned to address this goal. Several mentioned that they needed to go beyond networking, in the form of strategic alliances to meet the current and upcoming needs of their clients. Respondents also requested that multilateral organizations such as ITC continue to provide technical support to improve services to TPO clients and to act as an advocate for the business community of developing countries in international trade forums.

    In general, respondents spoke very favourably about the assistance provided by ITC, but suggested that even greater assistance is needed.

    And what do they think of e-discussions?

    On a scale of 1 to 10 the average rating for this e-discussion by participants who responded to our feedback form was above 8. Virtually 100% said that they would participate in future ITC e-discussions.

    This topic will be further explored at ITC's next Executive Forum. See http://www.intracen.org/execforum for more information. Philip Williams (williams@intracen.org) is ITC's Senior Adviser on Institutional Aspects of Trade Promotion. He also moderated the e-mail discussion reported in this article.

    What experts are saying

    "More demanding measures of client satisfaction are needed; and these are enhanced if exporters pay for service. Because they pay, clients expect quality."

    Michael Hannah, New Zealand Trade Development Board

    TPOs "are found wanting because normally they are working within the political machine. Their agendas are focused on immediate results, and they have no medium- or long-term plans."

    Guillermo Rodriguez, Guatemala

    "The biggest constraint to be overcome by TPOs, particularly those which have been in the business for a while, is change: elimination of the 'status quo', reorientation of the business, and retraining of staff to deliver faster responses to clients' requests and to learn new technologies."

    Jose Luis Liranzo, Caribbean Export Development Agency

    "The linkages between the stakeholders within the export sectors have not been very strong and most activities are not coordinated. ...There is also a feeling in some quarters that export promotion should be left to the private sector.

    "The private-public sector partnership needs to be strengthened so that both sectors complement each others' activities."

    Elizabeth Tamale, Uganda Export Promotion Board