Governments should accelerate their efforts to improve customs and border procedures to allow more companies to access international markets, according to a report by the World Economic Forum (WEF) and the Global Alliance for Trade Facilitation.

While bilateral and regional trade agreements are being threatened by a growing protectionist wave in the US and Europe, the Global Enabling Trade Report points out that improving the efficiency of border administration has enormous potential to boost economic growth.

“Many businesses and entrepreneurs around the world are being held back from joining the global marketplace by opaque and costly border procedures. Trade facilitation reforms offer the opportunity to make a more inclusive international economy, bringing in much of the global population that has thus far been excluded,” says Philippe Isler, director of the Global Alliance for Trade Facilitation.

Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) would benefit the most from such measures, as they often lack the resources to comply with complex border procedures.

Produced every two years, the report evaluates indicators under seven ‘pillars’ (domestic and foreign market access, efficiency and transparency of border administration, availability and quality of transport infrastructure, availability and quality of transport services, availability and use of information and communication technologies (ICT) and operating environment) to create an index.

The 2016 edition shows that there has been no harmonisation of border administration in the past two years, and that the performance gap between high and low-income economies actually widened during this time, with Singapore at the top of the index and Yemen at the bottom.

Interestingly, certain Sub-Saharan African countries defied expectations, with landlocked Botswana and Rwanda overtaking South Africa in the regional ranking. This is the result of significant investment in border procedure improvements in 2016: Botswana launched its national Trade Portal this year, providing a streamlined online platform for access to all information on import and export procedures, and Rwanda implemented its electronic single window system, dramatically cutting the cost of border clearance, the report says.

In contrast, most commodity-rich counties underperformed their income group in border administration.

The report comes as the World Trade Organisation prepares for the implementation of its Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA), which has the potential to reduce global trade costs by up to 17.5% by cutting red tape at borders.

The TFA’s final version was adopted in November 2014 and, as of October 2016, 96 of the 164 members have ratified it, meaning only 15 more countries need to complete ratification (bringing the total to two-thirds of WTO members) for the agreement to come into force.