COVID-19: Standards can help revive the economy

By Joselyn B. Mwine

Is there anyone in this globalized world today who hasn’t been affected by the COVID 19 crisis? As cliché as it might sound, probably not. All of us have been affected one way or another. While the level of suffering is not the same, everyone’s confidence has been badly shaken. But first, let’s recap the basic facts. A year has now passed since the world was hit by the pandemic. Officially, things are getting worse with a new variant on the rise but there is hope that vaccines and the newfound supportive treatments will deliver some much needed relief. But we are far from a full recovery. The average person on the street is sensing danger. More worryingly, unemployment figures also paint a stark picture. The International Labour Organization estimates that, since the beginning of the crisis, 155 million full-time jobs have been lost globally. But worse is still to come.

It is tempting however to consider: How might standards help? What would occur if standards were used more widely? The answer is clear: a lot. Quite a lot would be different. And this is not speculation. We know it because interesting research from organizations such as the World Bank and the International Trade Centre shows time and again that standards can make a positive difference. Research shows that global standards can boost commerce. This can help create the jobs we so badly need to alleviate poverty and ensure higher standards of living for all. The question remains however: Is there anything we can do? As a matter of fact, yes, there is. There is an urgent need for leadership to showcase the importance of standards. Going forward, we need to figure out how to increase the use of standards by government, business and society. We need to find a way to bring standards from the boiler-room to the boardroom. And we need to educate our young people – the disruptors and innovators of this world – on the strategic value of standards.

Don’t get me wrong. Standards are not the be-all and end-all solution to the economic situation. Standards will not reverse the damage caused by COVID-19 obviously or prevent the potential of a future meltdown. Crises have happened before, and – if history is any guide – they will happen again. But, what today’s interconnected world needs now is confidence, honesty and trust – the bedrock of business. We must rebuild trust in our financial systems and economies, and this is where Standards can help. But we have to move quickly, because the stakes are higher than they have been for years. And the urgency of our predicament calls for a national response. Please note that other countries have gone ahead of us; many countries around the globe have taken the standards agenda a notch higher and are requiring business to comply or be left out of business. So while we are focusing on industrial growth, we must also be mindful of the quality of the products from those industries.

The economy, though growing, remains fragile, underscoring the need to continue efforts to promote growth, lower the costs of doing business, and ensure a conducive business environment. There is a role here, I believe, for the contributions of regulatory reform, harmonization of standards to international ones, and other steps that can help expand trade – and support economic growth. Research shows that global standards can boost commerce by lowering trade costs, facilitating integration into global value chains, and opening up new foreign markets to our local businesses. In particular, World Bank trade research shows that trade in the ICT sector, which is a critical contributor to the new global economy, benefits substantially from standards harmonization. This can help create the jobs we so badly need, encourage innovation and improve productivity, which in turn will combat poverty and lead to higher standards of living for all.

We must also be careful to ensure that small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are able to share in these opportunities and are not excluded due to the fixed costs associated with adapting to necessary process and production methods. SMEs are essential in poverty reduction programmes because of their potential contribution to economic growth. By facilitating their access to information on technical regulations and standards, assisting them with meeting the requirements of Standards and paving the way to competent conformity assessment services, we can help SMEs thrive in an increasingly competitive market so that they can play their part in alleviating poverty.

Thankfully, Uganda National Bureau of Standards (UNBS), the national standards body, has gone ahead to reduce the cost of Certification and compliance specifically for SMEs. UNBS has phased out initial Audit Fees of Shs. 250,000/= and Surveillance Audit Fees of Shs. 250,000/=. This implies that UNBS will from 1st July, 2021 conduct the certification and surveillance audits on Enterprises seeking to acquire the Quality Mark (Q-Mark) free of charge. MSMEs will only pay Certification fees of Shs. 500,000 while Medium and Large Enterprises will pay Shs. 1,000,000.

However, it is still not easy to convince companies to participate in standardization and send people to the committees. While it is clearly worthwhile for most companies or whole economies to invest in standardization, many of those that should be participating are not. This highlights the fact that we (and by that I mean the Standards community, government and policy makers) need to further invest in company outreach efforts to convince CEOs, especially in small and medium-sized companies, about the value of engaging in standardization. Failure to actively participate in the development and use of Standards will prompt a fragmentation of production and a marginalization of the weakest (SMEs) and likely lead to a reduced growth in Uganda’s economy. Isn’t it time we all took action?

The writer is a Public Relations Officer at Uganda National Bureau of Standards and a Trade development professional