No Country Left Behind: ICAO’s capacity building event in Grenada

Thia article was written by ICAO's Implementation and Capacity Building Working Group (ICBWG) and Amro Saqqa from the Government of Canada

We’re often recognized at ICAO for our No Country Left Behind (NCLB) initiative and efforts to assist all States, regardless of size or capacity, in implementing ICAO Standards and Recommended Practices (SARPs). SARPs are the technical specifications and guidelines ICAO develops to achieve “the highest practicable degree of uniformity in regulations, standards, procedures and organization in relation to aircraft, personnel, airways and auxiliary services in all matters in which such uniformity will facilitate and improve air navigation”. There is a strict process when SARPs are being developed that involves several technical and non-technical bodies within or closely related to ICAO. Once a SARP is approved, it is added to the appropriate annex of the Chicago Convention.

The NCLB initiative is integral in ensuring SARPs are implemented with global interoperability in mind, and that all States benefit from consistent, safe, and reliable air transport. In 2014, the ICAO Council organized a strategy meeting with the objective of determining how ICAO can better communicate with, and assist, its Member States. One of the major realizations of this meeting was that there are still large discrepancies with respect to how some States implement (or don’t implement) ICAO SARPs.

This led the Council to conclude that ICAO should provide more direct assistance to “developing countries” and encourage the pooling of resources to build capacity in underrepresented nations.

The Council’s conclusion is shared by ICAO’s Implementation and Capacity Building Working Group (ICBWG), whose membership consists mainly of member state representatives and some International Standards Organization (ISO) representatives. The ICBWG was established in 2008 to primarily assist with the universal implementation of Machine-Readable Travel Documents (MRTDs), and to build global capability in related identity management initiatives.

Following the introduction of the Traveller Identification Program (TRIP) and electronic machine readable travel documents (eMRTDs), such as electronic passports (ePassports), the ICBWG saw its mandate grow to include providing assistance to States in the implementation of all travel document SARPs and building global capacity in identity management.

This is achieved through direct engagement with States and the development of guidance materials across a range of travel document and border control initiatives. In essence, the ICBWG is the TRIP’s primary mechanism for realizing and committing to the NCLB in the traveller identification sphere.

Today’s ICBWG is committed to increasing the diversity of its membership and the representation of States on the Technical Advisory Group (TAG) TRIP’s decision making body. They believe all nations, regardless of size or economic strength, should have the opportunity to voice their unique insights and circumstances at the discussion and decision-making forum. The Group strives to achieve these ends by regularly hosting workshops and meetings across the globe to facilitate the participation of States that cannot normally attend and inviting these States to become members.

The ePassport issuance gap

As new transformational technologies emerge and SARPs are discussed and created to accommodate the rapidly evolving traveller identification space, the importance of global interoperability and leaving no country behind is as pertinent as ever. One example of a live discussion that is rooted in global interoperability and NCLB is the implementation of ePassports by ICAO Member States.

The discrepancy in the implementation of SARPs that the ICAO Council discovered in 2014 are evident when considering the disparity in the global implementation of ePassport issuance programs. Today, the majority of States (over 140 countries) issue ePassports, with many nations already considering a future where travel documents are digitized and whether it is time to make ePassport issuance a standard (i.e. an obligation for all). Concurrently, those who are not issuing ePassports (or have only just started) face a reality where the path to ePassport issuance presents many barriers and investments that may not make financial sense when considered against their traveller volumes.

Small Island Developing States (SIDS) in the Caribbean and Pacific Islands Countries (PICs) are an example of States that are more acutely impacted by new SARPs such as the mooted mandatory ePassport issuance. This can be attributed to their unique economic circumstances and the large impact that the requisite financial and technical investments can have on states of a similar size. These issues and regions have been identified by the ICBWG for targeted capacity building, but what can be done to ensure that their voices are heard and their perspectives are considered when evaluating the feasibility of an ePassport issuance standard?

A roadmap to ePassports

In response to the question of whether it is time to create an ePassport issuance standard, the ICBWG began assessing the feasibility of such a standard and studying the impacts this would have on States for a paper that will be presented to the TAG. Recognizing that the aviation landscape is notably different for SIDS, which may have limited resources and distinct socio-economic realities, Canada and the ICBWG began surveying this cohort to identify the regional impacts and challenges that an ePassport standard would present. Canada surveyed the Caribbean and Central American region while New Zealand focussed on PICs.

Survey recipients were asked to outline the key impacts, barriers and challenges they expect to face, or have already faced, when standing-up an ePassport program. While the surveys were successful in starting the conversation, they were limited in the level of detail required to truly understand and dig deeper into the matter.

To this end, the Government of Canada partnered with New Zealand and ICAO to host an in-person capacity building focus group for SIDS on the margins of a regular ICBWG meeting. The key objectives of this undertaking were to facilitate an in-person group discussion with SIDS representatives on the feasibility of an ePassport standard and attempt to diversify the ICBWG membership by bringing discussions to their region and inviting participants to join the working group.

Both Canada and New Zealand have a history of supporting and taking on leadership roles to amplify the voices of their respective neighbours in the Caribbean and the Pacific Islands. Canada’s previous capacity building activities in the Caribbean and Central American regions demonstrated the importance of inviting the right people (i.e. State representatives working in relevant fields and can speak to and make decisions in their home governments), creating a safe and intimate environment that promotes participation and collaborative discussion, and having a format that is less “instructive” to the success of future capacity building activities. Thus a one day event, graciously hosted by the Government of Grenada, titled “Small and Small Island States Focus Group: Roadmap to ePassport” was agreed to.

The Focus Group targeted a maximum of 15 travel document issuance experts and decision makers from the Caribbean and PICs to gather in St. George’s, Grenada to learn about ICAO’s TRIP programme, participate in facilitated discussions on their experiences with ePassport issuance (digging deeper into the barriers identified in the surveys), and share their thoughts regarding the feasibility of standardizing ePassport issuance.

Focus Group participants were also invited to continue their stay in St. George’s to participate in a regular meeting of the ICBWG. Ultimately, a total of nine participants – eight Caribbean State representatives and one PIC – attended from 27-29 June 2023.

The morning session of the Focus Group included presentations from expert speakers on ICAO basics and refreshers on the foundations of ePassport issuance. During the second half of the day, ICAO experts were dedicated to listening and learning from the participants via facilitated discussions. Participants discussed the specific challenges they faced as a collective region and collaborated with each other and ICAO experts to offer tailored solutions and mitigation strategies where possible. They were also encouraged to develop regional and global support networks which they can turn to for support in overcoming current and future obstacles.

The Focus Group was deemed a major success due to the sense of camaraderie and shared purpose among participants. The participants elaborated on the unique financial, legislative, and technical capacity challenges that Small Island States face and were united in stating that these challenges require tailored support and mitigation strategies that can be provided by ICAO.

To close the first day, event organizers encouraged participants to express their opinions on the ePassport standard feasibility question. The Focus Group discussions allowed Canada and New Zealand to collect deeply insightful and valuable data that will form the basis of the TAG paper. In the end, participants reported feeling heard and respected, appreciating the opportunity to participate in a workshop tailored to their needs.

Following the Focus Group, all participants continued their stay in Grenada to take part in the ICBWG meeting which connected them to the greater ICBWG global community. The enthusiasm and engagement displayed at the Focus Group continued into the ICBWG discussions on subjects beyond ePassports. Furthermore, several participants volunteered to join ICBWG sub-groups and represent their States and region!

The success of these events demonstrated that all States benefit from more inclusive and representative discussions in ICAO’s working groups, given that they lead to more globally representative and holistic SARPs which can be implemented by a greater number of States.

Discover your inner regional champion

As aviation professionals and policymakers exchanged ideas, forged partnerships, and deepened their understanding of diverse perspectives, the events in Grenada underscored the power of international collaboration in overcoming challenges that transcend borders.

Guided by ICAO’s No Country Left Behind initiative, Canada and New Zealand bridged the gap between nations with varying resources and capabilities to work together to ensure that the voices and circumstances of Small Island States are heard and considered in relation to the ePassport standard question. However, efforts to reduce the representation gap and disparity in implementation of SARPs do not end here.

By continuing to place a strong emphasis on supporting smaller and less developed states, Canada and New Zealand demonstrated that with a small upfront financial and time investment, any State can take on the role of a regional champion and host similar events that foster inclusiveness and a diversity of voices at the discussion and decision-making table.

We can all work together to unite nations and build a stronger aviation community for the benefit of all. If your State is interested in joining the ICBWG or learning more about its work and how you can participate in a manner that is appropriate to your circumstances– please reach out to the ICBWG here.

About the Contributor

ICAO’s ICBWG assists with the universal implementation of MRTDs and helps build global capability in related identity management disciplines. Their mandate has grown to include the provision of advice and guidance across a range of travel document and border control/facilitation areas.  The working group holds its meetings around the world to maximize engagement across Member States and support ICAO Regional Seminars. The group  produces guidance material that covers the handling/issuance of travel documents, establishing evidence of identity, and circulating specimen travel documents.

Represented on the working group by officials from the department of Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), Canada has been a longstanding member of the ICBWG and is committed to furthering the shared objectives of the working group.


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