International standards are essential to global markets. By ensuring the safety, performance and interoperability of products, they facilitate global trade while also protecting end users. To help developing and newly industrializing countries to participate in IEC standardization and conformity assessment activities without the financial burden of membership, the IEC established its Affiliate Country Programme in 2001.
Products that are unsafe or do not perform adequately can undermine markets. In an example from rural Ethiopia, the onslaught of poor quality and counterfeit solar PV products – without government approval or product guarantee – has resulted in the failure and/or poor performance of these products. The effect can be financially devastating for households and impede the roll-out of these products.
To help affiliate countries better understand how conformity assessment can help protect against unsafe and poor-quality products, the IEC appointed Trond Sollie to serve as the IEC Ambassador for affiliate country training needs in conformity assessment.
According to Sollie, “In the IEC context, conformity assessment is primarily the demonstration that electric and electronic equipment comply with relevant safety standards. Testing, inspection and certification are part of this concept, either as a stand-alone activity or taken all together or in combination.”
Conformity assessment helps to remove barriers to trade while also providing regulators and consumers with the knowledge that products respect globally recognized standards for safety and performance. “This is, of course, essential for all countries, but increasingly important for developing countries as electrical and electronic products are becoming commonplace for more and more inhabitants,” notes Sollie. “There is a risk of these countries becoming ‘dumping grounds’ for imported sub-standard products which may be unsafe.”
To help affiliate countries participate in the four IEC Conformity Assessment Systems – IECEE, IECQ, IECEx and IECRE – the IEC has set up Affiliate Conformity Assessment status (ACAS). As part of ACAS, affiliate countries are trained to use IEC International Standards and participate in the IEC CA Systems through the recognition of IEC CA certificates at the national level.
As Sollie explains, “The web-based ACAS training modules are an excellent ‘academic entrance’ for understanding the basics of the IEC CA Systems and a stepping-stone for getting further involved. It is a good starting point for national electrotechnical committees (NEC) to ensure that also conformity assessment is part of their national agenda.”
Many affiliate countries have benefited from the participation in ACAS. In Ecuador, for example, ACAS training was first given to the staff of the NEC before rolling out to NEC members and other interested parties. As a result, the NEC has actively participated in IEC CA working group meetings with the aim of developing new markets to export their electrotechnical products.
According to Sollie, “IEC CA Systems are unique as no such international certification schemes exist in other product areas. All IEC members and affiliates should therefore take maximum advantage of these systems.”
One key feature of the IEC CA Systems is the mutual acceptance of test reports and certificates. This facilitates trade among participating countries and certification organizations by promoting the harmonization of standards and cooperation among certification bodies worldwide. Sollie highlights the IECEE CB scheme which offers “safety assurance of electrical and electronic consumer products and which is therefore relevant for all countries”.
The IEC participates in numerous workshops and seminars around the world to help affiliate countries understand the benefits of standardization and conformity assessment. Unfortunately, as Sollie remarks, “Due to the restrictions in travel and social contact as a result of the coronavirus, the possibilities for participating in such events became quickly rather limited.”
Despite the lack of travel, new opportunities have emerged as events transitioned online. For instance, the Pan American Standards Commission (COPANT) and the IEC Latin America Regional Centre (IEC-LARC) co-hosted a webinar about the IEC Conformity Assessment Systems last May. “It was a successful webinar held with separate English and Spanish sessions, attended by about 150 people from 12 countries,” notes Sollie.
Discussions are also underway to organize a similar webinar for the African region together with the African Electrotechnical Standards Commission (AFSEC) and the IEC Africa Regional Centre (IEC AFRC). As Sollie remarks, “I have been in contact with the AFSEC secretariat about their process of preparing a conformity assessment guide for their member countries, and possibly at the same time map what CA schemes they may be considering”.
Plans are also underway in the Asian region. According to Sollie, “I know that the new Affiliate Leader from Mongolia, Battsengel Gurragchaa, is concerned about assisting affiliate countries with their CA schemes too.”
Understanding the specific training needs of affiliate countries is also a priority. Together with the IEC Academy, the IEC Affiliate Country Programme is currently preparing a survey to be completed by affiliate countries. “The outcome of this survey will be interesting and should be a good basis for planning of further activities,” concludes Sollie.