The UPU acts as a central office for the international postal traffic carried on by its members. In principle, UPU member states retain the revenue they derive from the sale of postage stamps and from other fees and charges for foreign-bound mail. Administrations must, however, reimburse one another for the transportation of foreign mail in intermediate transit and for the imbalance between international mail sent and received (terminal dues). At the end of each year, the International Bureau draws up an annual general clearing account for transit and terminal charges, stating the balances due.
Every two years the International Bureau publishes a general clearing account for the international reply coupons that it supplies to facilitate payment of international correspondence. Some 165 countries now sell these coupons, and all countries must accept them as payment for postage.
The UPU acts as an international clearinghouse for postal information. At the request of postal administrations, the International Bureau circulates inquiries concerning the operation of the various postal systems and makes the replies available to all UPU members. Inquiries may concern domestic, as well as international, postal practices and cover subjects as diverse as the texts of propaganda permitted on letters and packages, mobile post offices on motorboats, the opening of new offices of exchange, introduction of summer time, and national regulations for the dispatch of radioactive substances.
The International Bureau publishes a number of international postal handbooks, including the following: Postal Statistics (internal and international); List of Prohibited Articles (prohibited from the mails); and the Multilingual Vocabulary of the International Postal Service , designed to ensure that terms used by different national postal services convey an identical meaning. The bureau also prepares an annotated edition of UPU legislation, which includes discussion of principles, opinions, decisions, and practices underlying current international postal procedures and the present organization of the union.
If a difference of opinion on the interpretation of UPU legislation between two or more postal administrations cannot be resolved by direct negotiations, the matter is settled by in-house arbitration. The countries concerned may also designate a single arbitrator, such as the International Bureau of the UPU.
The main function of the Universal Postal Congress, as noted above, is to study and revise the acts of the union on the basis of proposals put forward by member countries, the Council of Administration, and the Postal Operations Council. At the 22nd Congress, held in Beijing (August–September) 1999, the UPU outlined the following strategy for the years 2000 to 2004: ensure the provision of a universal postal service, allowing customers to send and receive goods and messages, from any point in the world to any other point; strengthen the quality of the international postal network, providing customers with reliable, secure and efficient postal services; increase the cost-effectiveness of the international postal network, providing customers with affordable postal services; respond effectively, through improved market knowledge and product development, to the needs and expectations of postal service customers; through postal reform and development, enable customers to draw maximum benefit from technological, economic, and regulatory changes in the postal environment; and strengthen and broaden cooperation and interaction among the stake-holders of the postal industry.
The principle of technical assistance is contained in Article 1 of the UPU constitution; it was couched in general terms in order to give the union flexibility in the use of all forms of technical cooperation, present and future.
Requests for UPU assistance in technical cooperation matters cover all sectors: planning, organization, management, operations, training, and financial services. The aid provided comes in three forms: recruiting and sending experts, consultants, or volunteers; granting vocational training or further training fellowships for individual or group courses; and supplying equipment and training or demonstration aids.
The UPU executes country and intercountry projects covering all aspects of the postal services and the three components of experts, fellowships, and equipment. Projects common to several countries, which form a very important part of this program, make it possible to solve, economically and rationally, the problems that arise in a given region, especially by setting up inter-country postal training schools. These regional and interregional projects are carried out in conjunction with the restricted postal unions and the UN regional commissions.
In the 1990s, the UPU undertook a global Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) project. Through the development of computer applications that facilitate international mail processing and allow exchange of electronic data, postal services have the ability to track mail shipments from end to end and to provide customers with tracking information on time-certain products such as expedited mail service (EMS). It is expected that within a few years, exchanges of postal data via EDI will become a common feature of the majority of postal services.
Funds from the UPU budget make it possible to provide additional assistance to that of UNDP—namely, in the form of short consultant missions of three months at most, at the request of the postal administration concerned. A noteworthy feature is that, for many missions, the consultants' countries of origin also share the cost of this form of technical cooperation by continuing to pay all or part of the salaries of their officials during the mission. At the same time, since 1991 the UPU also has funded integrated projects incorporating short-term consultants' missions, vocational training fellowships, and items of minor equipment. The UPU Special Fund, set up in 1966 and maintained by voluntary contributions from member countries, is mainly designed to finance training and to further training activities in the form of fellowships, equipment, and training courses or study cycles. Some developed countries provide the International Bureau with funds for the management of associate experts in order to supplement the staff of ongoing projects and to give young people with sufficient training the opportunity to improve their professional qualifications.
Lastly, under a resolution adopted by the Council of Administration in 1967, governments may avail themselves of technical assistance instead of payment, which they finance themselves from funds in trust; the International Bureau then undertakes to manage the projects implemented in this way. Of course, the UPU, through the International Bureau, continues to act as an intermediary, wherever expedient, for supplying assistance in kind to developing countries on the basis of offers from developed countries. It also has made a special effort in the field of vocational training by assessing the needs to be met and listing the facilities available in the various member countries. This effort is reflected in the establishment or reinforcement of national or multinational schools and the organization of study cycles for the further training of senior staff and of instructor-training courses; with this aid, a large number of postal administrations now have qualified postal instructors.
The 1989 Washington Congress adopted the practice of having major UPU studies divided into specific sub-study areas. The major technical studies covered the following areas: the post and its markets (commercial strategies, delivery network and customer analysis, press and publishing, parcel-post products/services), development of rapid services (EMS and electronic mail), operations and quality of service (improvement of the postal system, monitoring, mail circulation standards), modernization (automation, coding, telematics, technology research), management (international accounting, productivity indices, security, decentralization), human resources (adapting to the demands of competition, training), and postal development.
UPU reports are published as the Collection of Postal Studies, which is available in four languages.