The mood at the 2013 African Economic Conference was clear – progress on regional integration in Africa has been slow. The EU is an obvious candidate to support African regional organisations’ (ROs) to drive the regional integration agenda, given its historic experience and diplomatic presence in the ROs’ member states. Yet the EU did not have a strong showing at the conference.
Political issues continue to hamper the effective use of EU funds to promote regional integration. Despite the insistence that “we are the regions”, RO’s struggle to gain legitimacy and credibility from their member states. Domestic priorities of African countries tend to override commitments to regional integration. Peace and security issues have in part dominated economic integration in the regional agendas. Complicated overlapping membership structures have not helped matters – a striking parallel with Europe.
Old Wounds, New Clothes
Regional programmes funded through the European Development Fund (EDF) are a case of “the Emperor’s new clothes”. The EU wants to promote regional integration, but doubts the capacity of ROs to manage regional funds and projects. ROs claim to be the engine of regional integration, but lack the resources and backing from their member states necessary to advance the agenda.
In addition, European Commission administrative and financial procedures prove cumbersome, an issue highlighted by the European Court of Auditors in 2009 and that resurfaced again in the 10th EDF mid-term review. To the frustration of the African parties, programming discussions were closely linked to the protracted and politically sensitive EPA negotiations.
This not only made it a painful exercise to get projects off the ground, but also undermined the fragile political leadership of ROs. Due to a lack of feasible projects (i.e. with full approval from the EC, RO and member states), part of the funding for regional programmes was reallocated to the Sustainable Energy for All initiative.
Regional programming for the 11th EDF has at long last officially kicked off. Discussions on priority areas of cooperation and the Regional Indicative Programmes (RIPs) are underway and judging from early talks, the parties seem to have a mutual appreciation of the issues at hand. This brings me to the key question – what is being done to ensure that RIPs breathe new life into the promise of regional integration?
A New Deal
ROs have fought hard to remain in the lead of the programming process and will lead or be consulted on all aspects of the programming. Concrete efforts have been made to bring clarity to the structure and objectives of regional funds. Grouped RIPs will be drawn up (see figure), covering multiple ROs with one strategy. The RIPs nouveau stil are split into three parts:
ROs secured a prominent role in the management structure of the RIPs. They will co-chair the high-level steering committee providing strategic orientations and guidelines for the specific envelopes (alongside regional EU Delegations). While their member states will be able to directly access funding from the different parts noted above, all funding decisions are on the basis of non-objection by the ROs.
Draft RIPs are scheduled to be ready in June, and fully endorsed by October this year. The more prominent role of the ROs in driving the regional integration agenda alongside the EU means they will need to put on a show of strength of their coordinating and collaborating capacity over the next few months.
Proof is in the Programming
It will be important for the ROs to navigate political factors underlying the technical issues of jointly designing and implementing cross-border programmes for regional integration. Without a clear idea of the political feasibility of projects and programmes (in addition to the financial, technical or socio-economic feasibility), the costly and time-consuming process of identifying regional integration projects could be for nothing.
Questions are also outstanding on how EU blending works in practice. Given the high stakes of infrastructure projects, the programming process would need to address how to balance financial incentives with regional integration objectives while institutionalising transparency and accountability.
Recent ECDPM work on the political economy of regional integration in Southern Africa demonstrates that investments in ‘hard’ infrastructure alone are not enough to promote regional integration. ‘Soft infrastructure’ such as regulatory frameworks and accountability mechanisms proved key in developing the Maputo Development Corridor and North-South transport corridors.
What other issues do you think should be kept in mind for EU funding for regional integration over the next seven years?
The views expressed here are those of the author, and may not necessarily represent those of ECDPM.
Photo courtesy of Marjolein Vegers.