Bilal, S. 2013. Thematic focus: Political economy of regional integration. GREAT Insights, Volume 2, Issue 6. September 2013. Maastricht: ECDPM.
Regional integration is high on the political agenda of many leaders, in particular in Africa. In many respects, achievements have been quite remarkable, notably in terms of political, economic, security and institutional cooperation and/or integration on the African continent. Yet, disappointment often prevails, as actual implementation of agreements and protocols often does not match the declared ambitions. While the complexity of the regional integration agenda is acknowledged, the resulting implementation gap is most commonly attributed to the lack of political will and leadership, institutional weaknesses and multiple capacity and resources constraints. The credibility of some of the integration processes has also been called into question.
Remedies often focus on the strategy for and design of regional integration, its scope and speed, institutional development and technical constraints, as well as financing. However, insufficient attention is generally devoted to understanding the underlying dynamics of integration, at national and regional levels, and how these interact across and within countries. A more process-oriented approach, notably taking into accounts incentives, driving and blocking forces to the regional dynamics, can help explain not only the perceived mismatched between regional integration expectations and implementation, but it can also help identify possible avenues towards more sustainable and effective regional integration and cooperation.
Bearing such considerations in mind, ECDPM has initiated a stream of work on the political economy of regional integration in Africa, combining forces with the African Development Bank and leading think tanks such as the South African Institute of International Affairs, among others. The objective is to contribute to promoting a better understanding and more systematic assessment of some of the factors driving and constraining regional integration. While many policy makers and interested stakeholders are often fully aware of such political economy dimensions, they are generally discussed only in an informal and ad hoc manner. A more transparent systematisation of this existing information may, however, have significant benefits. It could contribute to remedying some of the asymmetric information problems around the regional integration agenda, generate a broader awareness and debate by involving stakeholders that may not otherwise be included, and ultimately lead to more realistic and therefore effective regional policy design and processes. The role of the private sector, and various vested interests, is a case in point – while some private sector actors can be against potentially increased imports, it is also important to identify potential beneficiaries, the role that the private sector can play in driving the regional process and hold governments to account, and of course the degree to which the benefits contribute to creating more and better jobs.
Understanding the dynamics of economic integration requires not only to identify the drivers and supporters of regional processes, but also those that may be negatively affected by regional competition and thus resist a too ambitious economic integration agenda. The way these actors interact with political processes is then fundamental for how regional integration will take place.
The range of articles in this issue of GREAT Insights illustrate some of the dynamics of integration, to stimulate reflection on the institutional, political, structural and economic processes at play. We hope you enjoy it and welcome further reactions and contributions.
San Bilal is Head of the Economic Governance, and Trade and Regional Integration Programmes at ECDPM.
This article was published in GREAT Insights Volume 2, Issue 7 (October 2013).