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Why aiding regional integration in Africa does not work


Söderbaum, F. 2016. Why aiding regional integration in Africa does not work. GREAT Insights Magazine, Volume 5, Issue 4. July/August 2016.

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Many donors are enthusiastically supporting regional cooperation and integration in Africa. This article gives two main reasons why external support to regional cooperation and integration in Africa does not work so well.

Regional cooperation and integration in Africa have deepened and expanded considerably in the last two decades and many donors are enthusiastically supporting these processes. For instance, the EU provides several billion euro to the African Union (AU), the Regional Economic Communities (RECs) and other regional actors and organisations. While the World Bank was previously reluctant to support state-led regionalist projects in Africa, it has recently increased its support to regional integration in Sub-Saharan Africa considerably. Many other multilateral agencies (such as the African Development Bank, the Global Environment Facility and the United Nations), as well as influential bilateral development partners (such as Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and the United Kingdom), are also deeply engaged in aiding regional cooperation and integration in Africa.

Drawing on the results of a recent report by Fredrik Söderbaum and Therese Brolin for the Expert Group for Aid Studies (EBA), this article brings attention to some of the main reasons why external support to regional cooperation and integration in Africa does not work.

Too much focus on the AU and RECs

A key feature of many donor strategies is that they focus heavily on state-led and intergovernmental regional organisations (ROs), particularly the AU and the RECs, such as the East African Community (EAC), the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and the Southern African Development Community (SADC). Even if other organisations and non-state actors are often recognised, most donors believe that their external support should first and foremost go to those actors and mechanisms that help to realise the so called African integration agenda, namely the AU and the RECs.

There is little doubt that supporting intergovernmental ROs may be fruitful when such organisations are functional, effective and contribute to the achievement of regional and global public goods. It should be recognised that many observers claim that the AU and the RECs are performing better today than in the past, at least partly thanks to external capacity-building support. However, it cannot be disputed that many state-led ROs (AU and RECs in particular) are struggling with both internal and external challenges and limitations. Some intergovernmental ROs in Africa are clearly dysfunctional and demonstrate major ‘implementation gaps’. In these cases, there is little evidence to support the idea that the large sums of money provided by mainly Western donors for capacity building and institutional development has yielded positive and sustainable development outcomes. There is considerable research that helps to explain why some ROs are dysfunctional and fail to function as portrayed in official treaties. Many donors therefore need to broaden their horizons and consider different options and strategies regarding what works and why in this field.

Another problem with the donor community’s strong focus on the AU, the RECs and other intergovernmental ROs is the marginalisation of both private business and civil society actors in many of these organisations. Although there are some signs of improvement, there is considerable empirical evidence that private business and civil society actors are excluded from many intergovernmental ROs in Africa. Both research and donor evaluations show that this exclusion of ‘bottom-up’ forces of regionalisation largely explains why the results of state-led and ‘top-down’ regionalism in Africa have been so modest. A more diversified and balanced strategy is therefore needed to acknowledge the role of the private sector and civil society in regional development cooperation and in solving Africa’s development challenges. This requires, among other things, more flexible institutional solutions and a greater diversity of implementing partners than top-down and state-centric intergovernmental ROs. It is therefore necessary to be more realistic about the positive and negative effects of outside support to ROs and to identify which regional frameworks to support in a given situation.

The neglect of development’

When studying different donor strategies in this field, it is striking how much attention is given to regional cooperation mechanisms and capacity building of ROs rather than to development and poverty reduction. This results in two overlapping problems: (i) the confusion of means and ends, and (ii) a strong emphasis on activities and outputs instead of long-term development results. Thus, there is too much confusion over what donors actually mean by regional development cooperation and by external support of regional cooperation and integration in Africa. Donors need to become more precise and also redirect focus away from outputs and means (the level of regional cooperation and ‘capacity building regionalism’) to ends, improved living conditions and poverty reduction. A different approach would help donors make better-informed decisions about which development actors to cooperate with and why, and it would help them shift focus from activities and outputs to long-term development impact.

This is closely related to monitoring, evaluation and the way ‘results’ are reported. While evidence suggests that regional development cooperation is often both relevant and achieves results, there is little agreement about what constitutes a good result, how and when it should be evaluated, or whose results should count and why. While these problems are related to confusions about ends/means and how to best support regional integration, they also emerge as a result of insufficient monitoring and evaluation tools. Indeed, the evidence base is poor and data are mainly available on activities and outputs while there is an almost complete lack of data on long-term development impact. The monitoring and evaluation reports often vary in quality and may therefore lead to donors making inappropriate priorities and decisions about which development actors to cooperate with and why. A better knowledge base is therefore needed in order to improve the monitoring and evaluation of regional development cooperation.

It follows that donors need to increase knowledge within relevant ministries and agencies. There is fairly limited knowledge within the donor community about the relevance of regional development cooperation and regionalism in dealing with global and regional challenges. This undermines the effectiveness of aid in general and regional development cooperation in particular. It also means that much of the potential of regional cooperation and integration in Africa remains untapped.

The complete study discussed in this article ‘Support to regional cooperation and integration in Africa: what works and why?’ can be found at

About the author


Prof Fredrik Söderbaum is Professor at the School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg, Sweden.

Photo: Passing South African-Botswanian border near Zeerust. Photo: Pe_Wu,

This article was published in GREAT Insights Volume 5, Issue 4  (July/August 2016).

Economic recovery and transformationAfrican Union (AU)Regional Economic Communities (RECs)Africa

External authors

Fredrik Söderbaum