Bilal, S. 2016. Regional integration dynamics in Africa: Editorial. GREAT Insights Magazine, Volume 5, Issue 4. July/August 2016.
Regional integration holds many promises, generates many fears, and results in many disappointments. This is because levels of ambitions often differ among regional partners and among domestic actors, and do not match implementation realities. Progress and achievements are often overlooked, whereas difficulties and constraints encountered are emphasised. And integration agendas are commonly criticised for not sufficiently reflecting domestic concerns and interests.
The Brexit debate, with the recent decision by the majority of the British voters to leave the European Union, and the echoes and reactions it generated in Europe and beyond, is a reminder of the tensions and passions that regional integration can generate. Among others, it demonstrates once more the importance of political leadership and vision, at regional and domestic levels; the need to connect with and involve the people in regional integration destinies; the role of information, explanation, transparency and managing realistic expectations; the emotional dimension related to national and regional debates; and the need to involve young people in building a regional future.
All these dimensions are traditionally overlooked when dealing with regional integration, where the focus is generally on institutional settings, policy design and technical capacities. To remedy such a short-sighted approach, it is thus necessary to pay greater attention to the various dynamics that shape and affect regional integration. This is an endeavour that ECDPM is committed to, including with this issue of GREAT Insights, which brings together a number of insights and perspectives on some of these characteristics and dimensions that shape various regional integration initiatives in Africa.
Regional integration plays an important role in Africa’s political rhetoric and vision, and has contributed to shape Africa’s political, economic and institutional landscape. They involve numerous formalised regional cooperation and integration processes at the sub-regional, regional, and continental levels. Regional organisations in Africa have taken on central roles and fulfil multiple functions in promoting regional cooperation and regional integration. This has led to the articulation of broad and ambitious integration agendas. Yet, implementation of these agendas has often been slow and hampered by many obstacles, leading to what is commonly referred to as an ‘implementation gap’.
Regional institutions in Africa do matter. They serve an important role of political legitimacy, as a channel for exchanges among leaders in a region. However, they do not necessarily serve the purpose or function they claim to serve. This is commonly attributed to the weakness of some institutions, which, it is assumed, can then be directly remedied with appropriate capacity building. This explanation ignores underlying dynamics that are often more complex. Reforms aimed at improving the effectiveness of regional organisations should thus focus on the core functions such organisations are attempting to perform, with a greater chance of demand for improved functions through problem solving and the likely coalition building this requires or involves.
A critical role is played by big and powerful countries, which are in a strong position to influence regional agendas and their implementation, contributing to driving it or blocking it, depending on their national interests and positions towards their regional partners. Charismatic regional leaders, at the head of their country or of the regional organisations, can also exercise strong influence. However, in spite of political legitimacy and consensus building, even with the formal support of strong regional actors, collective decisions taken at the regional level do not necessarily imply in practice a commitment by all partners to act upon and implement such decisions: member states can face incentives to signal their support for regional integration (based on longer term vision) even when implementation is not a domestic priority (at least in the short term). Ultimately, implementation at domestic level largely depends on national interests and priorities, as defined by domestic ruling elites, which may diverge from national positions taken at regional levels and resulting regional decisions. Although a regional agenda is largely aspirational, it can also be driven by more immediate and pragmatic concerns and interests by member states’ interests. These differences also explain the different implementation dynamics experienced in different sectors and policy areas. Non-state actors, such as private sector and civil society organisations, do play some role in regional dynamics, but their impact on regional organisations often remains limited. Their interests and engagements tend to coalesce around relatively narrow and specific agendas, which tend to be still mainly expressed through domestic channels.
Underlying all of these dynamics, long-run structural factors (e.g. geography, history, economic structures) continue to impact on how countries react within a region, while in the short-term, critical junctures can very quickly alter incentives and offer opportunities (or challenges) for taking regional cooperation forward.
Finally, support from donors can help stimulate cooperation and integration processes, though it can often detract from member state ownership, thereby risking effective implementation in the long run. Beyond the significant quantity of aid, it is the quality of aid that really matters. Yet, donors, as external actors, do not operate outside the political economy dynamics of regional integration, but are an integral and often important part of it.
This issue of GREAT Insights presents various perspectives along these dimensions, which we hope you will enjoy. As always, your comments and reactions are most welcomed.
This article was published in GREAT Insights Volume 5, Issue 4 (July/August 2016).