Bruce Byiers, Poorva Karkare, Alfonso Medinilla and Amanda Bisong, ECDPM commentary, 31 May 2021
For Africa Day 2021, commemorating the founding of the African Union (AU)’s predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), we asked our team working on African institutions and regional dynamics to share their thoughts on key processes shaping the AU’s role in African and global affairs. In the second commentary of a two-part series, Bruce Byiers, Poorva Karkare, Alfonso Medinilla and Amanda Bisong zoom in on trade and movement in pursuit of a green recovery.
Last week, Philomena Apiko, Lidet Tadesse and Martin Ronceray took a governance and security perspective.
It seems hard to talk about Africa Day and the AU without mentioning the huge efforts that have been going into making the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) a reality. The hope is that the AfCFTA will also serve as Africa’s post-COVID recovery plan, as expressed by Wamkele Mene, the AfCFTA secretary general. But while it is an impressive feat to have come so far so fast with such an ambitious trade deal, the expected benefits of the AfCFTA will also depend on multiple other regional and continental agendas. Think for instance of trade facilitation measures and infrastructures along transport corridors and at borders, measures to facilitate movement of people, not to mention harmonised standards and productive capabilities for companies to actually use the trade deal.
Though there are regional and continental agendas around each of these, experience underlines the challenge of fully implementing regional or continental agreements across multiple countries that face distinct political economy challenges. One question is therefore whether the AfCFTA alters the existing regional political economy dynamics enough to make ‘this time different’. There will be new opportunities for trade for sure, but another possibility is that the unarguable political momentum generated by the AfCFTA triggers political pressure to implement other supporting regional agendas. That would create a circular relationship between the AfCFTA and wider regional public good provision, potentially even as far as energy pooling and river water management, which play a part in environmentally sustainable economic transformation.
The political traction seems real, but all this puts a lot of hopes on one free trade agreement. At the same time, failure to meet people’s expectations will also risk political disenchantment or worse. This puts the AfCFTA even more at the heart of the African Union’s broader ‘Africa we want’ project, and makes it a fundamental part of achieving a peaceful and prosperous continent.
Apart from being a trade deal, the AfCFTA also has the ambition to promote industrialisation through regional value chains, as building blocks towards the much-needed structural transformation and poverty reduction. This, however, is difficult to do in practice. How to arrive at a common understanding of what such regional value chains would look like? Who will produce what and how? And what roles should different countries play in providing their markets to consume goods that are regionally produced? Industrial policy is back in fashion and a topic of discussion in more and more policy circles. But just how compatible it is with regional trade liberalisation and the AfCFTA remains a crucial question, where national interests often come to dominate regional or continental ambitions.
At the AU level, the African Union Development Agency, AUDA-NEPAD, has been given a role in coordinating key regional and continental projects that can promote further integration. This includes shaping a continental industrial policy, while promoting informed debate on industrialisation, through the recently launched Policy Bridge Tank.
But industrial development is not just a technical process, so again political economy challenges make this particular goal of regional industrialisation even more ambitious. At a regional level, industrialisation strategies have often struggled due to national political economy dynamics. Certainly there are lessons to be learnt from other regions in the world that have managed to do this, but now the question is: How to do it in an African context? And what role can the AU or AUDA-NEPAD play in this that somehow complements national concerns? These are crucial questions that need to be answered before progressing towards designing any interventions.
Extreme weather events have become a routine reminder of the disastrous effects of global warming on African countries and economies. Global and African leaders have adopted a ‘green recovery’ narrative, calling to build their economies back better. The challenge will be to turn this into a reality that builds on the AfCFTA to turn the tide of the COVID-19-triggered recession, but also allows African economies to leapfrog carbon-intensive technologies and benefit from an accelerated green economic development trajectory.
Throughout the pandemic, the African Union has been present in global and multilateral fora through its chairperson. The G20 summit in October and COP26 in November are key moments to link the climate and economic recovery agendas, and to focus on specific needs and circumstances of African countries. Africa’s green recovery will to a large extent depend on the ability to increase the fiscal space available to African countries. Leaders will need to cultivate the renewed momentum for a just and green global recovery, including through an ambitious reform of the international sovereign debt architecture.
In 2021, the tone has shifted from crisis management to seeing a global green recovery as an opportunity. While the green transition, including Africa’s growing renewables market and food economy, offers business and investment opportunities, this should not be at the expense of decisive action on climate change adaptation and biodiversity conservation.
Allocating a critical mass of climate finance to adaptation measures will not only be critical as a long-term investment in climate action, it is also a condition for an inclusive and just green transformation of the continent. Efforts to ‘democratise’ the UN Food Systems Summit in September could make it a key opportunity to connect the green recovery narrative with concrete actions for sustainable, inclusive and resilient African food economies. But the AU may have its work cut out to arrive at a common African position for the summit given competing national interests and positions.
Trade, industrialisation and a green recovery are all closely linked to how easily people can create livelihoods. Migration therefore remains a key topic in AU discussions – for instance on the AfCFTA and the AU protocol on the free movement of persons – as well as in high-level strategic discussions between the AU and other regions, such as the European Union (EU) or the Middle East and Gulf countries.
Labour migration is one of the areas where the African Union Commission (AUC) has promoted the implementation of coherent migration policies aimed at improving work conditions for migrants, reducing informality and granting migrants and their families access to social and other welfare services. Labour migration is an important element for the economic growth and post-pandemic recovery of the continent.
But the COVID-19 pandemic led governments to impose lockdowns and restrictions to the mobility of people, suspending free movement protocols and closing borders. In addition, there were mass expulsions of labour migrants as a result of job losses in destination countries, especially in the Gulf and Middle East countries. A statement issued by the AUC’s Labour Migration Advisory Committee highlighted the specific challenges faced by African migrant workers and their families and called on states to include migrant workers in their comprehensive responses to the pandemic, to avoid exposing migrant workers to further vulnerability. However, a year later, these returnees still face high domestic unemployment, limited or absent social systems and no support in reintegrating into their communities of origin.
The AU can play an important role in pushing for alignment and harmonisation of labour market needs and realities across all African countries. National governments are ultimately responsible for creating the national regulations to facilitate labour mobility on the continent. In the meantime, the AUC is implementing pilot measures across regional economic communities on streamlining processes, qualifications, skills recognition, portability of social benefits and other critical areas where states require support on labour migration, including in the signing of bilateral labour agreements with destination countries.
The AU, by promoting the implementation of policy frameworks and international agreements, is creating a coherent migration governance framework that emphasises respect for the human rights of migrants, promoting regular migration and harnessing the developmental effects of migration in communities of origin and destination (especially through diaspora engagement and facilitating the transfer of remittances). But, to achieve this, migration will need to become an integral part of the national, regional and continental economic and social development strategies.
Africa Day itself took place in the context of a triple crisis. In addition to vaccine shortages, 2020 saw the start of the first African recession in 25 years, leading to a sharp increase in poverty and vulnerability across the continent. The AU has a suite of policies, strategies and processes that can help address these, but implementation is key, and that is often where continental and regional programmes fall short. The hope is that the political momentum behind the AfCFTA process allied to the common threat from the pandemic and climate change can combine to alter national political interests, allowing greater collaboration across countries that will ultimately allow citizens to pursue their livelihoods in ever more peaceful and prosperous conditions.
The views are those of the authors and not necessarily those of ECDPM.
Photo courtesy of Paul Kagame via Flickr.
Head of African Institutions and Regional Dynamics Programme
Policy Officer Economic and Agricultural Transformation Programme
Policy Officer Economic and Agricultural Transformation Programme and European External Affairs Programme