Lost opportunity to build bridges: African Ministers of Agriculture and Trade meeting postponed

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      By postponing next week's meeting of African trade and agriculture ministers in Addis Ababa, the African Union risks losing a real opportunity to promote the opening up of intra-African trade to boost economic growth and develop greater food security on the continent. It's vital that new dates are set soon to allow high-level discussion of these crucial issues to move forward. The African Union unexpectedly postponed the Joint Conference of Ministers of Agriculture and Ministers of Trade scheduled to take place on 1st and 2nd November in Addis Ababa just four days  before it was due to start. A press release announcing the postponement said new dates will be communicated soon. Building on this year's African Union (AU) summit on enhancing regional integration, the theme for the meeting was to have been “Boosting Intra-African Trade: a key to agricultural transformation and ensuring food and nutrition security” The theme could hardly be more relevant. Africa has the lowest levels of intra-regional trade in the world and badly needs to break down barriers to commerce within the continent, in order to achieve food security goals and greater economic growth. Production and markets are not confined within national borders, but trade and infrastructure barriers, as well as political bottlenecks, limit the effectiveness of trade policies and agricultural programmes. The recent food crises in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa could have been largely avoided if regional agricultural markets functioned better. The conference in Addis Ababa would have provided a chance for the ministers of agriculture and trade to discuss ways to jointly tackle those bottlenecks. Its postponement is a lost opportunity, since they were meant to renew their commitment to increased intra-African trade and identify strategies to allow increased cross-border commercial exchanges to boost food security. Two years ago, when ECDPM and other partners began to emphasize the need to build bridges between agriculture and trade policies, programmes and processes, many thought this was not a real priority for Africa. Now there seems to be an increasing consensus on the importance of initiatives like the AU's Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) as tools to integrate trade and agriculture. The Joint Ministerial scheduled for next week could have been a significant step in the right direction. ECDPM has highlighted the synergies between trade and agriculture in a series of publications on the regional dimensions of food security through 2011 and 2012.  Last September, we published a special issue of our monthly magazine GREAT (Governance, Regional integration, Economics, Agriculture and Trade) Insights - a name that points to those inter-sectoral linkages - focused on food security and covering key outstanding issues in the CAADP process. Representatives from farmers' organizations and development partners wrote about the relation between regional cooperation and food security. Other articles explored important questions that challenged the effectiveness of CAADP: what agricultural development model is being promoted by the renewed international attention on food security?; what is the role of climate-smart agriculture?; how are emerging economies like Brazil interacting with African partners to promote food security?; what's the role of the private sector in aid?; what potential does technology offer to fast-track entrepreneurial agricultural development?; how can multilateral institutions support these developments in the light of the new ‘Zero Hunger Challenge’ launched at the Rio+20 Summit?; and how are political economy dynamics affecting national processes? At the AU ministerial meeting planned for next week, the debate on how to bridge trade and agriculture in Africa was supposed to move beyond research and informal policy dialogue to become part of the high-level political agenda. The ministers had decided ahead of the meeting to review and adopt strategies to operationalise the vision of achieving food security in Africa using intra-Africa trade as the key instrument. They noted in particular that linking different agricultural value chains through trade is still one of the fundamental agricultural challenges (see the background concept note for the meeting). The Joint Ministerial was therefore meant to:
      • identify synergies, linkages and complementarities in on-going initiatives in agriculture and trade  development, including CAADP, Aid for Trade and Grow Africa;
      • agree on areas for immediate follow-up actions at country and sub-regional levels, including coordination mechanisms between ministries of agriculture and ministries of trade at member state level, linked to those within the AU's Regional Economic Communities;
      • build consensus on specific areas, approaches and actions for high-level political engagement with AU heads of state and government who will hold their next summit in January.
      Why then was such a promising meeting postponed? According to the press release, the reason was that not enough ministers from AU member states had confirmed their attendance. This is worrying: aren’t African ministers ready yet to work on the integration of trade and agriculture policies for achieving food security on the continent? The ambitious agenda of the Joint Ministerial remains crucial and deserves support. Having worked with African institutions over the years on regional integration, trade policies and more recently on the regional dimensions of CAADP, experts from ECDPM’s trade and food security programmes were invited to the Joint Ministerial and the senior official/expert sessions due to precede it. They were asked to contribute through presentations and the distribution of relevant ECDPM publications and policy briefs. Some of the key messages they intended to take to Addis include:
      • Building bridges between agriculture and trade is so important that it deserves regular discussions at the highest political level. Ministers should agree to institutionalize the Joint Ministerial as a yearly event to better follow up on decisions taken. As 2013 is CAADP’s 10-year anniversary, heads of state should also discuss the importance of intra-African trade for transforming African agriculture when they assess progress made over those 10 years.
      • Ministers should find concrete ways to better involve farmers and the rest of the private sector in ongoing trade and agriculture initiatives. They are crucial to developing the production, processing and marketing infrastructure needed for increasing trade between surplus areas and deficit areas in the continent, thus reducing dependency on food imports from outside Africa.
      • Mechanisms should be found to tackle political bottlenecks such as non-implementation of land reforms or politicians’ direct involvement in staple food production and trade. Political feasibility should be more prominent in the design and implementation of policies and investment plans in agriculture. That should start with the identification of more politically attractive targets for CAADP (e.g. employment, not only agricultural productivity) as well as in trade. Agricultural markets are about food, they are therefore political and cannot be looked at simply through sector-neutral trade measures.
      Given the crucial nature of these issues, we can only wish that the Joint Ministerial is not postponed indefinitely and is rescheduled as soon as possible. Once rescheduled,  ECDPM will gladly contribute through analysis, partnership building and facilitation of frank policy dialogue around trade and agriculture. -- Francesco Rampa is Programme Manager Food Security at ECDPM. This blog post features the author’s personal view and does not represent the view of ECDPM.
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