More Realism in Africa's Regional Integration

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    “Why do I sit in the dark for four days? Regional Integration is the cause of our darkness.” This pointed and enlightening remark was heard at a Pretoria workshop on regional integration in Southern Africa (1). One participant highlighted some of the difficulties posed by a combination of ill-justified trust in a powerful neighbour and overreliance on that neighbour’s energy production capacity.

    For years Botswana bought some of the world’s cheapest electricity from South Africa’s Electricity Supply Commission. While Botswana disposes of bigger coal reserves than South Africa, the country declined to develop sufficient production capacity of electricity to keep its own mines running and to service its households. So when ESCOM reduced electricity supplies to its northern neighbour, recurring power cuts were the direct result.

    This anecdote summarised well some of the sentiments, difficulties and dilemmas facing supporters of improved regional integration in Africa. A dialogue event was facilitated by ECDPM/SAIIA as one stocktaking moment in a programme to gather more evidence on political and economic drivers and obstacles to regional integration in the Southern African region. The workshop brought together representatives or practitioners from the private and public sectors, as well as academia, intermediary organisations engaging in facilitation of regional or cross-border initiatives, and donors.

    While regional integration comes with many promises of developmental outcomes, the actual practice on the ground is more sobering. There is a big diversity in national interests and the distribution of power and resources between and within states is vast. Trust levels are shaky as there are insufficient formal and informal institutions that can guarantee essential functions such as planning, contract enforcement, conflict and dispute resolution, project preparations, etc. Hence the gulf between what the protocols of the formal regional institutions promise and what the member states (of the African Union and its eight Regional Economic Communities) deliver.

    The regional integration agenda is complex and unwieldy involving multiple economic and other (sub)sectors and stakeholders with even more (open or hidden) agendas. To cut through these complexities ECDPM/SAIIA narrowed the scope of the workshop agenda and their research. Instead of measuring the gap between regional policies and their actual implementation, both organisations preferred to focus on more or less successful examples of cross-border cooperation. Sector specific examples of bottom-up regional integration involving multiple state and non-state actors were prioritised. The workshop discussions revolved around the economic and political actors and factors that contribute to success or obstruct it, and cross-border processes such as infrastructure development (especially transport corridors), water, energy, etc.

    Regional integration policies, compacts, statements and protocols are being debated and agreed at the level of formal regional institutions. Yet it is at the country level that most of the real life drivers and obstacles for policy implementation can be found. The lively exchanges during this workshop encouraged ECDPM to probe further. We recycled five lenses from existing political economy tools and from political economy research programmes and studies. Some donors have developed analytical tools for country and sector level analysis. The OECD has designed a tool (2) to help unravel and understand how global drivers influence key stakeholders and the domestic political economy in particular countries and sectors. Furthermore, political economy research programmes on growth, the investment climate, ruling elites and political settlements, state-business relations, specific governance features of specific sectors, etc. further contributed to sharpen the focus and the use of these five lenses, and to help answer key questions about when and why political elites, state bureaucrats and key sector actors engage purposefully in cross-border (and eventually in formal regional) cooperation.

    These five lenses include: 1. Structural and foundational factors; 2. Formal and informal institutions; 3. Actors and Agency; 4. Zooming in on sector characteristics and 5. Zooming out to global and regional drivers. Using these five political economy lenses may help structure information (that often is already implicitly or randomly available) by analysing the interactions between context specific structural factors, political incentives and institutional settings. It may contribute to a better understanding of the resolve of political elites, state bureaucrats and key sector actors to engage in specific forms of cross-border cooperation or more ambitious regional integration. This approach can be helpful in basically three ways. It helps to move away from the orthodoxy of best practice models of regional integration as it invites to look more carefully into the context specifics that influence reform processes. Secondly, it offers some conceptual handles to be more explicit and transparent about certain assumptions, especially assumptions about who or what matters in driving particular change or reform processes. And thirdly, this type of diagnostics can be helpful for key stakeholders, reformers or external supporters of processes of functional or formal regional integration.

    Jan Vanheukelom is Senior Adviser Political Economy & Governance at ECDPM.

    ECDPM and SAIIA conducted a joint research and dialogue project on the Political Economy of Regional Integration in Southern Africa, including the dialogue mentioned above. The support of the Dialogue Facility of the South- Africa EU Strategic Partnership is greatly acknowledged. The various outputs of this activity will be coming soon. Please see: 



    1. High-level Dialogue on the Drivers and Politics of Regional Integration in Southern Africa, 2-3 July 2013, Pretoria,
    2. OECD (2011) International Drivers of Corruption: A Tool for Analysis, Paris: OECD 

    This article was published in GREAT Insights Volume 2, Issue 7 (October 2013).


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