Regional integration and the girl from Goma (part 1)

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      Building Bridges got off to an exciting start last week in tackling one key question for Africa’s development: what is holding back regional economic integration?

      Its first workshop brought thirty strategic thinkers together to engage in strategic reflections on ‘the political economy of African Economic Integration’. The Building Bridges programme is part of the new Graduate School of Development Policy and Practice at the University of Cape Town. The School’s mission is to inspire ‘strategic public leadership in Africa’.

      [This is part 1. Next week’s blog will tell more about the content of the workshop].

      The girl from Goma

      From the start, Trevor Manuel, South Africa’s former Minister of Finance and champion of the widely acclaimed National Development Plan 2030, helped set the tone. “Imagine telling a girl in conflict-ridden Goma about the benefits of regional integration” How can regional integration contribute to improving her life? There was a good mix of mainly African experts: some with hands-on experience of regional processes such as Joao Caholo (former SADC Deputy Executive Secretary), Hanief Ibrahim (South African Presidency), Faizel Ismail (former Permanent Representation to the World Trade Organisation), Febe Potgieter-Gqubule (Advisor to the AU Commission Chairperson), Cleo Rose-Innes (Chief Director at South Africa’s National Treasury), and others.

      Others with academic, think tank and NGO backgrounds such as Thandika Mkandawire (now Chair in African Development at the London School of Economics), Ebrima Sall (Executive Secretary of CODESRIA), Trudi Hartzenberg (Executive Director of TRALAC), Simon Ng’ona (Executive Director at CUTS International Lusaka), etc.

      No bullets 

      They had a frank and bullet-point free conversation under Chatham House rules about what is holding back regional integration on the African continent. The beneficial effect of increased trade and greater market integration on development is obvious. Global challenges ranging from increased competition, terrorism and insecurity to climate change don’t halt at borders, and affect Africa’s chances of sustainable growth and economic transformation.

      There is no time to lose. Trevor made that clear by imposing (only half-jokingly) a fine of fifty Rand for any participant looking too long in the rear mirror. So there were little references the multiple formal agreements and protocols of the official regional and pan-African organisations. Another fifty Rand fine was proposed for anyone mentioning “lack of political will” as the explanation for lack of progress. A political economy approach should help unpack the various actors and factors that block – or push – regional integration, and more broadly regional cooperation.

      This workshop was a good forum in which to find out what to do about “wicked problems” in Africa. Regional economic integration is a wicked development problem. Such problems are hard to understand (complexity, competing narratives on causes and effects, cultural and political sensitivities, etc.) and hard to solve. In fact, all regions in the world face difficulties with regional integration. The discussions centred on seven clusters of questions that tackle here-and-now issues: where, how and why is integration working or not working? What lessons can be learned from Regional Economic Communities? How do global power dynamics and changes impact economic integration in Africa? What range of roles do private sector actors play? And what about civil society, parliaments, media?  And who can do what to create momentum in support of regional integration?

      How to make regional economic integration happen?

      Participants discussed ways of how to cut through the complexities and answer the above questions. In every regional process, a set of issues interacts. While these issues were given different names or different attributes, they boil down to the same key things:

      • The initial conditions and structural features
      • Formal and informal institutions or rules of the game
      • The range of actors in the regional setting (both public and non-governmental, including the oft downplayed private stakeholders or informal traders)
      • The specific technical and political characteristics that differ from subsector to subsector (regional transport is different from road construction, is different from transport corridor, is different from electricity supply, is different from water management, is different from peace and security, etc.)
      • The global drivers that are often ignored – but can have a profound impact on the direction of regional processes. Climate change, new modes of transport such as containerisation, changing demand for natural resources. And one should also include the old and new donors. They are a as a peculiar set of external drivers, as they often operate in an embedded way through their policy dialogue, technical assistance and finance related conditionality frameworks with regional or national public authorities 

      So who or what will carry regional economic integration forward in Africa? An obvious candidate for heading a to-do list in such a setting is the policy research agenda. Knowledge gaps and policy priorities that merit urgent attention include the private sector in Africa, infrastructure development, the challenges and opportunities that regional hegemons (such as South Africa and Nigeria) bring, the need for widening the discussion and the accountability arrangements, etc.

      The Building Bridges programme will build on the findings of this workshop (a report is expected beginning of 2015) and organise workshops with youth (March 2015), and with policymakers and other stakeholders (other events planned for later in 2015). The Graduate School of Development Policy and Practice seeks to contribute to developing the strategic public leadership in Africa for tackling this and other wicked problems. To do that, it combines the Building Bridges networking drive between public leaders and experts, with a Master of Philosophy programme in development policy and practice, with executive courses for senior public officials and non-profit organisations, and a research centre on governance and development.

      This experts’ workshop of the Building Bridges marked the encouraging beginning of what may become the hallmark of GSDPP: strategic conversations, which - combined with the right dose of research, sensitisation and mobilisation - may inspire public leadership and non-state contributions to strategic engagement on wicked problems.


      This blog is the view of the authors and not necessarily that of ECDPM

      Pic thanks to Building Bridges UCT

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