A collaborative platform promoting regional integration

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    Issues of visas, free movement of people, encouraging cultural, academic, leadership exchanges are crucial and key to regional integration. Governments need to be a key part of the conversation and encouraged not to be limited by national domestic agendas for short political gain.
    African economic integration remains a critical pillar for the continent’s industrialisation and development. Yet the focus of the discussion on the weakness of Africa’s integration agenda continues to advance the same views, namely the lack of political will, negligible intra-continental trade, and poor implementation of targeted milestones. Building Bridges is a leadership platform at the University of Cape Town that seeks to leverage the unique convening power of the university environment to bring together influential Africans and others to deepen understanding of the key challenges affecting our continent, including how to promote regional integration. The approach of the Graduate School of Development Policy and Practice (GSDPP), in partnership with several African institutions, has been to bring people together in informal forums, to facilitate an inter-generational exchange of ideas. We convened several meetings to broaden the conversation on regional integration outside of regional economic communities (RECs) and political and technocratic corridors by hosting several conversations between different stakeholders, in different locations, characterised by an informal, frank and largely ego-free exchanges where titles and positions were left at the door. Using a political economy lens the meetings (six in total) in four different cities (Cape Town, Dar es Salaam, Dakar and Lusaka) sought to understand where things stand on progress for, the drivers of, and challenges and obstacles to regional integration. Our guiding rationale was how do we build coalitions to support reform and to neutralise the forces standing in the way? Leadership, partnership and, most importantly, participation ensured that these conversations happened under the collaborative platform of Building Bridges in order to generate collective understanding and build new networks. Arguably the process was as important as the content. Along with the ‘knowledge in the room’ we drew on the excellent research content contributions of, among others, UNECA, AfDB, ECDPM, and the World Bank to inform the process. We brought together experts, policymakers, young African leaders, business people, civil society activists, media and public officials in a facilitated inter-generational dialogue. The stewardship of Senior Fellows, Professors Thandika Mkandawire and Trevor Manuel, was key in crafting the agenda for each meeting; the Partnership of the UONGOZI Institute of Sustainable African Leadership in Tanzania, the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA) who co-hosted our Dakar meeting, and the UNECA Regional Office for Southern Africa based in Lusaka, Zambia, ensured we were able to draw in over 140 participants from 20 African countries. The four main points that came from these conversations were:
    1. Relying on RECs and institutions like the AU is necessary but not a sufficient condition to drive successful integration. People at all levels need to be involved to see the point of integration as it affects their interests.
    2. Key investments in infrastructure and industrialisation policies need to be deliberate to create regional value chains that are necessary to grow the market for African goods. This is not happening deliberately enough.
    3. The alignment of domestic and regional agendas in terms of harmonisation is also not happening. Domestic priorities are just that and trump proposed regional commitments. Politicians are not being held accountable for commitments they make. Parliaments and parliamentarians are largely absent from the conversation.
    4. Measuring regional integration through trade and financial flows may not be ideal mechanisms. The Regional Integration Index goes some way to capturing the various dimensions of integration.
    For researchers at the University of Cape Town wanting to encourage academic exchanges, the difficulty of the visa regimes in Africa is an added challenge. In addition, some of the participants in our Leading in Public Life Young African Leaders programme (from Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana, Zambia, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Uganda and South Africa) were anxious about the reception they would receive, having followed reports of recent xenophobic attacks. It is clear that it is South Africans who benefit the most from interacting with their African peers. Issues of visas, free movement of people, encouraging cultural, academic, leadership exchanges are crucial and key to regional integration. Getting it right affects each one of us and our interests. Governments are the ones who make laws so they need to be a key part of the conversation, and encouraged not to be limited by national domestic agendas for short political gain. A recent report on African Economic Integration is available at www.gsdpp.uct.ac.za About the author Dr. Marianne Camerer is the Building Bridges Programme Director at the Graduate School of Development Policy and Practice (GSDPP) at the University of Cape Town.
    This article was published in GREAT Insights Volume 5, Issue 4  (July/August 2016).
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