What and who drives regional integration in Southern Africa?

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      What are the drivers and politics behind regional integration efforts in Southern Africa? What are the implications for governments, regional actors and development partners? What does it mean for South Africa and the EU in particular? These were the points under discussion at a joint ECDPM and SAIIA workshop, held in Pretoria on the 2 and 3rd July as part of the Political Economy of Regional Integration in Southern Africa (PERISA) project, financed the EU-SA Dialogue Facility.

      The workshop and the accompanying research aimed to go beyond the rhetoric of regional policy statements and technocratic discussions. It looked at what ‘actors and factors’ have been behind the progress, or lack of it, in existing integration processes in Southern Africa. Very frank discussions served to raise a number of key issues, with contributions from participants from South Africa, from the broader Southern Africa region, as well as from Europe and international cooperation partners.

      Should They Be Building on What Works?

      The starting point for much of the discussions is that ‘functional integration’ is taking place, a point made in the opening keynote speech by Dr. Mbuende. Whether or not formal agreements towards customs unions are being met, there is movement of students and workers, formation of regional value chains, and regional trade is taking place. It is less than it could be. Trade faces physical and bureaucratic barriers; is to a large extent informal; and is often un-captured by data; but it is very much a reality. Although most African RECs start from automatic membership based on geography rather than an EU-like membership where countries sign up to a specific agenda, the suggestion to focus on existing functional integration and build on this as a basis for genuine regional integration remained a strong theme throughout discussions. Where integration does exist, it is because it is either promoted or allowed to exist, thus signalling that enough interests have been aligned for it to be functional!

      Three Big Challenges to Regional Integration

      Although in danger of becoming a cliché, building ‘accountability’ was seen as key to help build on functional integration. What are the systems in place for holding national governments to account for decisions taken at a regional level, and who are the actors enforcing those decisions? While there was a sense of defeatism among some about governments’ disregard for regional commitments, discussions referred to the Tripartite NTB Reporting Mechanism as a relative success. Where private sector associations have been able to hold governments to account, while at a more institutional level, SADC is beginning to implement a monitoring system of the trade and investment protocol that rests more on country-to-country peer pressure.

      Much of the discussion was suggestive of the symbolism of regional commitments but little commitment to implement. If regionalism does indeed include a degree of ‘signalling’ by governments that in reality is always secondary to national interests, then aligning those interests that there are around the regional agenda is key. Doing this in a broad context, either SADC-wide or as is envisaged at the level of the tripartite represents a huge challenge.

      Notwithstanding the above, inter-agency coordination both within and between countries was repeatedly cited as an unavoidable constraint to greater regional integration, for example in smoothing border crossings. While broad dialogues can generalise “governments” as implementers, and “the private sector” as beneficiaries, governments are not homogeneous, with different agencies and agents representing quite different interests and facing their own difficulties in implementation.

      Questions arise around who is willing to cede authority or control? Are revenue authorities willing to work more closely with other Ministries with respect to inspections, standards and sharing fees and revenues? Some participants suggested that ‘where there is a will there is a way’ – again, examples do exist where capacity and financial constraints were overcome, suggesting that while these are genuine constraints, political prioritization is the ultimate decider.

      Is There a Need to Narrow the Scope?

      Our own work on corridors, both forthcoming for PERISA but also in a joint report with the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), suggests that focusing on development corridors can serve to address some of the main constraints mentioned above and benefit from a more functional approach. By narrowing the scope of engagement, aligning government and private sector interests, and allowing key actors to mobilise around their main corridor-related interests and constraints, the example was given of the Maputo Corridor which is seen as something of a regional success. Nonetheless, ‘transit corridors’ are not the same as ‘development corridors’ with participants saying that ‘these cannot simply serve to facilitate extraction of own resources and transporting those to the rest of the world, but must serve development’. Who actually benefits is a key question then, as well as the issue of how to promote accompanying investment and employment along corridors to stimulate economic transformation towards more productive employment.

      The EU and South Africa in Southern African Integration

      South Africa and the EU both clearly have a role here. While there is wariness of the role of South Africa in regional integration efforts and complaints from its neighbours that it is ‘not a trustworthy partner’ - the example was given of electricity generation and Botswana’s current power shortages - there were also clear calls for South Africa to embrace its role as regional leader and investment partner, where ‘partner’ is perhaps the key word. This is a difficult balance to achieve. Similarly, the EU can also clearly play a role through Aid for Trade, trade policy and technical assistance based on its own experience ‘if requested’, as the EU Ambassador very clearly stated in the closing panel.

      Overall, if we can be more explicit that:

      i)               Domestic and regional politics do matter.
      ii)              We need to understand what this means for formal regional agreements.

      Then policies can be designed, building on effective regional integration, getting beyond some of the defeatism around the “failure to implement” and creating a wider constituency that might push integration and call for implementation of commitments.

      Some brief podcasts on this dialogue as well as several background documents can be found on our website.

      The final case studies on positive examples of functional regional cooperation, as well as the workshop report and the paper on development corridors will be posted by September.

      The analysis will also feed into a background paper to be submitted to the African Economic Conference in Johannesburg 28-30 October.

      This is part 1 in a series of video briefings on regional economic integration in Africa, produced by SAIIA, via the Trade Beat, with ECDPM's Bruce Byiers. He answers these 3 questions:

      Why this emphasis on supporting Southern Africa's regional integration agenda?
      What are some of the key issues that have emerged over these past few days?
      Who will benefit from these findings and discussions?

      Video © Chevon Erasmus Porter, Riona Judge McCormack/SAIIA

      The views expressed here are those of the author, and may not necessarily represent those of ECDPM.

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