Trade and agriculture have become inextricably linked. Most people find both subjects to be dull and dry. Trade issues can be very complicated, with a jargon of their own that can put off many who seek to keep up with current affairs. Yet trying to get an understanding of how agricultural and trade issues impact all of us is crucial to having an appreciation of the great developmental challenges that Africa faces.
The importance of these issues to Africa’s development transcends whether we find them interesting or not. Likewise, the fact that their details are often confusing does not absolve us of the need to engage with them. Decisions are made at various trade negotiation forums which have deep and long-lasting effects right down to the farmer or other citizen.
While the details of various trade deals are negotiated by technocrats, in theory, it is the politicians of the negotiating countries who set the overall policy framework in which those technocrats can negotiate with their partners from other countries. Politicians come from all sorts of backgrounds and are often no more informed about the issues on which they deliberate than any other lay person. It is therefore important for them, and ideally for the public who will be most affected, to be more engaged with various trade issues.
There are many structural weaknesses that often plague African countries or regional blocs. The weaker partner in trade deals with other countries or economic blocs. Poor infrastructure and low manufacturing capacity are just two examples of how Africa often comes to the negotiating table from a position of weakness. Furthermore, Africa’s capacity to negotiate has been found lacking. This was evident in the controversial negotiations to conclude Economic Partnership Agreements with the European Union. Bilateral negotiations are quietly conducted between various countries all the time, as are multilateral negotiations under the auspicies of institutions like the World Trade Organization and many others. Except in a few cases, even the many contentious issues in such negotiations are thrashed out largely away from public view.
Things were quite different in the run up to what was supposed to be the final deadline for conclusion of the EPAs, December 31st 2007. In an unusual way, the many sticking points of the negotiations were widely discussed in the global media and in other forums. The charged, unusually public nature of the controversies surrounding the EPAs helped give an insight into the general institutional weakness of Africa to negotiate favourably on its own behalf. That weakness became almost as much of an issue as those of Africa’s generally low economic competitiveness, EU subsidies to their farmers which additionally disadvantage African farmers and many others.
Some of the confusion and weakness that many African delegations showed during the EPAs simply emanate from the sheer volume and difficulty of the countless interlinking clauses to be considered. Trade has become such an intricate specialty that it requires people who are highly schooled in its details, and many African countries have simply found themselves with insufficient numbers of such technical personnel. Apart from relatively few people with the technocratic detail to decipher the voluminous coded language of trade, there is also the issue of putting the issues in an ideological context that reflects the economic limitations and aspirations of one of the negotiating partners. For instance, is a particular country seeking to attract direct foreign investment, or is it mainly seeking to have a trade regime that encourages local industry? Almost all countries want some mixture of both, but the proportion of the mix and factors like resources, infrastructure, technical skill available will all influence what the particular country aspires to gain from its trade policies and in negotiations with its partners.
Most developed or emerging countries have used some degree of protectionism to foster their growth, yet today that increasingly clashes with the rhetoric of increased free trade, globalization and liberalization. Trade negotiators must be knowledgeable and smart enough to try to find a balance between these competing interests. All these inter-related issues must somehow be incorporated into trade talks and there do not appear to be many African countries that have developed sufficient levels of these kinds of skills for them to be maximally prepared for negotiations with economically stronger and more experienced partners.
We saw how African countries negotiating EPAs were trapped between not wanting to lose tariff-free access to European markets, and yet worried about having their fragile markets flooded with imports from much stronger and more competitive economies. The few concessions the EU made to counter African fears generally only postpone the difficult times African economies are going to face with these threats.
The African weakness began long before any of the continent’s regional blocs even made it to the negotiating table. In both southern and eastern Africa, there was massive confusion over which of several overlapping country multi-blocs some countries were going to be part of in negotiating with the EU. There was confusion over the interactions between SADC and SACU, as well as between COMESA and the EAC. The ESA and COMESA straddle the countries of both regions, further confusing an already messy negotiating position. Failure to find coherence and negotiating unity at such a basic level did not bode well for countries that were already so weak in contrast to their negotiating partner, the EU.
Long before any of the difficult technical issues had been broached, it was already clear that on the basis of lack of unity alone, the African countries and blocs were in no position to negotiate from a position of strength. This was a reflection of not just the usual petty nationalistic jealousies, but it also suggested a poor grasp of just how weak and marginal Africa is in world trade. Africa as a continent has huge problems in trying to get even a toe hold in global economic competition.
But Africa’s so far mostly dysfunctional nation-states are going absolutely nowhere economically in relation to economic powerhouses like the EU and the USA, not to mention emerging giants such as India, China and Brazil. The fact that the African blocs did not appreciate the fact of their unfortunate economic powerlessness in world trade terms enough to put aside many of their petty differences to negotiate together is not a good sign. One result of this is how easy it was for the EU to further divide the African countries with a mixture of threats and the dangling of aid packages.
I would hope that the EPA negotiations emphasised the importance of African countries needing to increasingly think regionally in regards to trade issues. It would be welcome if it had become more obvious how important it is to have technocrats who are not just skilled in their particular area of study, but who teach themselves to make the necessary connections between sectors like agriculture, policy, finance, trade and so on. The importance of explaining complicated issues to the public was never more evident than with the EPAs, so that whatever deals are signed on their behalf can receive the required popular support to be implementable.
Having clever negotiators will not make up for the fundamental disadvantage of weak African economies. The best support, therefore, that we can give our negotiators is if they were able to go into talks with trade partners with the backing of strong, growing economies. But it is also true that having effective trade negotiating teams can also play a role in bringing about terms of trade that spur economic growth.
By Chido Makunike
Makunike is an Agricultural Consultant based in Dakar, Senegal
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