Why Isn’t COMESA Creating More Wealth for Africa?

Published on 15th November 2005

Regional economic integration seems to be working very well in the developing world. North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement and the European Union both see an effective integration and considerable gains from this integration. However, it appears that the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) is not as effective or as beneficial as its developed country counterparts. Although much progress was made in 2000, when nine member states reduced tariffs to 0%, this caused Tanzania to drop out of the organization and little has been done to integrate the remaining eleven countries into the free trade zone. While it is easy to say that anything dealing with developing nations is going to be less effective than those that deal with developed nations, this attitude reduces the reasons for COMESA’s slow speed of success to something that cannot be assessed or solved. Thus, a more analytical and comprehensive evaluation is necessary.

There have been many reasons for COMESA’s slow levels of integration. Some of these reasons are slowly being solved while other problems may find solutions if they are recognized as being important. These problems include: trade liberalization that does not provide special incentives to COMESA members, similar Structural Adjustment Program (SAP) policies, mono-crop economies, cooperation in deed, the proliferation of multiple economic unions, political instability, inadequate transport systems, a wide range of economies within membership countries, war and environmental issues.

Trade liberalization in the form of lessening or cutting protectionism policies is one SAP-induced policy that may hinder intra-Africa trade. By forcing African nations to liberalize their economies without any special incentives for regional trade discourages the development of an intra-African trading network. Additionally, the SAP programs that African nations are dealing with are largely similar. This has a negative effect on intra-Africa trade because all of the member states are under pressure to reduce imports, thus reducing their neighbors’ exports. For example in 1991 Zimbabwe had to reduce imports and thus cut the Republic of Congo’s exports, thus hurting their economy. 

The mono-crop economies of African nations are also detrimental to COMESA because many of the crops that Sub-Saharan African countries export are the same. For example, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, and Ethiopia all derive over 50% of export earnings from coffee. How can these countries support one another in trade when they are all offering the same product?

Cooperation in deed rather than mere words is yet another reason for COMESA’s relative failure. This is a result of either signing a treaty or agreement and then failing to implement it or of sending officials to COMESA meetings that are unqualified or who have no the legitimacy to make a decision on the issue being discusses.

Other economic groupings are also a problem for COMESA. The Southern African Development Community (SADC) includes almost half of COMESA’s member states, excluding the rest. The East African Union (EAU) also binds two of COMESA’s members and one former member (Tanzania) with the exception of the others. If COMESA is in existence to liberalize trade between all 22 countries, then other sources of economic integration that have less members should be irrelevant.

War affects COMESA’s effectiveness. Eight member states (Burundi, Rwanda, Mozambique, Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, Angola and Zaire) face reconstruction problems from years of civil wars. They are in need of human development and infrastructure that could take years to initiate. With 33% of member states undergoing such difficult political, social and economic situations regional integration will be affected.

Even in those states in which war has not been an issue, unstable political institutions work to nullify past progress of COMESA. If a country decides to modify its economic policy due to a change in leadership, a new SAP program or simply to try something new, they often back out of previous COMESA agreements. For example, in 1992 Zambia’s newly instated president - President Chiiluba - ignored or modified agreements made under the former President Kaunda’s administration.

Transport infrastructure also impedes COMESA’s progress. Many of the member states do have inadequate or non-existent modes of traveling between them. Roads tend to be unpaved and difficult to travel. Six of the member states do not have a railway system. This includes Burundi, Comoros, Lesotho, Mauritius, Rwanda and Somalia. COMESA recognizes only 561,000 kms of usable roads, of which 11.4% are paved. While many countries do make internal infrastructure, this is largely done within cities, few countries recognize the benefits of investing in intra-country roads.

There is also an unequal effect of regional integration due to the different sizes of economies involved. African nations support protectionism policies because they want to support local industries until they are able to compete globally. In some economies, these industries are so far behind that they need protection from other COMESA members in order to survive. This is evidenced by the fact that Kenya and Zimbabwe, only two of the 22 members of COMESA, account for 65% of intra-COMESA exports.

Environmental issues also have a huge effect of African economies and as a result African integration. Africa has experienced many droughts that have negatively affected their economies, the livelihood of Africans and integration. Ethiopia faced a drought in the mid-80s and Southern Africa in 1992. In Zambia, the 1992 drought resulted in a 39.3 percent drop in agricultural output.

Some of these problems are unsolvable – wars and droughts have already happened and nothing can be done save to limit their effects to the best of our ability. However, some of the issues that are impeding the effectiveness of COMESA can be worked upon. For example, SAPs are constructed to help African nations, by petitioning the IMF and World Bank COMESA could convince them that in cases of intra-African trade SAPs should be less strict. There are already talks of combining COMESA and SADC, although they have been largely unsuccessful. These talks should continue and become a reality. Policies could be made, as have been done in the East-African Union, so that less developed economies are permitted to maintain a level of protectionism that is agreed upon within the group. Dealing with diversification of mono-crop economies is a more difficult task, but already underway and not impossible.

In short, regional integration has proven time and time again to be helpful to countries involved. Also, COMESA is not failing; progress has been made and nothing can be expected to happen overnight. Thus, to turn away from COMESA would be a mistake. Rather, the problems facing integration need to be recognized discussed and solved.


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