Africa and Regional Integration Moving Forward

By Chinua Akukwe

The Perspective

Posted March 7, 2002

It is now a common cliché that Africa's struggles to feed its people, educate its children, tend to its sick, and create economic opportunities for its highly resourceful population is a blight on the international community, especially those that have benefited immensely from its abundant natural resources. According to Tony Blair, the British Prime Minister, Africa today is a "scar on the conscience of the world." The Africa of today face multiple challenges, including nearly half of its population living on less than $1 a day, average per capita income now lower than levels known at the end of 1960s, almost half of its countries directly or indirectly affected by conflict, and at least 200 million people remain excluded from healthcare programs. Every three seconds, an African child dies. More than 20 million Africans have died of AIDS.

However, the international community appears poised to work with Africans to tackle the numerous developmental woes in the continent. The G-8 summit coming up in June 2002 in Canada will focus on Africa. Africa's New Partnership for Development (NEPAD) is a bold attempt by its leaders to tackle the continent's problems and enhance its relationship with external partners. The issue now is how to accelerate Africa's development, with Africans in the drivers' seat. A regional integration approach to development in Africa is now under serious consideration in Africa. The Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) is dedicating its 2002 African Development Forum to regional integration.

Why Regional Integration
According to the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) and the World Bank, Africa is the most subdivided continent in the world. At least, 165 borders divide 51 African countries. The average African country has the same economy of a typical American town of 60, 000 persons. In Sub-Saharan Africa, there is one phone line per 200 inhabitants (excluding South Africa); less than one in five Africans use electricity; there are more internet connections in New York City than in Africa; and only 16 percent of road are paved. According to both ECA and World Bank, a regional integration approach is likely to increase the competitiveness and growth of African economies by improving economies of scale. It is also likely to maximize its integration with the global economy, create strong institutions to tackle regional conflicts, and create enabling environment for accelerated expansion of business activities. A regional integration approach may also lead to the creation of a strong, institutional capacity to address political problems in the continent.

The African Union (AU), scheduled to take off later this year represents a bold attempt to manage political problems in the continent. It is important to state that the road to regional integration will have to overcome five important hurdles: the fear or possible loss of sovereignty, especially by small nations in Africa; the potential loss of revenues, including custom duties; the lack of financial resources to create and sustain regional structures and mechanisms; the potential difficulties in managing the wide variation in the socioeconomic development of African nations; and, the fear of the unknown regarding economic benefits.

Moving Forward
I propose that regional integration effort in Africa should be a deliberate process, focusing on clear principles and operational guidelines. I will briefly discuss these issues.

Proposed Principles of Regional Integration in Africa
1. The process should be African-led and managed.
2. African intellectuals and practitioners should have a front row seat.
3. African youth, the likely beneficiaries, should have strong input.
4. The process should focus on "what works" approach.
5. The twin issues of sovereignty and movement of goods across borders should be addressed at the beginning of the process.
6. The technical, managerial, and strategic capacity of existing or proposed regional institutions to solve problems should receive close attention.

Proposed Operational Guidelines for Regional Integration
A. The African Union should become a fulcrum for ideas and creative energies on Africa's renaissance. I hope that the leadership of the African Union will benefit from a close review of the success and failures of the Organization of African Unity (OAU). It is important for the AU to become a magnet for new ideas, attracting the best minds in Africa, and alert to development trends across the globe. AU should have a balanced focus on political, social and economic issues.

B. Create clusters of regional integration in the following areas: Banking; Commerce; Agriculture; Health; Legislation; Science; Political Pluralism; Conflict Resolution; Telecommunications; Information Technology; Energy; Transportation; and, International Development.

C. Regional Integration activities should promote the linkage of data to informed policy making. It is important to create and sustain a strong knowledge base on "what works" in Africa. Research and evaluation protocols should become automatic instruments of regional integration initiatives.

D. Focus on community-based development. A lot of voluntary, non-government development activities in Africa take place in local settings. Any serious regional integration initiative should ultimately have positive effect in local settings where most Africans live.

E. Tap African technical and financial resources wherever they may be. Africans immigrants remain an untapped source of creative energies on Africa's renaissance.

F. Re-energize relationships with Africans in the Diaspora. African Americans, Caribbean, and Blacks in Europe are important natural resources for Africa's development.

G. Strike a balance between government statutory functions and unleashing of small-scale businesses across Africa. The private sector in Africa face tremendous obstacles in Africa to access capital, and to develop long-term growth strategies because of gyrating regulatory policies. At the barest minimum, governments in Africa should create enabling environments that encourage the emergence and sustainability of small-scale enterprises.

H. Revamp international development with focus on debt, trade, and aid. It is important to continue ongoing efforts to significantly reduce the debt burdens of African nations. The coupling of reduced debt payments with verifiable investments in health, education and other social programs should continue. A renewed push for regional integration in Africa should emphasize the need for accelerated reduction of debt payment obligations and/or debt forgiveness by the West and multilateral institutions, especially the World Bank. A regional strategy on improving Africa's share of global trade beyond the current 2 percent level should be a focus of regional integration initiatives. A continuation of current attempts to reduce agricultural subsidies by OECD countries is imperative: the World Bank estimates that OECD countries spend more than $US300 billion a year on agricultural subsidies, roughly equivalent to the entire GDP of Sub-Saharan Africa. Development assistance from the West will likely depend on the consensus reached on NEPAD.

Africa is already moving toward an integrated economic and political approach to development as evidenced from the impending evolution of OAU into the African Union, and the launching of NEPAD. However, a great deal of work remains to be done in welding the different political, social, and economic aspirations of more than 50 nations into a strong regional block. Fortunately, Africans and their external partners appear ready to address the development imbalances in the continent. The good thing is that both partners agree that the effort should be African-led and managed

About the author: Chinua Akukwe is a member of the Board of Directors of the Constituency for Africa, Washington, DC and former Vice Chairman, National Council for International Health (NCIH), now known as Global Health Council. E-mail:

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