Friday, December 3, 2021

Reform Africa’s Trade Agenda or continue to sink deeper in the claws of Neoliberalism!

INKURU ZIKUNZWE

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The global North is fiercely and actively coveting Africa for her resources, how prepared is Africa to counter this undeniable neo-liberalism of our times?

Unless Africa, a continent of 1.3 billion people, redefines and re-strategizes how it is trading with the global North then the ensuing plunder and exploitation of her resources will continue unabated as has been the case in the pre- and post-colonial era.

Re-defining her trade destiny means Africa must adopt three critical approaches: – Resist Western imposition, engage for continental integration and build alternatives that will sustain a solid economic base.

Today, in the 21st Century, Africa with an estimated combined GDP of 29 trillion by the year 2050 finds herself in the eye of global neo-liberal twists and turns that has cast the Continent into a whirlwind of trade treaties and trade agreements with the Western world which may not entirely be the panacea to Africa’s Economic liberation.

“The first thing we must do is resist with all consciousness the deliberate imposition of trade treaties and agreements by the West. Then we must engage as Africans the issue of our fragmentation which makes us economically not viable and easier to colonize in our current state of division. Third, we must build alternatives that can be articulated well enough to be implemented. Lastly and more importantly, we must pause, rethink and focus on reforming our trade policy and systems from neoliberal embrace to a model grounded on the human element. This is how we can challenge the neo-liberalism adherents to their dogma and offer better benefits to the (African) people and the environment”. Said panelist Brian Tamuka Kagoro, a Pan African Lawyer.

In a newly launched Webinar series titled #TradeTreaties101 riding by the tagline #ReformAfricaTrade, Econews Africa, a Pan-African research and advocacy organization based in Kenya that works to bridge the local, national, regional and global information gaps on development issues, in particular on trade and investments, is opening the lead on the realities of the thorny issues of free trade agreements, economic partnership agreements and Africa’s options to actualize her economic trade liberation.

Trade reforms was at the center of this first Webinar series titled; Africa Trading: How ready are we? Unpacking Tradeagreements & Treaties between Africa (East African Countries) & the Global North.

Panelist Faith Lumonya, the Economic Justice & Climate Action officer at AkinaMama Wa Afrika (AMWA), echoed Brian Kagoro’s sentiments and vivaciously called out Western countries, in particular from Europe and America for their double standards and neoliberal pursuits of Africa that are entirely detrimental to the Continent’s Economic sovereignty.

“Neo-liberalism as an economic ideology has taken away a lot from us (Africa). Free Trade Agreements are strongly rooted in neoliberalism, capitalism and also colonialism. Neoliberalism has disadvantaged us and contributed greatly to the aggravation of already existing inequalities” Faith argued.

Neoliberalism as entrenched within free trade treaties and economic partnerships agreements espouses market-oriented reform policies such as eliminating price controls, deregulating capital markets, lowering trade barriers and reducing, especially through privatization and austerity, state influence in the economy.

“As Africa we must ask ourselves whether going the neo-liberalism way is beneficial for us. Does Africa have its own negotiating texts? What needs to be changed? Are there best practices that can be taken up?” Faith poses. “In the last decade, Africa has negotiated about 130 bilateral Free Trade Agreements coming into being just after the last financial crisis. The EU and the US have been particularly active in this process. What we must clearly understand is that economic growth and GDP is not a sufficient measure of growth or transformation. As African countries our interest is not only to grow but also to develop and transform our economies”.

The inequalities as spelt out within free trade agreements and economic partnership agreements exacerbate social inequalities and disparities amongst African countries tying them in a vicious circle of poverty and interdependency.

“The fact that free trade agreements are centered alongside Neo-liberalism ideologies, it would be unrealistic to assume they would deliver on the kind of development we want. Take for instance how neoliberalism impacts on women’s daily lives, their unpaid care work and increases poverty. In bilateral integration, women only benefit from cross-border trade. It is not necessarily the kind of value we need. Why have women for instance been excluded from participating in the global trade system”? Faith ponders.

These inequalities within a neo-liberal approach to trade policies between Africa and the global North are exactly the reason why Brian Kagoro strongly opines that free trade agreements are in fact counter-productive to Africa’s development.

“I believe in just trade agreements. Free trade agreements suggest liberalization that allows capital to move but does not allow ordinary citizens to move. Without freedom of movement within the precinct of FTAs, then the notion of free trade simply becomes extractive trade or concentration of capital on a few” Explains Brian Kazoo. “In FTAs the political commitment alone is insufficient. We (Africa) need to be technically competent. We have failed in part, from a political level, as our governments’ accountability mechanisms are weak. We have left international political institutions and external donors to deal with our trade negotiations. These are experts who are ideologically sold on to the neoliberal agenda. As a result, we have seen a mass production of poverty and inequality. Our technical incompetency is costing us. Ideologically, even if we believe in trade it suggests deregulation. The thought that it leads to growth is a myth”.

Even though Africa seems to be consolidating her power base through the launch of seemingly progressive policies like the Africa Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA), fragmentation of African countries remains the biggest challenge according to Brian Kagoro.

“Africa is a big market that is fragmented into small countries. We have 107 unique borders across countries whose roles are so divergent. Africa is still struggling with economic liberalization. The idea that a trade revolution can help how we trade with the rest of the world means we have to compete with organized trading blocs and regional economic blocs already present in Western countries with which we cannot compete with”. Says Brian.

According to the Pan-African enthusiast, FTAs have not worked for Africa because of the very same neo-liberal dogma that works against the very status that is currently Africa. Moreover, the lack of uniformity and integration in our laws and policies does not bode well in our collective push towards economic development for the continent. For example, in the context of e-commerce, there is no harmonized taxation amongst African countries, there are no consumer laws to build digital trust, no electronic trade standards and procedures generally adopted, not even harmonized data requirements. These gaps, according to Brian, expose Africa’s vulnerability to exploitation and plunder within a perceived agreement or treaty.

“The achievement of Economic integration in Africa is a critical component of Pan Africanism in achieving diversification and industrialization. It cannot be through mega liberalization. Regional markets have to determine the legal and policy frameworks in the rules of engagement; Courts of law must be independent; Equitable sharing of benefits within countries and between countries must be present as well as mutual and equal benefits”. Kagoro says as he outlines bullet points of what ought to be focused on.

As a continent, before we embark on a fully fledged trajectory on free trade agreements and economic partnership agreements with the west, we must indeed address some critical areas of concern;

· We must deal with competition policy. We must have a framework to manage competition policies so that African cartels triggered by these trading opportunities do not flourish.

· The question of consumer protection is key; Africans as consumers are rarely organized and rarely have consumer protection. This is a critical consideration to be made.

· We must work towards addressing the question of governance and accountability.

· The question of investor obligations so they comply to domestic laws in respect to labour, human rights, rights of indigenous people and environmental protection must be prioritized.

· We must get it right with Intellectual property rights for small players. How do you provide for non discrimination of different players and actors?

These factors were equally emphasized by Sylvester Bagoro, a Programs Officer in the Political Economy Unit of the Third World Network Africa. According to Sylvester, because of these gaps and more, Africa has for eons formulated several impressive and progressive trade policies which unfortunately have barely been implemented. This lack of implementation of such policies by Africa has been the bane towards the realization of continental economic development.

“We (Africa) have progressive policies that are being contested with national interest. We cannot integrate if we do not align our national policies with our regional policies. When we want to progress at the regional level, our national agendas come in to undermine these efforts. This is what we must strive to harmonize”. Sylvester says. “As Africa, if we want to integrate, we must work on the trade infrastructure; for example how do we effectively move products from Kenya to Uganda? We must ensure that all our policies are harmonized within Africa then we must enhance our production capacities because if they are not at par with the West then a Free Trade Agreement cannot help us”.

It is therefore compulsory in the era of global trade shifts and a perceived scramble for Africa’s resources that there ought to be a redefined approach to how Africa negotiates Trade lest we fall back into the trappings of dominance and interdependency as has been the trajectory post-colonialism.

Faith Lumonya points this out more aptly; “We must push back like the Cubans did. We must re-imagine and re-write the kind of development we want and do so by reflecting on our histories and how these, particularly colonialism and now neocolonialism are shaping our agenda. We must push back on neoliberalism, capitalism and imperialism and all other “isms” that have brought us to where we are”.

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