The Strategic Aims of Regional Cooperation and Integration in Africa

01 January 2004
Dot Keet

The Strategic Aims of Regional Cooperation and Integration in Africa
Dot Keet
Alternative Information and Development Centre AIDC Regional Briefing 1/2004

African social movement analysts and activists hear constant references by their governments to the importance of African unity and cooperation. The African Union is the most recent practical expression of these declared aims. A degree of political cooperation is taking place at inter-governmental level through the creation of continental political bodies, and security and other agreements. The unification of Africa is also to be advanced economically through six regional or sub-regional "building blocks". There are, however, many overlapping 'regional integration' groupings in Africa pursuing differing and even competing programs, particularly in the trade sphere.

Overlapping and Competing Regional Groupings

In Southern Africa, the regional integration grouping is the thirteen-nation Southern African Development Community (SADC). This was set up in 1991 as a long-term multilateral development project based on cross-border cooperation in all aspects of the economies and societies of the member countries. This naturally includes trade arrangements, but SADC was not originally conceived as a primarily trade integration process.

There is a pre-existing and specifically trade grouping, the Southern African Customs Union located within SADC, consisting of South Africa and the much smaller BLNS states (Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia and Swaziland). Trade between these countries is based on differing interests and policies but they have one agreed 'common external tariff in relation to all other countries and one system for collecting and sharing out customs duties.

A number of the countries in both these groupings are also members of the Common Market of Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA). This is primarily based on trade promotion and liberalisation through uniform tariff reductions and the removal of other barriers to trade. The aim is to move rapidly towards an integrated trade area with a common external tariff applied by about twenty member countries stretching from Mauritius in the south, through east and central Africa and as far as Egypt in north Africa.

Overlying all of these programs are the more recent proposals in the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) for a comprehensive program for the whole continent. Although based on encouraging market forces and foreign investment, this has a considerable role for governments and includes some seemingly positive economic, security and 'governance' elements. But it simultaneously promotes both an internally liberalised integration within Africa and an externally "open and rapid integration of Africa into the global economy".

NEPAD has been officially endorsed by the African Union although the practical implications have yet to be tested out in practice. But it seems to have displaced the established African Economic Community (AEC) program. This was an internally focused, state-led integration and development plan to be implemented through six phases, each of variable duration, within the regional 'building blocks' over a period of twenty five years, and aimed above all to reduce Africa's external dependencies.

Intervening for or against these and other similar regional programs in Africa, there are many international political and economic forces actively promoting 'open' or liberalised regions. These would create larger markets, be more encouraging to foreign investors and more favourable to the operations of global corporations, as well as being "stepping stones" for such regions to fit into and reinforce the integration of the globalising capitalist economy [see AIDC Regional Briefing 2.

Different Types of Regional Integration

These differing and conflicting integration programs are adding to the skepticism, indifference and even growing alienation of social movement analysts and activists. Their reactions are not only against the national programs and performance of their governments and their various formal - but largely paper - regional integration plans, but they are skeptical even about the very idea of regional or continental integration.

But the now-hegemonic or dominant view at different levels of power and spheres of influence, in Africa and internationally, is that 'Regional Integration is A Good Thing'. What is being ignored or deliberately submerged in this belated flow of political endorsements and practical 'integration' programs are the earlier and very different ideas and aims for the internallydriven integration of Africa, continentally and/or regionally.

The overall strategic objective of re-grouping African countries and (re)integrating the continent was, from the start, a fundamental response to the effects of colonialism, and intrinsic to African struggles against colonialism and against neo-colonialism after 'independence'. The ideas and ideals of African unity have, for decades, been articulated and promoted across the continent by researchers and writers, peoples organisations and political parties, and have even been officially endorsed by all African governments, starting with the continental Lagos Plan of Action in 1980.

Contrary to the dominant neo-liberal ideas today, the earlier regional and continental plans and programs were based on a totally different paradigm - that is a different set of principles, policies and programs, processes and participations. These can be summed up as politically-led and democratically negotiated, people-based and equitable developmental cooperation and integration towards more self-sustaining and sustainable development. Implemented today, such an alternative model of integration would not only be a practical living example of different means and paths to successful development but could also be, or become, part of a broader challenge to the globalised, liberalised, corporate-serving and market-driven paradigm (or model) now dominating the world. Thus, it is important for African social movement analysts and activists to revisit and revive the very different, strategic objectives but, where necessary, refine and improve the means and methods that informed the long-standing visions and plans for African developmental cooperation and integration.

The Strategic Aims of Developmental Regionalism

The artificial lines drawn across the continent by the colonial powers randomly cut across societies, 'ethnic' groups, clans and even families. They disregarded not only linguistic and common cultural areas, and pre-existing economic and political systems and relations on the ground in Africa, but also natural ecosystems. In the interests of social and political harmony, unity and cooperation, such artificial colonial lines must be challenged. They can, for a start, be eroded through the greater freedom of movement of African people. And the functional significance of such borders can be reduced through the expansion, deepening and increasing significance of cross-border programs and activities.

It also makes economic sense to regroup the large number of these arbitrarily created countries in Africa which are frequently economically non-viable and environmentally unsustainable. The economies structured by colonial interests were internally distorted (socially and economically) and disarticulated (lacking internal linkages and dynamics) and excessively extroverted (turned outwards). They include many that are also small in territory and/or population and partly or totally landlocked, physically located within other countries. Tb provide effective bases for more rounded and viable development, African countries need to be combined within wider, more realistic and rational economic entities. Economic development would then be facilitated through the creation of economies of scale - that is, larger-scale production programs and markets, and greater cost-effectiveness and efficiencies especially through shared infrastructural systems.

However, despite their internal weaknesses and fragilities, many African countries have, especially since independence, developed their own national identities. At one level, nationalism has been deliberately fostered by the ruling elites as part of their ideological and politi cal means of popular containment or control. On the other hand, there are also real political, social and cultural commonalities and shared experiences amongst the people within the new African nations. Thus - whether optimal for economic development or not, or even minimally 'viable' or not - these national entities cannot easily or immediately be submerged into one unitary economy. Regional groupings have, at least initially, to be created as communities of nations and peoples although encouraging cross-border convergences and actively promoting emerging regional - and broader African - identities as well.

Similarly, with a large number of differing countries interacting in a comprehensive many-sided integration program, it is not always feasible - or necessarily desirable - to simply incorporate them all, in all sectors, at the same rate and to the same degree within uniform regional arrangements. Rather, in order to accommodate national political and economic particularities in certain sectors, and even local social and cultural specificities, regional integration might have to reflect a degree of 'variable geometry' with regard to participation in certain agreements. This would entail the democratic negotiation and creation, the co-existence and coordination of varying but overlapping sub-groupings of countries, where demanded, in different sectors and spheres of cooperation and within differing frameworks and timetables. It could even entail practical cross-border sub-subgroupings of 'real' local economies or natural geo-economic zones between adjoining areas in member states.

More fundamentally, different modalities and rates of integration would also have to be adopted in view of the very unequal levels of economic development between the small and/or poorer least developed countries (LDCs) and other larger and/or relatively stronger 'developing' countries in Africa. This requires special and differential treatment between countries with such uneven economic, technical and organisational capacities, in order that the weaker are not disadvantaged in their economic interactions with stronger. Such negative effects are very evident throughout the world today from the application of uniform prescriptions and liberalisation policies in the global 'level playing field' supposedly being created through neo-liberal agreements and institutions. This is why 'S&D' treatment is being demanded by developing countries at the global level as well.

Similarly, programs to specifically encourage greater intea-regional commercial relations would have to be based not on simple liberalised trade, internal or external, but on preferential and variable trade arrangements. Trade is not the sole or primary 'engine of growth' as depicted in neo-liberal theory, but it can support production and development if appropriately designed. Contrary to the simplistic free trade formulae being pushed by the World Bank and in the WTO, trade agreements between the partners within a region should be negotiated to encourage productive development and stimulate constructive trade between them... and in preference to powerful international traders. Developmental trade integration would include trade-promoting infrastructural means but also targeted policy measures. 'Above all, it would require variable tariff structures and self-selected rates of tariff reduction /retention by participating countries, taking into account their different commercial, production and other capacities and economic, social and other vulnerabilities.

Such differentiated trade arrangements would, in Southern Africa, have to ensure, above all, that there are gradual, assymetrical and even non-reciprocal processes of market opening between South Africa and the other member countries. This means that, on the grounds of the greater weight and actual/potential impact of the much larger industrialised South African economy (which is about 70% of the combined economies of the whole of SADC), the regional giant would have to open up its markets to its neighbours' exports much more rapidly and generously that it could expect from them in return. But, to be really useful to relatively small producers and exporters within the region, such market access would also entail South Africa opening up more favourably to its regional partners than to international producers and exporters into its market.

Informing all the above is the conviction that more balanced and equitable development has to be consciously promoted within and through all regional agreements and arrangements. At one level, this is based on political and moral issues of equity and justice. In the case of Southern Africa this relates also to the human and economic costs incurred by neighbouring countries in the struggles against colonialism and especially against apartheid. At another level, the promotion of greater equity through compensatory programs and redistributive measures can be a major force for economic development. These preferential measures could provide the productive resource base and rising production-and-consumption levels for the majority, and thus create a self-reinforcing development dynamic, a continuous upward development spiral for the whole. In this model, equity is both the base and engine of development, as well as the expression and guarantee of human rights, human security and regional stability.

Equity-and-stability is particularly important between closely inter-linked countries where uneven development or under-development of some to the advantage of others has often been deliberately engineered by colonial authorities and business interests. This is most marked in Southern Africa, where the effects of colonial and settler policies were also, in more recent years, deliberately reinforced and extended by the apartheid regime within South Africa and in relation to the rest of the sub-continent. In this context, the internationally promoted principle of common but differentiated responsibilities according to differing capacities would be expressed, for example, in the greater financial contribution required of South Africa to regional development funds and to other compensatory measures and redistributive mechanisms designed to redress the regional geographical and social imbalances and inequities.

But such greater levels of responsibility would also rest on all of the stronger member governments to ensure that 'their' companies do not reinforce or aggravate the existing economic imbalances through aggressive or predatory business tactics in other countries within the community. Governments cannot sit back and allow laissez faire freedom to private companies to pursue damaging and divisive operations over their borders. National policies as well as regional agreements are required to ensure that private companies - but also national parastatal agencies - and internation investors operate across the region according to agreed development principles and performance criteria. These would include financial transfers (plus profit re-investment), technology and management skills transfers, labour training and rights, and health and environmental protections, as well as local production inputs and product-sourcing to create backward and forward linkages with domestic producers. Such practices would all contribute towards higher levels, more evenly spread and equitable development across the region.

Further to the above, the unequal natural resource endowments and other uneven levels and forms of economic activities within the respective countries could be addressed through strategically designed complementary and combined programs in agriculture and industry, transport and communications, energy and water, forestry and fisheries and a host of other economic, environmental, social and cultural spheres. This would entail programs where, for example, the relative strengths and respective resources of member countries are marshaled in complementary crossborder agro-industrial projects. Or the scientific/technical, management and financial resources of one or more countries are brought together in combined projects within, and with, other member state(s) to process or beneficiate their resources, add value to their production and create employment. Such joint programs would not only build on the existing 'comparative advantages' of specific member states (that is, what they already have or can do) but be expressly designed to qualitatively shift and share out the 'competitive advantages' of the already more developed countries in the region; that is to raise up all the respectiv(capacities and levels of development.

The ambitious and transformative aims outlined above clearly require public planning and regulation. Such aims and methods cannot and will not be promoted by 'market forces' which function according to different business profitability' criteria and narrow time-frames and through competitive not cooperative processes. Clearly also, the public sector and public investment will lead the way in such developmental processes, although questions remain as to how, on what bases - or whether - the skills and/or resources of national or regional private enterprise could be marshaled towards such aims in joint public-private projects. But other types of 'combined' efforts and agencies would be even more important for deeper and more inclusive, more pervasive and multi-layered development. These would be public-public partnerships, that is between governmental and parastatal enterprises and institutions and public trusts, and cooperatives, worker/ employee collectives, community-based, mutual aid, and other forms of popular collective self-organisation and joint endeavours.

Such broader public engagement and active popular participation apply equally to the political processes and inter-governmental negotiations and agreements that will create the legal, organisational, operational and financial means for all the combined or coordinated cross-border dimensions of regional development. Inter-governmental cooperation is the fundamental means for creating multi-national entities and processes. But to be appropriate, effective and 'owned' by all the participating governments and their populations, such arrangements can only be achieved through processes of giveand-take in democratic and accommodating negotiations. And the various sectoral agreements, even if not immediately providing exactly equal gains to all participants at all points, have to reflect a high degree of finely-tuned cross-sectoral trade-offs and overall, longer-term mutual benefits.