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close this bookThe Courier N 185 - March - April 2001 - Dossier: Cinema - Country Reports: Angola (EC Courier, 2001, 76 p.)
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World trade: Africa seeks to enhance its role

By Kenneth Karl

A more central role for Africa in world trade; the introduction of a prescriptive framework capable of responding to the continent’s specific economic situation; encouragement of African countries to take a more active part in WTO activities, a better understanding of WTO functions, rules and certain agreements in order to improve their implementation; Africa’s preparation for the forthcoming multilateral negotiations; attempts to find common ground. These summarise the main aims of the meeting of African trade ministers held in Libreville from 13 to 15 November 2000 under the auspices of the WTO and sponsored by the Gabonese government.

An end to marginalisation

At the time of setting up the mechanisms and regulations intended to govern international trade in the period following the Second World War, not one African country existed on the international stage as an independent State. More than fifty years have elapsed since then, and things have changed considerably during that period. Starting in 1948 with the creation of GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade), continuing through the Kennedy, Tokyo and Uruguay Rounds of Multilateral Trade Negotiations and culminating in the formation of the World Trade Organisation in 1995, profound changes have been made to the structure and nature of world trade, prompted by huge transformations in the world economy. The exponential growth in both volume and value of the goods and services traded throughout the world, together with the arrival of new actors on the world market, have changed the rules of the game and made commercial competition between countries ever more intense. Despite having a virtually insignificant (and indeed diminishing) share in world trade (now less than 2%), African countries make up almost one-third of WTO membership: 41 African countries are WTO members, and, of these, 31 are counted amongst the world’s 48 least-developed countries. Today Africa is keener than ever to improve its standing within the multilateral trade system and to generate the income it so vitally needs to ensure its economic development. Trade is not, of course, the only vehicle for growth, but current trends show that it is increasingly becoming one of the most determining factors.

Africa’s marginalisation due to the globalisation process is already a very real phenomenon, if you believe statistics and certain projections. The danger is, however, that the gap separating Africa from both industrialised countries and the other developing countries will probably continue to widen if nothing is done to reverse this trend. The Libreville meeting was therefore billed as an initial wake-up call to the continent made on behalf of its leading trade ministers, who were supported in their initiative by representatives of several international and regional institutions. In all, 24 workshops were organised during the three-day conference, covering ten or so trade-related themes.

Expressing his delight at the organisation of such an event, the first of its kind set up to discuss the trade situation in Africa since the creation of GATT, WTO Director-General Mike Moore used his inaugural speech to urge the continent to focus its attention more directly on the World Trade Organisation, which, he said, must do more for Africa. He went on to set out the series of initiatives and actions approved by his organisation and aimed at facilitating Africa’s integration into the global system. The European Union had sent two of its principal Commissioners: Pascal Lamy, in charge of trade, and Poul Nielson, responsible for development and humanitarian assistance. The former assured us that Africa’s participation in the WTO, anchoring it more firmly to the global trade system, is a top priority for the EU. The European Commission is currently looking for ways and means to allow a more flexible application of trade agreements issuing from the Uruguay Round. Links will have to be made, and balances struck, between WTO regulations and the provisions for the future commercial framework set out in the new ACP-EU Agreement signed in Cotonou in June 2000. This is a challenge which the ACP countries are actively preparing to meet, according to Jean-Robert Goulongana, ACP-Group Secretary General in Brussels. During a lunch debate with ministers, Poul Nielson emphasised that the strengthening of integration and of regional cooperation as a prerequisite for setting up regional economic partnership agreements with the EU, is the approach to best enable Africa to jump on the bandwagon of globalisation as quickly as possible and to fight poverty most effectively.

Consolidating expertise in the African countries

Africa’s lack of technical expertise, lack of knowledge of certain issues, absence of appropriate strategies and its weak participation in multilateral trade negotiations go some way to explaining why the continent was marginalised in the previous trade rounds, and are partly responsible for the gradual erosion of its market share. For example, the vast majority of African countries signed and ratified the Marrakesh Agreement setting up the WTO without necessarily understanding that this would imply the implementation of certain measures which were at best restrictive and at worst unrealistic. Today, these countries are demanding greater flexibility, together with the revision of some of those measures. Africa therefore faces an initial challenge of considerable magnitude, of which its leading politicians are fully aware. Because of the plethora and complexity of the themes either directly linked or closely related to trade, this challenge will consist of strengthening Africa’s technical capabilities to enable it to negotiate more effectively in the future. The new ACP-EU Agreement makes provision for financial and technical assistance to enable the ACP countries to initiate more successful trade negotiations. The WTO is making training programmes available to African executives. Both the International Trade Centre and UNCTAD (UN Conference on Trade and Development) are continuing to give Africa the benefit of their expertise. But there is still a long way to go because of the extent to which the continent is lagging behind. Although the resounding failure of the Seattle conference signified a healthy rebellion by the countries of the South, they must gradually move from protests to proposals. This requires a thorough understanding of the issues and stakes involved.

A Communication instead of a Declaration

The Libreville talks ended, with some difficulty, with the adoption of a final communication instead of the Declaration initially scheduled. The text reaffirms the commitment of the African ministers to work within the framework of the multilateral trade system towards a significant and equitable role for their continent in world trade. The communication also underlines the importance of the development aspect, which must be integrated into future negotiations as a matter of urgency, and the need to take into consideration the concerns and interests of all African countries. It goes on to mention the promotion of intra-African trade and the importance of strengthening cooperation between the WTO and the other institutions that finance development.

Mike Moore, WTO Director General “The WTO must do more for Africa”

The discord prior to the adoption of the final text clearly revealed the potential cracks which can occur when strategies conflict. It is vital that the African States iron out these conflicts, to avoid the pitfalls of undisciplined and disorganised negotiations. While it is true that commercial interests do vary from one country or region to another, it will always be necessary to demonstrate a minimum level of cohesion. One particular topic was the main cause of division at Libreville, Several countries expressed their hostility to the initiation of a new round of talks as long as certain issues from the Uruguay round still remained unresolved. Others, however, were all in favour of new negotiations. Some countries simply wanted a text with the status of a Declaration - for which they had received no authorisation - to be adopted at a higher level of representation, ie by their heads of State. Significant too, is that these differences are also indicative of the bargaining and attempts on the part of major commercial forces to co-opt and seduce a continent which, because of its sheer numerical weight, will have a decisive role to play in future negotiations.

In the final analysis - and with hopes firmly pinned on a dynamic follow-through - Libreville will go down as a success. As WTO Deputy Director Ablassuaogo concluded, the talks achieved their aim of mobilising the African continent and heightening its awareness, and that in itself was a very good start.