Traditional forms of diplomacy hamper Africa's developmentBy ERIC KOMOLO | Thursday, December 22 2011 at 10:01
If there is one lesson for the African Union from recent incidents in North Africa and the just-concluded Climate Change talks in Durban, then it must be that the continental body needs to re-examine its engagement in international affairs.
At the peak of the ‘Arab Spring’, the AU’s insistence on non-intervention was clearly ignored by Nato and its allies leading to toppling of the Gaddafi regime.
This, followed by Canada’s recent withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol commitments on carbon emissions reductions despite what looked like a “balanced” deal in Durban, confirms that traditional forms of diplomacy may not deliver much to the continent’s urgent development needs.
Yet as the Eighth WTO Ministerial meeting ended in Geneva, one could sense that like previous sessions before it, Africa’s primary trade and development priorities received no more than expressions of “commitments to further negotiations”.
This at a time when many artificial barriers to trade continue to be erected by industrialised economies on areas of priority to Africa’s trade, notably agriculture, horticulture and even fisheries, is certainly unwelcome.
But as the text of the just-concluded 7th AU Trade Ministers Session held in Accra in preparation for Geneva shows, the pattern of passive diplomacy and traditional blaming industrialised economies is far from being abandoned.
In an ideal sense of trade liberalisation, Africa’s “comparative advantage” in areas like agriculture would be expected to be the engine for spurring growth.
However, in reality, there is nothing like free trade amongst unequal partners as developed countries continue to exercise protectionism in those very sectors.
Just last year alone, EU’s subsidies to its agricultural sector exceeded $250 billion. This is more than three times Kenya’s GDP, and in a sense, makes the whole idea of fair trade competition impossible.
It is quite unlikely that developed countries will stop protecting their economies easily. This is not only because of the entrenched domestic sectoral interests, but also the very “sensitive” nature of sectors like agriculture to national security concerns.
Indeed, no government worth its name will readily entrust something like food security to the “unpredictable” dictates of international trade.
Therefore, one would expect the AU to adopt a more proactive, unified strategy in pursuing alternatives to its diplomatic engagements.
Kenya as the present co-ordinator of the Africa Group has a rare opportunity to lead this. One readily available, yet under-utilised, alternative would be to exploit existing mechanisms within the WTO dispute settlement framework.
But despite being most disadvantaged, African countries have exhibited little enthusiasm in filing disputes before the WTO’s Dispute Settlement body since its establishment.
Within the same period, countries like Argentina, Brazil, India, Mexico and Thailand have each filed between 12 and 25 disputes against developed economies with generally positive results.
Understandably, most African countries have vulnerable economies that can ill-afford the expensive nature of these disputes.
However, most African economies are similar and therefore the nature of potential disputes is the same. They would easily surmount such a challenge by acting collectively.
A possible flipside to filing disputes would be the risk of non-compliance by the developed economies with final awards. Of course, this is not new, nor is it entirely supported by emerging trends which show increased efforts to comply.
Moreover, the advantage of having a successful dispute against developed nations serves to both highlight the problem at an entirely different level while opening up more opportunities like adopting retaliatory measures.
Besides, such disputes have a potential of triggering domestic pressure in affected developed economies while attracting unparalleled international support.
Finally, as disputes/trials in other comparatively new international forums show, the question of lack of capacity to lodge these disputes within the AU is often exaggerated.
In my estimation, it ignores the level of technical support AU countries can readily access from within and without the continent if only it approached trade issues with half the enthusiasm we see when it is defending the “sovereignty” of its members.
Mr Komolo is an advocate and doctoral researcher at the University of Hong Kong. (email@example.com)
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