Trade & Competition in Africa: Opportunity Beckons

Trade & Competition in Africa: Opportunity Beckons

By Peter O’Brien

Continuing the original AAT series, ECONAfrica, Peter O’Brien addresses the WTO’s upcoming MC10 conference.

From 15-18 December Nairobi will host the 10th Ministerial Conference (MC10) of the World Trade Organization (WTO). This will be a meeting of many firsts. Till now, no sub-Saharan African country had hosted a Ministerial Conference organised by the WTO. Nairobi will bring into force the Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA), the first occasion in the now 21 year history of WTO that a new agreement has been signed (all others were established at the inception of WTO). This is the first MC to take place against the backdrop of an agreement in Africa, concluded this year, to work for a continent wide area of free trade. Today more than one quarter (43 countries in total) of all WTO Members (more than 160) are African. Moreover, the  Accession Package for Liberia was agreed in Geneva on 6 October, and it can be expected that it too will join in the course of 2016.

Apart from celebrating the firsts, are there any reasons for business in Africa to pay attention to events in Nairobi? The answer is an emphatic yes:

  • The TFA is the one WTO agreement that promises real advantages on the logistics of trade. Detailed studies have shown that, on average, the sheer movement of goods within Africa accounts for roughly one fifth of all costs. Serious steps to cut those costs, which is what TFA is about, represent a win/win for producers, traders, consumers and indeed the public authorities. Since Africa is the region of the world where intra-trade (transactions among African countries themselves) is by far the lowest, and where most national markets are small, the gains from logistics savings are potentially huge.
  • The TFA will commit WTO Members to help the least developed countries, a group of over 30 States of whom the majority are African. For the first time, there are straight advantages to be obtained without a condition of reciprocity. Funding, technical assistance, streamlining of trade administration, are just some of the things that can be expected. The TFA allows governments and business together to formulate their requests, so this is the chance to utilize an organized offer of support.
  • MC10 will seek to reinforce the whole network of disciplines concerned with non-discrimination and competition that constitute the core of WTO agreements. That progress is very positive for the growth of competitive markets on the continent.
  • The meeting will be attended by numerous international and regional observer organizations from the private sector, as well as by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) whose normal activities are overwhelmingly directed towards improving trade and welfare in African countries. Their presence serves to strengthen the lobby for growth and welfare improvement.

In the world of yesterday, tariffs and quantitative limitations dominated trade negotiations. In tomorrow’s world, the critical subjects are technical barriers to trade (meaning formal legal resolutions that control trade for purposes of national security, public health and so on), voluntary norms and standards (which in practice frequently acquire a market force equivalent to a legal provision), and a host of other regulatory issues that determine who will be best placed in the market.

More or less all African countries, with the partial exception of South Africa, have always been on the receiving end of these instruments. Africa has thus far played a very minor role in shaping “the rules of the international competitive game.” But with the continent now the fastest-growing region in the world economy, with the race for its natural resources continuing (despite the current lows in resource prices), with the ongoing investments (from within the continent and without), and the steady improvements in governance observable in the majority of countries, Africa is well placed to make its voice heard.

Nairobi and the MC10 offer the ideal stage on which the continent can begin its future path as one of the designers of competitive change.