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Teaming up
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 16 - 08 - 2001

Africa's economic powerhouses met recently in Cairo, to decide on "Africa" tactics for the upcoming WTO meeting. Progress was made on several issues, but some differences still persist. Gamal Nkrumah reports
Last week, Cairo hosted an African trade conference that brought together two of the continent's regional groups for talks. The conference highlighted how the damaging economic impact of global trade agreements is fast radicalising traditionally quiescent African trade negotiators. Saddled with technical and institutional capacities inadequate for taking full advantage of the provisions of multilateral trade agreements, African delegates at trade talks are often deluged with paperwork and qualifying conditions. And global trade agreements have historically made African economies dependent on the export of traditional primary agricultural and mineral commodities, which makes it fiendishly hard for African countries to diversify into the production of other, non- traditional, export commodities.
The two-day gathering in Cairo, the first of its kind, was a ministerial- level meeting for talks between representatives of two of the continent's most important regional groups -- the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) and Southern African Development Community (SADC). The meeting was held to prepare for the fourth World Trade Organisation (WTO) ministerial conference, scheduled to take place in November in Doha, Qatar. The preparatory meeting brought together Egypt, COMESA's largest economy, and South Africa, SADC's economic powerhouse, to work out a strategy for advancing Africa's interests at the WTO meeting and ensuring solid trade gains for the continent.
Trade and economy ministers, as well as representatives from Comoros, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Mauritius, Sudan, Swaziland, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe, were joined by their counterparts from South Africa and the host nation, Egypt. The meeting was also gilded by the presence of representatives from the Africa, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Secretariat, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the Commonwealth Secretariat, the Corporate Council on Africa and the COMESA Business Council. Also in attendance was US Assistant Trade Representative for African Affairs Rosa Whitaker. Non- governmental organisations such as the Third World Network also played a prominent part in the deliberations as technical experts and advisers.
Today, the US and Europe account for more than two-fifths of the world's economic output of $40,000 billion. Yet several African economies earn less than average-sized multinational corporations. The delegates, therefore, urged special treatment for the least developed states in Africa. They also wanted rich countries further to open their markets to the farming produce and manufactured commodities of COMESA/SADC countries, by eliminating tariff peaks and tariff escalation.
Ironically, notwithstanding their complaints and criticisms of rich countries, the delegates cautiously welcomed rich country initiatives such as the US's Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) and the EU's 'Everything- But-Arms' as "positive initiatives aimed at improving market access." But they remained concerned at the brief duration of AGOA, and, in particular, the activation of the supply-side component and capacity building of AGOA and the complexity of its rules of origin and eligibility criteria.
Participants also urged industrially advanced countries to "fulfil the letter and spirit of their obligations and undertakings with regard to capacity building and other technical assistance support to developing and least developed countries by making firm commitments on annual contributions to the technical assistance programmes of intergovernmental organisations." They petitioned the WTO to consider favourably their request for a waiver from the ACP-EU Partnership Agreement. They exhorted the rich world to provide duty-free and quota-free access for African exports. And they called upon richer countries substantially to reduce what they termed "trade distortive domestic support measures," by which they meant agricultural and export subsidies.
Participants also strongly agreed that the process by which countries like Ethiopia, Eritrea and Sudan join the WTO should be streamlined to enable them to accede under terms consistent with their development, financial and trade needs and commitments.
This meeting was about cooperation, and plenty was achieved. But in the past, SADC and COMESA have often been more rivals than partners. One issue has been South Africa's reluctance to work towards establishing an African common market. Indeed, South Africa has been accused of poaching COMESA member states like Mozambique and Tanzania, both of whom withdrew from COMESA (in 1998 and 1999), to join SADC. But South African officials denied any policy of deliberately undermining COMESA. "Our problem with COMESA is technical not political," South Africa's trade and industry minister, Alec Erwin, told Al- Ahram Weekly. He added, "COMESA offers formula-like solutions such as dropping tariffs. COMESA does not acknowledge the differences between the various member countries' economies. We must negotiate by understanding our differences." He went on to argue, "Our fear is that, if we join COMESA, we shall speed regional economic imbalances. Trade imbalances grow rapidly in economic groupings as COMESA." Indeed, the larger and more advanced economies overwhelm the weaker and less developed ones, the visiting South African minister asserted. And for him, the rules of origin are too loose, not too tight. "The rules of origin are not tight enough in COMESA. We feel uncomfortable with COMESA rules," he said.
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