African Economic Conference 2018 focuses on Africa Visa Openness and integration
For millions of ordinary travellers, inter-African travel is still too often a nightmare. Be it border hassles, lack of road or air routes linking key cities, or the frustrations of being refused entry to a country because of visas, the end result is to curtail the free movement of people, viewed by the African Development Bank as one of the pillars of regional integration.
That freedom of movement is inextricably tied to the Bank’s vision to create the next global market in Africa. As the 2018 African Economic Conference (AEC) opens in the Rwandan capital Kigali, the theme this year, “Regional and Continental Integration for Africa’s development,” also aligns with another major Bank priority – placing infrastructure development at the centre of Africa’s regional integration efforts.
Host nation Rwanda has taken bold leadership steps to champion regional integration, announcing at the beginning of this year an entry visa on arrival for travelers from all African countries.
The third edition of the Bank’s Visa Openess Index Report, to be launched on day two of the meeting, will be an important opportunity to measure which countries are making improvements that support free movement of people across Africa.
“The Index has helped raise awareness and drive visa policy reforms across the continent to ease movement of people, unlocking opportunities for intra-African tourism, trade and investment. In so doing, the Bank is directly contributing to the objectives of the AU initiative for a Single African passport,” Gabriel Negatu, Bank Director General, East Africa Regional Development and Business Delivery Office said in his remarks during the opening plenary.
Speaking on behalf of Rwandan President Paul Kagame, Hon. Claudine Uwera, Minister of State in charge of Economic Planning, said the conference addressed a theme “close to our hearts.”
“This conference is important to charting the way for inclusive integration… that would benefit all. Governance will determine the development path for our countries,” Uwera added, noting the equally important role of political will and commitment from African leaders.
The annual African Economic Conference is the continent’s leading forum fostering dialogue and knowledge exchange in the search for solutions to the development challenges of Africa. It brings together leading academics, high ranking government representatives and development practitioners from across the globe.
AEC 2018 will highlight “transformative initiatives for accelerating progress in infrastructure integration that are inclusive and promote equity, including the removal of barriers for movement of people, goods, and services across borders.”
Other convening partners to the Conference, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), commended Rwanda’s role as a front-runner for integration efforts in Africa and spoke on the urgent need to build on the momentum for an inclusive and equitable integration.
“The government of Rwanda is walking the talk and continues to set the pace,” said Ahunna Eziakonwa, Assistant Administrator at the UNDP Regional Bureau for Africa.
Also speaking at the plenary, Giovanie Biha, Deputy Executive Secretary, United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), said while there were still major steps ahead, “we are moving in the right direction.”
Highlighting the Bank’s emphasis on research and knowledge management as important drivers of policy dialogue, good policy planning and implementation, participation this year’s AEC is being organized under the leadership of the Bank’s Research Department and Regional Integration Complex.
Sessions over the three-day meeting will examine the social, cultural and political frameworks for successful integration, building on the landmark signing this year of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement the world’s potentially biggest free trade agreement, which aims to create a single continental market for goods and services, with free movement of business persons and investments across Africa.
Participants will also look at the role of the private sector and civil society institutions.
Given the urgency of regional integration – “no longer a choice”, according to its organizers – this year’s meeting is a must attend for those interested in Africa’s Development agenda.
“Important pages of our continent’s development history are being written,” Uwera said. “Let’s take this opportunity to move the continent ahead.”
AEC 2018: Regional and Continental Integration for Africa’s Development
Regional and continental integration remains a valuable strategy to help utilize Africa’s greatest asset optimally – the youth. Integration of people, trade, finance, infrastructure, to mention a few remains a potent tool to create the future today. Africa is now home to 1.3 billion people, and this will reach 2.5 billion in 2050. For integration to be well accepted, it must be all embracive and render tangible benefits to all Africans. In this regard, integration must be able to catalyse goals and aspirations of Africans, enabling them to build better lives.
In the wake of the launch of the African Continental Free Trade Area, the objective of the conference will be to advocate for and provide clear policy guidance based on research and best practices for a stronger partnership for faster integration in all its dimensions.
It will offer a unique avenue for researchers, policymakers and development practitioners to debate and build knowledge on solutions for continental integration. The debates would focus on using four pillars: Conceptual underpinning of Africa’s integration; Infrastructure and institution for Africa’s integration; Leveraging private sector for Africa’s integration; Partnerships for effective integration) to propel innovative solutions to impediments of Africa’s regional and continental integration.
In March 2018, 44 African Countries committed to the launch of a common market for Africa – the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), which follows the launch of an African Common Passport in July 2016. These are additional milestones towards Africa’s integration that will enable people to build better lives. Africa’s integration has considerable potential not only for driving more robust and equitable economic growth through markets, it holds the promise for reducing conflict on the continent.
Africa’s efforts towards regional and continental integration can be traced back to the formation of the Organization of African Unity over 50 years ago, and the subsequent African Union that reflect a compromise between Monrovia and the Casablanca groups which championed various dimensions of continental integration in the 1960s. This first step towards promoting continental unity was followed by an important milestone, the Abuja Treaty (1991) which underpins the African Economic Community.
Regional economic communities (RECs) are regarded as the building blocks of the African Economic Community. These RECs have underpinned tremendous progress on Africa’s integration, particularly in relation to trade liberalization and facilitation (West Africa economic and monetary Union, COMESA); free movement of people (ECOWAS), infrastructure (SADC, EAC), and peace and security (ECOWAS and SADC).
Despite this progress and strong affirmations of political commitment by African leaders, over the past five decades, most Africans believe continental integration achievements have been modest compared to set goals. Some of the key challenges associated with the slow pace of progress include lack of political will and the absence of resources and technical capacity to facilitate the implementation of commitments made by leaders. The citizens of the continent nonetheless would wish for more and faster integration across economic, social, cultural and political aspects of development. They want to be able to live and work, run a business, and travel with ease anywhere on the continent. They also want to be respected across the world and want the continent to play a prominent role in the global affairs.
This aspiration for an “integrated continent” is a key pillar of Africa’s Agenda 2063 and the theme of the 2018 AEC which focuses on “Regional and Continental Integration for Africa’s Development”. The discussion will build on the outcome of the 2013 Conference on “Regional Integration in Africa” and examine practical solutions to make the recently adopted African Continental Free Trade Area a reality. The conference outcome will contribute to ensuring that the AfCFTA becomes an instrument for promoting Africa’s inclusive development through nurturing institutions and partnerships that sustain actions for Africa’s integration in its multiple forms: economic, social, cultural, environmental and political.
The first key takeaway of the 2013 AEC is that Africa’s integration is no longer a choice. The continent must integrate to consolidate past gains and maximize the benefit of globalization with a view to becoming a major player in the global arena as envisioned by Agenda 2063. However, there a risks arising from a heightened focus on economic integration with less attention to social, cultural and political integration. In addition, there are overlapping memberships in RECs whose policy instruments are not harmonized. Furthermore, there is weak enforcement of existing treaties and Non-Tariff Barriers that continue to hinder free movement of goods, services and persons across borders.
The second takeaway is that whereas there is tangible progress, it is too slow due in part to differing country interests, ineffective and unresponsive institutions. An innovative approach that takes countries’ interests into account without being held hostage by them is required.
The third dimension is the preponderance of bilateral and multilateral agreements with the rest of the world that are not in harmony with regional and continental integration objectives. Under the bilateral/multilateral agreements African countries have the tendency to provide better offers than those exchanged and shared amongst themselves. African countries therefore are confronted by a challenge to ensure that existing and future trade and investments arrangements are in congruence with regional and continental integration.
The final takeaway was that integration ought to be people-centred with stronger partnerships with citizens, private sector players and civil society institutions to facilitate faster progress and sustainable outcomes. Trust in leadership and institutions will be a critical enabler for accelerated integration to happen. However, trust depends on effectiveness of institutions and leadership to deliver on set objectives of integration and their ability to use integration to drive development outcomes across the continent.