SADC: celebrating 30 years of pointlessness
Wednesday, August 18, 2010
The thirtieth anniversary of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) is a stark reminder of just how ineffective the current network of African regional trade groupings is. Despite years of deal brokering and millions of dollars having been spent on trade facilitation, intra-African trade remains stifled. Less than ten per cent of African exports are destined for other African economies and the continent’s share of global trade has steadily fallen since the end of World War II. Today, France exports more merchandise than the whole of sub-Saharan Africa collectively.
Part of the problem is to be found in the prescription. Africans have zealously embraced European style political integration without much serious effort concentrated on boosting regional trade. The result is a tangled web of regional economic communities (RECs), all with overlapping memberships, separate policy provisions and independent institutional support. Of the 53 African countries, 27 are members of two RECs, 18 belong to three, and a couple are members of four. Only a handful of countries have maintained membership in one community.
Many of these groups, including SADC, are inherently weak. Bourne out of protracted negotiations, the final agreements that underpin these groups are watered down and are ill-suited to address the obstacles to trade that face African businesses. The vast majority of these barriers are found in the domestic regulations that make it prohibitively expensive to trade across borders, open business or even pay taxes. These are extensively documented by indices such as Doing Business, or the Logistics Performance Index, but they can only be dealt with at the national level.
Membership in regional economic communities has proven popular, but Africa governments would do their constituents the biggest favour by abandoning these do-nothing clubs and concentrating on these more important domestic priorities.
So while delegates in Windhoek enjoy the latest boondoggle and celebrate “30 years of progress”, it’s worth remembering that Africa’s many “high-profile” summits stand very little chance of addressing the real barriers to African prosperity.