Business Daily Africa, February 02, 2011

By Frederick Njehu

The trade debate on the Doha round of negotiations has resumed on a high gear in the 2011 calendar. There is optimism among African and other developing countries that the mantle of the negotiations remains a development round. Various complementary efforts both formal and informal have been set up by most of the parties involved and the matter has shifted from when to how the Doha round of negotiations would be concluded. For most developing countries, there has been an alternative to the multilateralism at the WTO, with regional trade agreements and bilateral agreements being accorded momentum. If this trend continues, Africa could become home to about 26 regional trade agreements. These could include 14 regional groupings; 5 EPAs; free trade areas between Europe and North Africa countries; and South Africa and Southern African Customs Union (SACU) trade agreements with Europe and Mercosur. Of the 14 regional groupings, the African Union recognizes 8 as building blocks towards the African economic community. Yet the most challenging of the African regional trade agreements are those of the north-south nature, especially the economic partnership agreements, given the inclusion of the least developing countries (LDCs) among the African subgroups. It is for this reason that the EPA negotiations could have potential of affecting Africa’s development agenda for many years to come.

As much as these complementing efforts are in place, there is a need to establish a review system to take the Doha negotiations forward. The development was established on the basis of poverty alleviation to bring on board developing countries interests. Abandoning the round could be the last option for the poor countries whose share in the global trade is far below 3%. These countries will need a solid strategy in order to reap the benefits accrued in the negotiations. The main question raised by African leaders is on how the Doha round could be beneficial to the development of African continent.

Consequently, a necessary but not sufficient condition for the Doha Round to make a real contribution to African development is that there must be concrete achievements in negotiations on agricultural trade. In particular, the negotiations must lead to significant improvements in market access for African exports and a reduction in subsidies and other domestic support measures used by developing countries. Other measures that would enhance the contribution of the round to African development include; better integration of development issues into the work programme of the WTO as well as mechanisms to make them fully effective and operational; More flexibility in WTO agreements to enable African countries deal effectively with poverty reduction and food security issues; Change of attitude by developed countries as evidenced in their willingness to honor commitments made to developing countries on previous rounds of multilateral trade negotiations; More sensitivity to the implementation costs of WTO agreements for poor African countries. These costs are enormous, divert attention away from important development priorities, and make it difficult for several countries to finance investments. education, health, and infrastructure that would have positive consequences for poverty reduction.

Njehu is a Trade analyst with CUTS International