At a time when the multilateral system is under siege and media speculation about Brexit and whether the European Union is in decline is widespread, the African Union is quietly deepening economic, social, and political ties.
Africa has embarked on a journey of transformational change: while the international media may be portraying a dismal picture of Africans as refugees fleeing on boats, the reality is much different.
Economic integration is progressing. The signing of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) in January 2018, and its ratification by 27 countries so far, is an important development milestone for the continent.
It has taken Africa almost 30 years since the signing of the Abuja Treaty in 1991 to reach this stage. But the continent cannot afford to wait another 30 years to translate AfCFTA and the potential it holds into reality.
Africa’s success at augmenting economic prosperity for all on the continent will depend critically on its capacity to transform AfCFTA into a catalyst for structural change and prosperity.
While the rest of the world has often felt captive to trade tensions between the world’s two largest economies, since July 2019 the 54 members of the African Union have entered the operational phase of AfCFTA, putting into action far-reaching plans to tear down barriers to trade and mobility on the continent.
With further alignment and improved coordination, AfCFTA has real potential to foster the development of robust regional value chains, which could increase intra-African trade.
The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development’s (UNCTAD) Economic Development in Africa Report 2019 – Made in Africa, Rules of Origin for Enhanced Intra-African Trade notes that the establishment of AfCFTA could lead to a reorientation of trade towards the regional market, in the long-run associated with significant overall welfare gains, output, and employment expansions.
In fact, welfare and output gains could be significantly enhanced if AfCFTA negotiations also effectively address not just tariff-related issues, but also non-tariff barriers such as trade facilitation issues, sanitary and phytosanitary measures, and rules of origin.
Overall, the relative sophistication of intra-African trade suggests that the regional market may offer a greater – and so far, largely untapped – scope for supporting economic diversification provided that AfCFTA is approached and implemented as an opportunity to enhance the consistency of Africa’s trade policy framework and structural transformation agenda.
The new Pan-African agenda goes beyond trade and value chains, however, and includes free movement of African citizens across borders for both work and leisure travel.
The African Union (AU) passport, aimed at facilitating the free movement of people on the continent, is beginning to gain momentum.
According to the African Development Bank’s Africa Visa Openness Report 2019, African visitors no longer need a visa to travel to a quarter of other African countries, whereas visa-free travel was only possible to a fifth of the continent in 2016. Currently, 21 African countries also offer e-visas to make travel more accessible.
Africa’s airspace is going borderless as well, with significant progress on the AU Single African Air Transport Market initiative launched in 2018.
Signed by 23 countries it makes it easier for Africans to travel across the continent. But this wider scope of borderless Africa can also go further in countering the false narrative around African migrants.
With deeper regional integration and cooperation, African countries must improve their migration management by developing tools and capabilities to more effectively measure movement of people.
UNCTAD’s Economic Development in Africa Report 2018 – Migration for Structural Transformation shows that, contrary to popular perception, international migration in Africa is primarily a continental phenomenon.
In 2017, more than half – 53 per cent – of Africa’s international migrants resided within the continent, many of them circulating within the same region. For many Africans, migration offers a chance at a better life for them and their families, with benefits extending to future generations and spanning both the countries of destination and origin.
Countries of destination for African migrants fill critical skill gaps as well as benefiting from improved productivity and increased output. Cote d’Ivoire – a leading migration destination on the continent – has reaped significant benefits from international migration. In 2008, international migrants’ contribution amounted to almost a fifth (19 per cent) of Cote d’Ivoire’s GDP.
Africa’s international migrants often acquire skills in destination countries that enable them to earn higher incomes and create better livelihoods for themselves and their families.
Migrants’ countries of origin gain from remittances, diaspora investment, nostalgia trade generated by migrants’ demand for products from their home countries, as well as knowledge, technology, and skill transfer from returning migrants.
For many African women, opportunities in domestic service, informal trade, retail, and other services have enabled them to earn incomes that improve their livelihoods, support their families, and contribute to poverty reduction.
Eliminating regulatory restrictions that hinder migrants from taking advantage of these opportunities is paramount for realising the benefits of a borderless Africa. Recognising low and semi-skilled migrants’ qualifications can enhance their employment prospects and mitigate deskilling – a challenge that some migrants face in destination countries.
The removal of preferences for nationals in Morocco and Rwanda’s temporary visa (H-4) for semi-skilled migrants are examples of measures that have enabled international migrants to take up employment legally and integrate in labour markets.
Ensuring legal protections for women who often work in vulnerable, unregulated employment in domestic service, informal trade and other services, and tackling gender-related security risks that inherently affect women’s migration journeys are also crucial.
Borderless Africa stands to reap further benefits from closer trade, industry, and migrant links among its countries. The geopolitical moment is opportune, the economic case is solid, and the domestic political stars seem aligned in most African countries. The time to capitalise on this potential for Africa’s youth to benefit from this $2.5 trillion promise is now.
Dr Mukhisa Kituyi is the secretary-general of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.