The human face of regional integration in Africa

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Regional integration is crucial for Africa’s development. It is essential to building economies of scale and creating a competitive continental economy. It promises to open up new markets, by eliminating trade barriers, and through investments in key sectors like water and energy. It can unleash the full potential of Africa’s workforce.

This is well documented in many reports and policy-makers often proclaim knowledge of these benefits in international summits.

In turn, integration would provide a stronger base for economic diversification and trigger a virtuous cycle of economic growth.

There is no shortage of models and projections to support these assertions. For instance, an investment of USD 32 billion in Africa’s road network could increase intra-African trade by USD 250 billion over a period of 15 years.

Yet the question remains: what can integration do for people? That theme is crucial as African countries figure out how to transition from economic growth to genuine poverty reduction and human development. Putting this agenda forward could also add momentum towards regional integration.

First, regional economic integration would contribute to the creation of quality jobs, particularly for young women and men, thus enhancing livelihood opportunities and reducing inequalities. African countries need to work together to achieve that goal, devising public policies that can create skills, facilitate labor mobility and access to finance. This is particularly true in labor intensive sectors such as agriculture.

Second, basic social services and social protection can play an important role in helping people cope not only with shocks but also the risks associated with more competitive and open markets.

Countries can use integration as an opportunity to strengthen health, nutrition, education and vocational training, all of which contribute to making the workforce more productive.

Third, integration can actually empower people, through the opportunity to migrate and take up jobs across borders. As countries vie to attract and retain new labor force, they have an interest in promoting stability and preventing conflict, protecting people’s rights, health and physical safety and involving them in decision-making.

Fourth, natural resources are vital for continued economic growth and diversification and are the base upon which communities can sustain themselves. African nations could establish better regional mechanisms to manage cross-border environmental resources is essential to securing sustainable development.

African-wide integration, supported by cross-border economic policies, would have real and significant human development gains for all of the sub-regions of Africa. But it has particular implications for poor and landlocked countries, where access to trade routes and markets is limited.

Because human development is about expanding life choices for women, men and children, then regional integration must trigger cross-border collaboration that can maximize welfare for all Africans.

The biggest challenge that we are now facing is how to accelerate that agenda. Among the major hurdles are harmonizing standards and regulations, boosting human resource capacities and mobilizing leadership and political will to promote collective action.

The African Economic Conference, which takes place in Johannesburg from October 28 to 30, will look at the political economy of regional integration and examine closely some of the practical solutions to advance it.

Abdoulaye Mar Dieye is the Head of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Africa