What Research Support in Support of Regional Integration in West Africa?

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clip image001By Prof. Diéry Seck - Director General of CREPOL, www.crepol.org, Dakar, Senegal and also Member of the Academy of Sciences of Senegal


Over the last few decades, West Africa has held a leading role in Africa on efforts to achieve regional integration (RI) on the continent.  Its two main groupings, Union Economique et Monétaire Ouest Africaine (UEMOA) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have made bold steps in pursuit of the sub-region’s RI agenda.  These efforts are undertaken by policymakers who enjoy the support and backing of all stakeholders including private sector, civil society and the sub-region’s population at large.  The absence of political opposition to    RI has encouraged sub-regional institutions and national policymakers to strengthen existing regional organs and policies and to expand the mandate of the two groupings beyond their initial roles. 

These bold new steps include establishment of a common market and of the Common External Tariff, inception of the ECOWAS common currency, creation of the ECOWAS passport, the ECOWAS Parliament and the ECOWAS Court of Justice.

Even if many of these institutions are still in their formative years, they continue to benefit from overwhelming support but often face challenges that, at the technical level, must be resolved to pave the way for further progress down the RI road.  In this regard, researchers and students of RI have a cardinal role to play in the analysis of the determinants of success and contribution to the public debate on RI in West Africa.   While an active and productive dialogue is needed between researchers and scholars on the one hand and policymakers and other influential actors on the other hand, the distinct role of the former serves to inform and, to a certain extent, influence policy decisions, as well as constantly generate new ideas.   This calls for regular and dedicated training of members of all segments of society, including policymakers, on the issues and techniques of analysis of RI policies and reforms.  A comparable degree of expertise for all debate participants would surely help facilitate communication and emergence of broad consensus.  This exchange would also sensitize researchers and scholars on the actual challenges and priorities as perceived by other actors. 

Consequently, the scientific role of researchers and scholars is to engage in two classes of reflection.  They need to be a) responsive to the current challenges of the RI agenda and policies and b) visionary in their capacity to anticipate challenges of the future to avoid today’s pitfalls that would complicate them later and gain precious time in the future pursuit of RI.  It is difficult to identify exhaustively all the issues that may require immediate responsiveness because different classes of actors may have different views on such issues.  But it is even more complicated to have a vision of the challenges of the future and their respective order of importance, even for a single class of actors.   In what follows, the economic dimensions of the role of researchers and scholars in the quest for stronger RI are examined. 

Responsiveness to current RI challenges

The Secretariat of ECOWAS and the 15 national governments have undertaken a number of reforms and innovations that are intended to serve as building blocks of the RI project. Although substantial progress has been made on many of them, remaining hurdles could, if unchecked, hamper their total resolution.  Researchers and scholars need to dedicate their energy to tackle at least four key challenges.

First, the ECOWAS Common Currency.  Over the years, many attempts have been made to create a common currency for all national economies of the sub-region. Several scenarios have been formulated in this respect but the long delays incurred by this project and the absence of any meaningful progress in this regard in spite of repeated pronouncements of the Heads of State make a program of research imperative in support of the public debate.

 Second, ECOWAS as a trading block.   One of the main objectives of ECOWAS authorities is to transform the sub-region into a trading block by increasing trade between its members which is among the lowest in the world’s regions, and establishing a Common External Tariff as a contributing factor.  In this regard they have sought to reduce non-tariff barriers that impede cross-border trade among member-states, harmonize import/export administrative procedures and expand and improve means of cross-border payment.  However, internal trade within ECOWAS relative to total trade remains very low and effective solutions to remedy this situation have not yet been found.  Here also, researchers and scholars have a role to play.

Third, ECOWAS of People.  The high degree of mobility and exchange of people across national boundaries has spurred the authorities of ECOWAS to initiate measures that enhance the notion of “ECOWAS of the people”.  Inception of the ECOWAS passport and the legal capacity of ECOWAS nationals to reside and work in any country are illustrations of this state of mind.  More progress could be attained with region-wide standardization of diplomas and professional certification so as to create a single labor market and the possibility for professionals to create a business in any country (lawyers, accountants, pharmacists, etc.).

And fourth, a single legal and contractual framework. In October 1993, 17 French-speaking African countries created “l’Organisation pour l’Harmonisation en Afrique du Droit des Affaires (OHADA)”.  This organization designed and implemented a legal set of rules and procedures for the conduct of business that is shared by all.  This arrangement already includes 9 West African countries (Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinée, Guinée Bissau, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Togo) and could be extended to the 6 remaining countries, possibly with changes to take into account their distinct Anglophone tradition.  The reconciliation and amalgamation of the business cultures of the two groups of countries could also be examined and formulas made for its operationalization.

The visionary role of researchers and scholars

  While the future is hard to predict, careful examination of the current risks and opportunities may shed light on future areas of adversity or gain that will concern the RI agenda and its ongoing progress.  A large number of future possible challenges could be listed but the following ones would arguably be among them. 

First, multi-country industries.  West African countries share many characteristics regarding agricultural and natural resources that are often insufficiently transformed locally because their supply is limited at the national level.  Industries that source their natural resource inputs from several contiguous countries would achieve economies of scale that would ensure their competitiveness.  Their establishment would also provide markets for small-scale farmers from several countries and give them higher and more stable incomes. 

Second, common ecological and environmental strategies and policies. Global warming, soil erosion and rise of sea levels are a reality for many West African countries.  Strategies and policies to address them are still timid and mainly formulated at the national level, some countries suffering from lack of analytical and financial capacity in this struggle.  The emerging mobilization for the defense and preservation of the environment will require substantial research in its support and researchers will have a big role to play in this regard. 

Third, inclusion of rural areas in RI agenda.  Although in West Africa a large majority of the population is rural and a significant percentage of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) comes from agriculture, rural areas are seldom at the heart of the RI public debate.  The resources devoted to regionally integrated agriculture are also very limited.  Yet the economic potential of this sector is seen as important given the vast natural resource endowments of the countries.  The challenge is not only to raise the status of agriculture on the RI agenda but also to include small-scale peasants who essentially represent almost all the population in these areas. 

Fourth, mitigation of sub-regional risks.  West Africa faces several vulnerabilities of various types that affect the stability of its economy across its internal borders.   Some of these vulnerabilities are natural but others are man-made.  They span from health (Ebola) to agriculture (locust invasion, drought, etc.) and politics (coups, terrorism, exercise and transmission of political power).  They require acute attention and research on their predictability and resolution in order to create a stable economic environment.

Fifth, analysis of the RI gains and obstacles.  It is generally agreed that RI is good but little analysis has been conducted on its economic value.  In the future, more research will need to be conducted on the sources and magnitude of the gains that accrue from RI as well as the obstacles that hamper its full potential from being reaped.  This may require more accurate formulation of all actors’ expectations and identification of indicators of success from their respective points of view.  Constant monitoring of the RI progress could also help seize new opportunities and undertake new reforms that will be necessary along the way.

In conclusion, the role of researchers and scholars in the pursuit of West Africa’s RI cannot be over-stated.  It starts with strengthening of training programs and research centers devoted to the study of RI.  The political will seems to be here; all that is needed is availability of more academic and financial resources and more inclusion of RI policies into national development policies.