Once again, concerned stakeholders from the 79 African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of states (the international organisation known simply as the ACP) had cause to recently congregate to engage in some soul-searching sessions in order to come up with ideas that would guarantee both the present and the future of the 37-year old body which is reputed as the world's largest intergovernmental organisation of developing countries.
This year's meeting of the ACP-EU did not hold in its secretariat in Brussels as happened last year. This time around, the usual attendees: diplomats, ministers, representatives of heads of governments, media practitioners and top bureaucrats of the ACP Secretariat in Brussels, Belgium and their counterparts on the EU side and officials of the EU Commission, crossed continents and vast oceans to gather in the small Pacific island nation of Vanuatu, off Australia and New Zealand. Their mission was the annual session of the ACP as well as the ACP-EU Council of Ministers which take place a few days of each other. This year's gathering, which held from June 11-15, was the organisation's 95th session. Their joint meeting with their European Union counterparts which also holds annually and is known as the ACP-EU Council of Ministers was the 37th session.
What were the main concerns of the 95th session of the ACP Council of Ministers and the 37th session of the ACP-EU Council of Ministers in Vanuatu? They were: the Future Perspectives of the ACP Group; Accession of South Sudan to the full membership of the ACP-EU Partnership, Update of EPA negotiations, the Setting up of an ACP Investment and Trade Bank, the ACP-EU Dialogue on Migration and the joint ACP-EU position on Rio +20 Environment Summit which held in Rio de Jenairo in Brazil, a few weeks later.
If an organisation that has been in existence for nearly forty years now has top on its agenda the issue of its future, then this is a clear indication that all is not very well with it. What can be said to be the things seriously threatening the existence of the ACP Group in its nearly four decades of trade and development partnership with the EU? A background of the organisation's birth and its existence thus far is perhaps necessary for those who may not be very conversant with this body.
The ACP is s a group of Third World countries (currently 79: 48 African, 16 Caribbean and 15 Pacific and will soon become 80 with the imminent membership of South Sudan). The organisation was created in 1975 by what is known as the Georgetown (Guyana) Agreement and is made up of states that are linked together in trade and development cooperation by colonial ties. They have a preferential non-reciprocal trade agreement with their former colonial masters who are the European Union (EU) arm in this important partnership. The EU is the donor and preferential trade grantors while the ACP members are the recipients. Forty per cent of the ACP members' exports go to the EU.
The ACP Group's main objectives are sustainable development and poverty reduction within its member states, as well as their greater integration into the global economy. All of the member states, except Cuba, are signatories to the Cotonou Agreement with the European Union whose importance will soon become clear.
On June 13, 2000 the Cotonou Agreement which was signed in Cotonou, capital of neighbouring Benin Republic, came into being and marked a turning point in the life of the organisation. The Agreement which significantly broadened the relationship between the ACP and the EU and also brought in many other actors in the development process, gave great hope that the partnership will go a long way in helping the accelerated development of the ACP states.
The Cotonou Agreement is the successor to the Lome Conventions which were mainly focused on aid. One of the major differences from the Lomé Convention is that the partnership is extended to new actors such as civil society, private sector, trade unions and local authorities. These will be involved in consultations and planning of national development strategies, provided with access to financial resources and involved in the implementation of programmes.
There are some features in the Cotonou Agreement which development experts and commentators see as significant- the duration of twenty years given before there could be a review. Cotonou gave sufficient time to enable ACP Member-States to get onto the road to development and, especially, to become smoothly integrated into the global market. Indeed, the Agreement envisages the removal of non-reciprocal trade preferences granted ACP countries, but only after a long transition period. The Lome Conventions usually ran for five years and did not give enough time for long term planning by the weak ACP states.
Another significant feature of the Cotonou Agreement is the realisation inherent in it that although aid helps some developing countries to survive, that mode of assistance cannot create development. Trade, by contrast, is a determining factor of development. The Cotonou Agreement promotes the strengthening of real economic partnership through new trade agreements, among other things. The Group has been making tremendous efforts to attract foreign investment and has been trying, therefore, to establish a favourable legal, economic and political environment to achieve that objective.
It is because of these two and other key features of the Cotonou Agreement which are vital to the well being of the ACP Group that the fear of its non-renewal is causing such consternation among the ACP Partnership. It is not an exaggeration to say that some ACP members look with dread and trepidation to the year 2020 because they are simply uncertain about the future of this potentially great organisation. Its survival beyond that date is a matter for great uncertainty, to put it very mildly.
Whatever the personal feeling of individuals and the Group may be it is certain that barely eight years away, this famous agreement is set to expire. The big question is: will it be renewed? And if it is not renewed, as many seem to fear in light of the challenges which the EU member countries are facing themselves, what is the future of the whole ACP-EU Group?
This reporter recalls that the number one thing on the lips of every member at the 93rd session of the Council of Ministers in Brussels last year was the future of the body after the expiration of the Cotonou Agreement in 2020. The fact that this year again, this item was still number one on the agenda of The Group is an indication that members are not blissfully snoring away when the very survival of their organisation is under severe threat.
The comforting thing is that leaders of these poor but unbowed developing countries are not resting on the knowledge that they are facing a threat, lamenting the changing circumstances which are impacting negatively on their countries and the organisation meant to spearhead their development. Rather, some positive steps are being taken which give hope that the body might overcome its challenges and endure to serve their common interests.
Already, a working group, known as the Ambassadorial Working Group on the Future Perspectives of the ACP under the chair of His Excellency, Dr Patrick Gomes, of Guyana has been constituted and mandated to look at the future prospects of the organisation. It is to explore several scenarios and come up with suggestions for repositioning the ACP within the global arena. As part of its efforts, a technical study financed by the United Nations Development Programme was recently completed on various future configurations for The Group.
Briefing media men, Ambassador Gomes said his group has since submitted its report to the ACP Council of Ministers detailing steps the body should take in the short, medium and long term to meet any eventuality.
One of the most promising recommendations made for the survival of the ACP is the setting up of an investment bank modelled after the African Development Bank and similar regional banks to finance development projects, especially mining, infrastructures and other socio-economic concerns among the member states. Dr Obadiah Mailafia, Chief de Cabinet of the ACP Secretariat disclosed to journalists last year in Brussels that the concept note which will lay the ground work for the bank was in the works and would be out a few months later. Dr Mailafia, a Nigerian, once worked with the African Development Bank and was also the Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria.
At this year's meeting this reporter was anxious to hear of positive development in the establishment of the proposed development bank idea and I was not disappointed. One of the positive outcomes of this year's meeting is that the Ministers have directed the ACP Secretariat to explore the possibilities of setting up the bank which will be known as Bank for International Trade and Investment (BITI).
This was disclosed by the President of the ACP Council of Ministers who is also the Minister of Foreign Affairs, International Trade and Civil Aviation of the Caribbean island nation of St. Lucia, Hon. Alva Romanus Baptiste, at the opening ceremony of the 37th session of the ACP-EU Joint Ministerial Council which took place at the Independence Park, Port Vila, capital of the Republic of Vanuatu. The joint ministerial council is the highest decision-making body of the ACP-EU Partnership Agreement.
According to Hon. Baptiste, the aim of this venture is "to create a financing vehicle to mobilise resources within and outside our member nations to promote trade, investment and infrastructure development".
He said this has become vitally necessary because one of the principal effects of the global financial meltdown has been the drying up of credit in global financial markets. The most hit by this development, he said, are developing nations, particularly in the area of trade financing. The proposed investment bank will help to fill the gap.
He also disclosed that as part of efforts by the ACP to reinvent itself the Group has hired the services of a consultant to help map a possible scenario for the Group after 2020 (that is, after the expiration of the Cotonou Agreement).
Giving the rationale for the hiring of a consultant, Professor Dr Mirjam van Riesen, of Tilburg University in the Netherlands. Hon. Baptiste said that "we did not hire an ACP consultant to tell us what we want to hear. Rather, we brought on board a critical but sympathetic European academic to look at the ACP through the critical blinkers of empirical social science". He told the gathering that the report of the consultant has shown that the ACP Partnership has an intrinsic value as a coalition of nearly a billion people and 79 member countries; a coalition united by the sentiments of solidarity and commitment to North-South dialogue and international social justice.
The report, he also said, "makes it clear that there was need for the ACP to reinvent to ensure a continuing relevance in a world marked by profound structural changes".
Another indication of the on-going efforts of finding a viable solution to the threat facing The Group, is that the Ambassadorial Working Group has also scheduled a meeting, the 7th Summit of ACP Heads of States and Governments on 13 and 14 December in the neighbouring country of Equatorial Guinea. The theme of the event is The Future of the ACP Group in a Changing World: Challenges and Opportunities.
Another important goal which was scored at the Vanuatu meeting was the accession of the newly independent state of South Sudan to the full membership of the 79-member body, making the body an 80- member strong organisation representing about 1. 4 billion people on planet earth. It is only a matter of formality: within a few months, South Sudan will become a full member as it has already been requested to present an instrument of admission.
In spite of the diversity of interests between the largely developed economies of the EU countries and the largely underdeveloped economies of the ACP Group, the ACP-EU Partnership had a common platform on the Rio+20 environmental summit scheduled for Rio de Janeiro. They declared that they were interested in the blue and green economy. They said the green economy is a win-win situation for everybody. The President of the EU Council of Ministers, Mr Christian Friis Bach, who was co-host and co-chair of the Vanuatu meeting, said that the common position of the ACP and the EU on the Rio+20 summit was important because "it came from over 100 countries representing 1.4 billion people on earth".
Both sides of the Partnership were very laconic on the thorny issues of migration, visa and other issues relating to the movement of nationals in and out of their countries. All the joint presidents were able to let out was that "we need to show flexibility on both sides".
On the very contentious issue of Economic Partnership Agreement between regional blocs within the ACP and the EU which is simply negotiation between giants and dwarfs and which many consider one of the main issues rocking the boat of the organisation, the ACP President, Hon. Alva Romanus Baptiste, who is given to nice turn of diplomatic phrases and sentences, put it this way: "The disagreement between the ACP-EU takes place against a background of substantial agreement". And on other headaches worrying the organisation, he declared that: "we will bring a cure to what we can cure". And on his general impression of the Vanuatu meeting, he said "it was a historic meeting".
The Vanuatu meeting may be historic but it is unfortunate that in spite of the ACP's uniqueness in terms of its diversity but commonality in terms of interest; in spite of its key, 'natural' advantages such its numerical strength and the strength of solidarity among its membership and in spite of the preferential trade arrangement members have been enjoying from the EU for a while now, from among these countries are still to be found some of the poorest nations on planet earth. Forty out of the 45 countries that are considered as the least developed countries in the world are members of the ACP Group, which is why the senior partner in the ACP-EU arrangement, the EU, supports up to 60 per cent the annual budgets of some ACP member states.
What is more, the entire group accounts for less than 3 per cent of world trade. In fact, one of its goals, which seems elusive for now, is how to get its members better integrated into the global world trade. Today, they are virtual outsiders, depending largely on the subsistent existence of its citizens and on the crumbs that fall from the table of rich donor nations. Its solidarity is being severely challenged by the imperative for individual survival in the face of global economic challenges and rapidly changing political, economic and social reality.
But there is hope for the ACP. The Secretary-General, Dr Mohammed Ibn Chambas has maintained that as part of its survival strategy the ACP has plans to develop a system of working together for their common development interests by diversifying its relations. He explained that the Secretariat has been talking to China, India and Brazil on how they and the ACP can work together to strengthen South-South solidarity in the coming years.
It emerged that the ACP is intent on deepening this south-south cooperation by establishing South-South economic free trade zones. What may ultimately prove decisive in the survival of the ACP is that deep in the soul of most members of the Group is the earnest desire that their organisation should not die but live to fulfil its great promise.