Civil Society Urged to Scrutinise Africa's Continental Free Trade Area Negotiations

29 February 2016

Accra — Establishing a continental free trade area will allow African countries an opportunity to change the structure of their trade and civil society has a role in ensuring transparent and inclusive negotiations and implementation of the agreement. Speaking at the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) - Third World Network (TWN) Colloquium on the Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA), Mr. David Luke, ECA's Coordinator of the African Trade Policy Centre (ATPC) cited ECA research which indicates that a "50 per cent increase in intra-African trade above a 2012-baseline can be achieved by 2022 if a continental free trade is in place by 2017".

Mr. Luke highlighted the progress underway with the CFTA negotiations, the key policy challenges and opportunities at stake, and the vital role of Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) in assuring meaningful consultation, transparency and a comprehensive CFTA negotiation and implementation process.

Delivering introductory remarks, Mr. Luke stressed the importance of the CFTA as a flagship initiative to "boost intra-African trade, consolidate African markets and reinforce regional integration" under the African Union's Agenda 2063. "The CFTA has the potential to contribute significantly to sustainable economic growth, infrastructure development, employment generation, poverty reduction, local and foreign direct investment, thereby paving the way for structural change and industrial development," he said.

The CFTA negotiations were formally launched at the African Union Summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, in June 2015 with a deadline for the establishment of the free trade area set for 2017. Since then, the CFTA Negotiating Forum has held its first meeting in February 2015 at the AU Headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

The colloquium, co-hosted by the ECA and the TWN, was organised to bring together CSOs from across the continent to deliberate on the topic of the Continental Free Trade Area: Internal Challenges and External Threats and a Civil Society Strategy Meeting on Advocacy around Africa's Trade and Development. The meeting drew experts from CSOs across Africa, the African Union Commission, ECA, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, to create an Action Plan for CSO engagement with the CFTA.

Key policy opportunities must be addressed to enable African countries to take full advantage of the CFTA. Mr. Luke underlined "improved trade facilitation measures" and "disciplines on non-tariff barriers" as well as challenges such as ensuring that marginalised groups reap the economic benefits of this agreement. Mr. Luke said countries will have to identify alternative revenue sources to trade taxes, and address the implications for gender and the environment as well as for African Least Developed Country (LDC) economies.

In meeting these policy challenges, Mr. Luke emphasized the crucial functions of CSOs in building awareness and campaigning for appropriate policy responses, both during the negotiation and implementation of the CFTA. He sees the CSOs in the vital role of scrutinizing the impact of CFTA proposals, identifying affected parties, supporting stakeholders in national discussions, and ensuring that the CFTA takes into account equitability, human rights and sustainability principles.

Delegates noted that for the CFTA to have a broader impact, it should be accompanied by complementary services, industrial development and agriculture sector reforms for enhancing food security, rural development, productivity and enhanced participation in agro-value-chains.

Mr. Luke called upon CSOs to strive for the realization of these principles using the tools of "impact assessments, audits, studies and other analytical and grassroots inputs", as well as "engaging and mobilizing the media" to provide advocacy channels for concerns.

Concluding his opening address, Mr. Luke re-emphasized the opportunity for the CFTA to change the structure of African trade, the vital role of CSOs and that the ECA, through its African Trade Policy Centre, "stands ready to work with civil society to ensure transparency, consultation and inclusion in the CFTA negotiations and implementation of an Agreement".

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