Kigali — A truly successful implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area agreement cannot be achieved without the "people dimension," ensuring that the integration process does not lead to widening inequalities or exclusion.
In a plenary session on the final day of the African Economic Conference, delegates participated in an interactive session with experts and policy makers, discussing the risks of integration: fragility, rising youth population, unemployment and hunger, as well as examples of good practice and recommendations to avoid or mitigate the risks.
A total of 44 African nations signed the landmark African Continental Free Trade agreement (AfCFTA) earlier this year, which aims to create a single continental market for goods and services, with free movement of business persons and investments, and thus pave the way for accelerating the establishment of the Continental Customs Union and the African customs union.
But the agreement is not without its potential downsides and the potential inequality and opportunity for exclusion was the focus of the plenary entitled: "Driving Equity, Inclusion and Innovation for Africa's Transformation through Regional Integration."
Hunger, gender imbalance and a growing population with youth distancing themselves from agriculture and primary production, were top of Monique Nsanzabaganwa, Rwanda's Deputy Governor of the Rwanda National Bank's list.
"A third of the East African region is affected by hunger, she said while the gender pay gap meant that 75% of women were working for no wages.
"Women may be falling through the cracks," the Bank Governor said.
Other panelists underscored fragility, the importance of governance and strong institutions and ensuring that policy makers do not exclude the women and ordinary people involved in agriculture, which would play a unique role in the integration process.
Ngone Diop of the Economic Commission for Africa warned that more than half the population was being left behind and said care must be taken to ensure food security and to protect the women "at the heart of the process."
The discussion was punctuated with contributions from the audience.
Isaac Shinyekwa, Head of Trade and Regional Integration Department at the Economic Policy Research Centre, Uganda emphasized the need for training and industrialization.
Yague Samb, a Conflict Resolution expert said socio-economic conditions are the major contributing factors for extremism and radicalization, which also pose a serious threat to a successfully integrated continent.
She said studies show that radicalization in Niger, Mali and Nigeria are directly linked to frustration with socio-economic conditions.
Migration, fragility, regional public good issues
Another key aspect of a successful AfCFTA would be good governance, coupled with a regional integration perspective, factoring in potential hotspots, the panelists said. Fragility, which led to migration of youth and affects children and women most, would have to be addressed and minimized, as is the issue of land conflicts, which significantly impacts a region's agricultural output.
Temitope Oshikoya, an Economic Strategist, said an example of this was the migration of cattle herders from neighboring countries to central Nigeria, which led to tensions and insecurity.
"This needs to be tackled from a regional public good perspective," Oshikoya said, adding that there should be provision for providing incentives for collective action to policy makers.
Other factors - the current low levels of intra-African trade and the high dependence on imports by African countries - could also have a negative impact on successful integration efforts, the discussants noted.
Education and skills building were two other key areas needing priority intervention.
Wrapping up the discussion UNDP Country Director Stephen Rodriques underlined that successful integration would entail both national regional resolve to address the risks that stand in the way of implementing AfCFTA.
"We know that there are multiple fault lines and risks... many issues are cross-border. Regional public issues should be treated as public good. Education and skills training has to be addressed as a continental agenda," Rodriques said.
The African Economic Conference, held annually, is the continent's leading forum fostering dialogue and knowledge exchange in the search for solutions to the development challenges of Africa. It brings together leading academics, high ranking government representatives and development practitioners from across the globe.
AEC 2018 had as its focus "transformative initiatives for accelerating progress in infrastructure integration that are inclusive and promote equity, including the removal of barriers for movement of people, goods, and services across borders."
The next AEC conference will take place in December 2019.