There is a misconception, by some, that the World Trade Organization (WTO) is a barrier to regional integration. It is one of a number of misconceptions that do not match up with the facts like the perception that the WTO is a rich man’s club.Today the WTO has 162 members and rising at all stages of development. 43 of those members are African countries and rising. The organization now covers around 98% of world trade. It is a truly global organization, one where everybody has an equal say. And it is an organization which supports regional integration in Africa. Indeed, I would say that the need for better integration across the continent is indisputable.
It’s clear in the fact that intra-African trade remains just a tenth of Africa’s total trade. Or in the fact that the cost of moving goods within Africa is twice the global average. Or in the fact that an African company faces an average tariff of 8.7% when selling within Africa, against 2.5% elsewhere. Regional initiatives such as the Southern African Customs Union predate the multilateral system by some decades. Different kinds of trade initiatives have always co-existed with the multilateral system. It is important that they are coherent and compatible, so that they can all help to spread the benefits of trade.
The economic map of Africa today is defined by these efforts: from Southern African Development Community (SADC), Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and the East African Community (EAC) to the Tripartite Free Trade Agreement and, in due course, the Continental Free Trade Area. The WTO supports these efforts. And the WTO’s Trade Facilitation Agreement provides a very practical mechanism for taking them forward. This Agreement, finalized in 2013, is about simplifying and standardizing customs procedures, thereby reducing the time and cost of moving goods across borders. We expect that, when fully implemented, the Agreement could reduce trade costs by an average of 14.5%.
The East African Community has already applied a range of trade facilitation reforms, which have delivered remarkable results in cutting the time and expense of moving goods between countries. Rolling out such measures would unlock the potential of many traders across the continent especially small and medium-sized enterprises. But, in order to benefit from the Agreement, first it must be ratified. The Trade Facilitation Agreement is notable for the benefits it will deliver but also because it was the first multilaterally agreed deal in the WTO’s history. We held another ministerial conference in December last year, in Nairobi and WTO members agreed to eliminate agricultural export subsidies.
Abolishing export subsidies is a big step. This is something which developing countries have been fighting for over many years. In fact, it is the biggest reform of agricultural trade rules for 20 years. And it is a key target of the United Nations’ new Sustainable Development Goals delivered just three months after the goals were agreed. In the context of regional integration it is important to recognize that results like this could only be delivered at the global level. That’s why we need trade initiatives on all levels to be working well.
And this brings me to the Doha round of world trade negotiations. The future of Doha was a major feature of the debate in Nairobi, and in the end members could not agree on a common position. Members are committed to keeping development at the centre of our work. They are also committed to addressing the remaining Doha issues, such as agriculture (particularly domestic subsidies), market access for industrial goods and services. But, they do not agree on how to tackle them. And, at the same time, some members would like to start discussing other issues, in addition to the remaining Doha issues. Members have wisely decided to reflect on how these differences might be overcome and how we might collectively move the agenda forward.
So we are in a very important period right now. Members are talking to each other about how to advance the Doha issues and, potentially, how to move forward on other issues as well. Of course the economic outlook is tough at present, not least given the slump in commodity prices. To recall Nelson Mandela’s words, there is much ’wise work’ to be done.