Experts call for intra-regional trade to sustain eastern Africa economies

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Cargo trucks parked at MAGERWA awaiting clearance. (File)

Eastern Africa regional states should strengthen intra-regional trade and enact policies to reduce poverty among poor members of their societies to sustain economic growth.

That was one of the key resolutions by experts at the 20th Intergovernmental Committee of Experts (ICE) of the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) in the Eastern Africa region, which was concluded in Nairobi, Kenya, last week.

The experts said the region has achieved notable rates of economic growth over the last ten years, but warned that dropping prices for international commodities like oil and minerals as well as economic weaknesses in both developed economies such as the US and Europe and emerging economies like China call for seeking answers from within Africa.

Andrew Mold, a senior economic affairs officer at the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), argued that Eastern Africa needed to maximise the potential from both domestic and regional sources of growth in the face of unstable global economic prospects.

“While the prospects for global markets look so subdued, the only sensible strategy is to explore all the possibilities for invigorating intra-regional and intra-African trade and investment. To do otherwise at such a time may condemn the region to a prolonged period of slower growth,” he said.

UNECA’s eastern Africa region covers 14 countries; Burundi, Comoros, DR Congo, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya and Madagascar. Others are Rwanda, Seychelles, Somalia, South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda.

The region’s ICE meeting is held annually to discuss key issues and challenges about economic and social development of the sub-region and makes recommendations on how to address them.

At the end of the four-day 20th ICE meeting in Nairobi, experts noted that countries in Eastern Africa had achieved considerable improvements in many socio-economic indicators, including in poverty reduction, curbing child mortality, and improving literacy rates.

But they warned that, despite faster economic growth, income disparities still existed and that it remained crucial to ensure that future growth is inclusive and sustained.

Addressing inequalities

Some of the ways to address inequalities would be to invest in quality education for the future generation and to develop adequate infrastructure at national and sub-national levels, the experts said.

“The meeting further encouraged member states to increase local investments in education and economic infrastructure in order to generate good and decent jobs, particularly for young people,” a final communiqué from the session noted in part.

To help countries in Africa map inequality levels, experts at UNECA have designed a special report, the African Social Development Index (ASDI), which will be a tool to measure inclusive development and social transformation.

The first edition of the report is expected to be published in the next two months to help African countries track progress made towards the reduction of human exclusion, identify specific social challenges and develop inclusive social policies.

“This index seeks to estimate the depth of human exclusion in six key dimensions over time, including survival, nutrition, education, employment, means of subsistence, and decent life for the elderly,” said Adrian Gauci, a senior economist at UNECA, who is involved in writing the ASDI.

At the 20th ICE meeting of UNECA’s Eastern Africa region, about 250 participants from 14 countries in the region discussed structural reforms that are needed to drive Africa’s economic transformation.

‘Sound institutions’

The participants included senior government officials and experts from Regional Economic Communities and Intergovernmental Organisations (IGOs), development partners, research centres, media practitioners, as well as members of the private sector and civil society.

Antonio Pedro, UNECA’s director for the eastern Africa, said a sound institutional set-up is needed in order to realise the vision of Africa by the year 2063 to be integrated, prosperous, peaceful, and driven by its own citizens who will be dynamic in a global arena.

At the centre of the effective institutional set-up to drive economic transformation was the decentralisation process, which is crucial for reducing economic and social inequalities, lower regional disparities, and increase investments in infrastructure and public services.

“We need to discuss the extent to which our existing institutional set-up, including decentralisation, is helping the continent to promote structural transformation,” Pedro said at the meeting.

The 20th ICE meeting of UNECA’s Eastern Africa region focused on the theme of “institutions, decentralisation, and structural transformation in eastern Africa” as experts attempted to examine the role of institutions in promoting equitable growth in the sub-region.

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