Hardly a week goes by without some or other African politician waxing lyrical about continental integration, continental trade diversification, and a wholesome analysis of the ‘barriers’ which prevent the African continent from reaching its full economic potential. No doubt I’m a bit biased in relaying the recent ‘public lecture’ of our deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe at the University of Finland – read the full speech here! Plenty of insight clearly delineating a plethora of barriers; yet, are we African’s so naive not to have identified these barriers before? Evidently yes.
In recent weeks, on the local front, we have learnt that One Stop Border Posts (OSBPs) is the solution to non-tariff barriers. This topic was drilled amongst the press till it got boring. The focus soon thereafter shifted to the implementation of a border management agency (BMA) – all of government under one roof – so simple. The reality is that there is no silver-bullet solution to African continental integration. Of this, affected business, Customs administrations and the international donor community is acutely aware. While the WTO and the multitude of trade lawyers will ‘yadder’ on about ‘diversification’ in trade, the reality is that Africa’s raw materials are even more sought after today than at an any time before. Certainly those countries which contain vast resources of oil and strategic minerals are about to reap the benefits. So why would African countries be concerned about diversification when the petro-dollars are rolling in? Perhaps greed or lack of foresight for the medium to long-term well-being of countries and their citizens? The fact remains, without homegrown industries producing goods from raw materials, most of Africa’s eligible working class will continue to be employed by foreign mineral moguls or the public service.
Several customs and infrastructure solutions have over the last few years emerged with the usual credential of “WCO or WTO compliant”. Africa has been a guinea pig for many of these solutions – ‘experiments’ if you prefer. Literally millions of dollars are being spent every year trying out so-called ‘best-of-breed’ technology which users unfortunately accept without much questioning. The cart is being placed before the horse. Why? because the underlying route cause/s are not being identified, understood (sufficiently) and prioritized. Insofar as there exists no silver bullet solution, neither is there a single route cause in most cases. Unfortunately, donor aid often comes with its own pre-conceived outcomes which don’t necessarily tie in with those of the target country or the well-being of the continent.
While governments like to tout the ‘big-hitting’ projects, there are several ‘less exciting’ (technical) areas which countries can address to kick-start the process. One of these has even been recognised by the likes of the World Bank and OECD notwithstanding capital-intensive programs which promised much and have not delivered fully on their promise. The issue at hand is the harmonisation of customs data. It might at first sound irrelevant or trivial, yet it is the key enabler for most Customs Modernisation initiatives. While there is still much anticipation in regard to the forthcoming deliberation and outcome of the WCO’s Globally Networked Customs (GNC) initiative at June’s WCO Policy Commission session in Brussels, there is significant support for this approach on the African continent. The momentum needs to be maintained.