ECOWAS

Are Regional Blocs the Future for Africa’s Relevance in the World Market?

The East African Community (EAC) is made up of 5 member nations – Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi.  South Sudan has submitted an application to join.  The EAC, like other trading blocs around the world such as MERCOSUR (Latin America), ECOWAS (West Africa), and of course, the well-known European Union (EU), tries to leverage the individual strengths and resources of member countries by creating a united front in global competition while also facilitating member-to-member trade.

Lately, the EAC has been making some meaningful progress in terms of implementing its mandate.  Three of its members, Kenya, Rwanda, and Uganda, have taken the lead in the use of national identity cards, student ID cards, and voters cards as official documents of travel among the member states.  In fact, for a summit being held in Uganda this month, both President Paul Kagame of Rwanda and President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya, for the first time, called attention to this progress when they used their national identity cards for travel. This is significant because it paves the way for many other features of the EAC community, some of which may be controversial.

According to the EAC’s Common Market Protocol, the member states aim to develop a regional bloc that, in function, is similar to the EU through the “removal of restrictions on the movement of goods, persons, labour, services and capital, and the rights of establishment and residence.” Tourists and other foreign visitors will only pay for one single visa to travel among the EAC member nations; students will easily enroll in universities outside their country through “learning mobility”; and merchants and business services will access a wider customer base through the free flow of goods.

The provision of the EAC protocol that will be very interesting to watch is the free flow of labor.  As it stands, the Protocol specifically delineates “high skilled” professionals (managers and executives) as the labor category being granted access to work freely within the EAC borders.

But how will this impact the members with a smaller pool of “high skilled” professionals?  As I have written about in previous entries, the economic prospects of East Africa are quite promising and the level of foreign direct investment (FDI) will likely speed up.  Will we see EAC states with weaker pools of talent lose out to those slightly more advanced?  Will the influx of professionals from neighboring countries lead to a public backlash or will it translate to meaningful investment in human capital development in the home country?  Perhaps a member’s disadvantage in human capital will be balanced by the access to better education the Protocol affords its citizens.

If the EAC can put aside political motivations, it could become a strong negotiating power to counter the influence of foreign and corporate interests…thereby delivering maximum benefits for the citizens of its member countries.

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