The Commonwealth and Africa: Boosting trade and economic development

May 2022

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With the signing of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) in 2018, intra-African trade has been a focal point for governments and investors alike in recent years. However, structural issues and pervasive barriers, including a lack of infrastructure and low digital connectivity, have prevented meaningful progress in increasing trade within the continent. Whilst the finer details of the new trade agreement are ironed out, it is important for African countries to continue engaging with global markets. A prominent pre-existing platform that facilitates this is the Commonwealth. Though the Commonwealth has its roots in British imperialism, it has developed into a grouping of independent nations, whose leaders are committed to using their shared history to support one another’s development. As South African president Cyril Ramaphosa stated in 2018, “the Commonwealth provides a platform to forge common approaches to matters of global importance…[and] to promote trade, investment and the exchange of skills and knowledge between countries”.

Leaders from all 54 Commonwealth member states have the opportunity to come together to design common policies to address the most pressing issues of the day at the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). The next CHOGM, delayed by two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, is finally due to take place from 20-26 June 2022 in Kigali, Rwanda, under the theme “Delivering a Common Future: Connecting, Innovating, Transforming”.

At this year’s CHOGM, Africa Matters Limited anticipates that leaders will build upon prior work aimed at promoting prosperity for Commonwealth members. While clear progress has been made in the areas of trade, knowledge sharing, and promoting sustainable economic practices, a doubling down on previous commitments is required. CHOGM 2022 provides the perfect forum for this, one in which African countries can further benefit from the trade and economic development advantages that the Commonwealth offers.

Economic and trade benefits

Much work has already been undertaken by the Commonwealth to advance trade between its members. At the last CHOGM, held in 2018, leaders from all 54 countries signed the Connectivity Agenda, which committed them to increasing intra-Commonwealth trade to USD 2 trillion by 2030 and expanding investment. Thereafter, countries worked to sign preferential trade agreements with one another. For example, the UK – post-Brexit – signed an economic partnership agreement (EPA) with the Southern African Customs Union and Mozambique in October 2019, as well as an EPA with Kenya in November 2020. Away from the UK, in February 2021, India and Mauritius signed a Comprehensive Economic Cooperation and Partnership Agreement, which laid out concessional custom duties on hundreds of goods traded between the two.

At an institutional level, progress is also being made. On 8 February 2022, the Commonwealth Secretariat and the International Trade Centre signed an MoU to collaborate on addressing trade issues that member states were facing. The MoU notably aims to support members’ engagement with the AfCFTA, with this area of trade cooperation likely to be a key agenda item for CHOGM 2022, given Rwanda’s hosting of it. Although the disruption of global trade due to the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the materialisation of tangible results from these negotiations, heading into CHOGM 2022, there is a solid foundation for further agreements to be signed.

Knowledge sharing and technical assistance

In recent years, member states have also used the various mechanisms offered by the Commonwealth to share knowledge to enhance intra-Commonwealth trade. They have been encouraged to exchange best practices and experiences. For example, the 2018 Connectivity Agenda formed various “cluster” groups to facilitate meaningful conversations between members in areas such as physical, digital, and regulatory connectivity. The platform has provided support to several African nations during the drafting process of new trade strategies through workshops and training programmes. Both Botswana and Malawi launched new export strategies, the latter in May 2019 and the former in December 2021, after participating in Commonwealth workshops. In Malawi, inputs from key stakeholders fed into the new Export Strategy II which aims to increase exports as a percentage of GDP from 14.6 to 20 percent over the next five years.

As mentioned above, COVID-19 has stymied global trade for much of the past two years, dampening the implementation of many of these strategies. The benefits of knowledge sharing are also arguably less immediate than the benefits of more material preferential trade agreements. But, as the world re-opens, many African countries are now better positioned to diversify and increase their exports. This is in part due to the conversations and consultations with other members and technical experts that the Commonwealth facilitated. Furthermore, the sharing of best practices in export strategies amongst Commonwealth Africa can contribute to a smoother and more effective implementation of AfCFTA, as more common trading procedures are adopted.

Sustainable practices and good governance

Integral to the Commonwealth’s work to promote prosperity through advancing trade is its focus on sustainability. As the magnitude and regularity of climate shocks increase – felt particularly harshly in Africa – deeper innovation and cooperation is needed to shield member states’ economies and infrastructure. The Commonwealth already has several initiatives specifically focused on advancing its members’ adoption of environmentally conscious practices. In April 2018, leaders unilaterally agreed the Commonwealth Blue Charter, for example. The Blue Charter works through a set of action groups, including the “Sustainable Blue Economy” group which is championed by Kenya and Antigua and Barbuda. This group facilitates innovation and the sharing of new technologies to promote environmentally compatible industries that aims to grow coastal member states’ ocean resources.

As well as promoting sustainable practices in economic development, the Commonwealth provides an arena for African states to collaborate on bolstering good governance across the continent. This can help governments to address the challenges that issues such as political violence, corruption, and fraud present to a country’s economic development. A few weeks ago, in early May 2022, the 12th Regional Conference of Heads of Anti-Corruption Agencies in Commonwealth Africa took place in Kigali. Delegates adopted a communiqué to outline a common approach to tackling corruption and committed to stronger cooperation amongst their anti-corruption agencies.

Opportunities abound at CHOGM 2022

Though the Commonwealth has a complicated history, it has developed into a platform through which member states can collaborate to drive economic development. As we look forward to CHOGM 2022 next month, we anticipate that leaders from Africa and across the Commonwealth will come prepared to build upon past work. There is still much untapped potential in intra-Commonwealth trade and collaboration. In the difficult months ahead – with food prices soaring due to the Ukraine-Russia conflict and post-pandemic recovery– the Commonwealth must strive to implement more tangible benefits for its members. As Nigerian president, Muhammadu Buhari, stated in April 2022, “though perfectly sustainable in its current form, it would be a disservice to its members should current levels of co-operation be the limit of our aspirations”. CHOGM 2022 “should be a moment when the potential for our club is reimagined”.