Africa, Development & Aid, Economy & Trade, Food and Agriculture, Food Security and Nutrition, Headlines, TerraViva United Nations


Trade Liberalisation Kicked Away African Development Ladder

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, May 8 2024 (IPS) - Africans have long been promised trade liberalisation would accelerate growth and structural transformation. Instead, it has cut its modest production capacities, industry and food security.

Berg helped sink Africa
The 1981 Berg Report was long the World Bank blueprint for African economic reform. Despite lacking support in theory and experience, Africa’s comparative advantage was supposedly in export agriculture.

Jomo Kwame Sundaram

Once obstructionist government interventions were gone, farmers’ previously repressed productive potential would spontaneously achieve export-led growth. But there has been no sustained African agricultural export boom since.

Instead, Africa has been transformed from a net food exporter in the 1970s into a net importer. Over the next two decades, its share of world non-oil exports fell by more than half from the early 1980s.

Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) export growth from the late 20th century has mainly been due to foreign direct investment (FDI) from Asia, especially China and India. Nevertheless, Africa’s share of world exports has declined.

High growth in Asian economies contributed most to raising primary commodity prices, especially for minerals, until they collapsed from 2014.

Underdeveloped agriculture
African agriculture has been undermined by decades of low investment, stagnation and neglect. Public spending cuts under structural adjustment programmes (SAPs) have also depleted infrastructure (roads, water supply, etc.), undermining output.

SAPs’ neglect of infrastructure and agriculture left many developing nations unable to respond to new agricultural export opportunities. Meanwhile, projections ignored the fate of African food security.

SAPs undermined the already poor competitiveness of African smallholder agriculture. Unsurprisingly, most of the poorest and least developed African countries were projected to be net losers in the Bank’s more ‘realistic’ World Trade Organization (WTO) Doha Round trade liberalisation scenarios.

Uneven partial trade liberalisation and subsidy reduction have mixed implications. These vary with the food shares of national imports and household spending.

Wishful development thinking
World Bank research claimed African countries would gain $16 billion from ‘complete’ trade liberalisation. But this scenario was never envisaged for the Doha Round negotiations – virtually abandoned two decades ago.

Nonetheless, the Bank claimed SSA would gain considerably because “farm employment, the real value of agricultural output and exports, the real returns to farm land and unskilled labor, and real net farm incomes would all rise substantially in capital scarce SSA countries with a move to free merchandise trade”.

Total welfare gains envisaged for SSA minus South Africa were slightly over half of one per cent. But World Bank projections for the overall effects of multilateral agricultural trade liberalisation expected significant losses for SSA.

Gains worldwide would mainly accrue to major food exporters, primarily from the Cairns Group, largely from rich countries. The rich world has long dominated food agricultural exports with indirectly subsidised farming.

Lowering agricultural subsidies in the North has thus raised some imported food prices in developing countries. Also, most African governments cannot easily substitute lost tariff revenue with other new or higher taxes.

After years of trying, developing countries have virtually given up trying to ‘level the playing field’ by cutting OECD governments’ agricultural subsidies, import tariffs and non-tariff barriers.

Gains from liberalisation?
Greater trade liberalisation in manufactures, enhanced by the WTO non-agricultural market access (NAMA) agreement, has also undermined African industrialisation.

Limited African market access to affluent country markets has been secured through preferential market access agreements rather than trade liberalisation. Mkandawire noted trade liberalisation would entail losses for Africa with the end of European Union preferential treatment under the Lome Convention.

Hence, the likely overall impacts of trade liberalisation on Africa were recognised as mixed and uneven. The economic welfare of SSA – without Zambia, South Africa and members of the Southern African Customs Union – was supposed to rise after a decade by three-fifths of one per cent by 2015!

The Doha agreement envisaged then emphasised manufacturing trade liberalisation. Despite gains for some developing countries, SSA minus South Africa would lose $122 billion as SAPs accelerate deindustrialisation.

SSA minus South Africa would lose $106 billion to agricultural trade liberalisation due to poor infrastructure, export capacities, and ‘competitiveness’. Hence, partial trade liberalisation – and subsidy reduction – have uneven and mixed implications.

Fraudulent policy advice
With more realistic assumptions, SSA gains from trade liberalisation would be more modest. As economic growth generally precedes export expansion, trade could help foster virtuous circles but cannot enhance productive capacities and capabilities on its own.

UNCTAD has long emphasised growth’s importance for trade expansion, especially the weak investment-export nexus. This accounts for many countries’ failure to expand and diversify their exports.

Rapid resource reallocation is much more difficult without high growth and investment rates. For Gerry Helleiner, “Africa’s failures have been developmental, not export failure per se”. Dani Rodrik argued Africa’s ‘marginalisation’ is not due to trade performance.

Africa’s export collapse in the 1980s and 1990s involved “a staggering annual income loss of US$68 billion – or 21 per cent of regional GDP”. Former World Bank economist Bill Easterly blamed these lost decades on SAPs.

Nonetheless, “Africa overtrades compared with other developing regions in the sense that its trade is higher than would be expected from the various determinants of bilateral trade”.

Trade liberalisation has significantly reduced trade, industrial, technology and investment policy space for developing countries. Unsurprisingly, food security and manufacturing have been especially badly hit.

IPS UN Bureau


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