What Way Forward for Africa at the WTO?

15 February 2018

Although expectations were comparatively low as delegations gathered in Buenos Aires last December, the outcome of the WTO’s Eleventh Ministerial Conference (MC11) still came as a disappointment to many in the trade policy community and beyond. Unable to overcome their differences, the organisation’s members did not agree on any substantial negotiated result and failed to define a work programme to guide future multilateral work. The only area of multilateral accord was around fisheries subsidies, with members committing to continue discussions with a view to adopting an agreement by the next ministerial meeting in 2019. And while some plurilateral initiatives on issues such as e-commerce, gender, investment facilitation, or micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises gathered a significant level of support, the discussions remain to be structured and organised.

The times seem particularly challenging for Africa in the multilateral arena. Ahead of MC11, the African group had identified six priorities related to (1) domestic subsidies in agriculture, (2) cotton, (3) public stockholding for food security purposes, (4) a special safeguard mechanism, (5) fisheries subsidies, and (6) special and differential treatment – an area where the African Group, as part of the G90, made a proposal ahead of MC11. With the exception of fisheries, where success is not guaranteed, no significant progress is in sight on these issues, and it seems unlikely that the momentum will pick up in the near future. Most African nations have also decided at this early stage not to partake in the major plurilateral initiatives, the most notable exception being Nigeria.

This context raises many questions about the future of WTO negotiations and the manner in which African countries should continue to engage in multilateral trade talks. Can the WTO’s negotiating function be energised and produce meaningful results for development and least developed countries? What approaches should African countries adopt to best advance their interests in Geneva? This issue explores these questions.

In the lead article, Christophe Bellmann considers three potential strategies for the African group at the WTO in the post-Buenos Aires era, highlighting that none of them stands out as a clear first choice. This analysis is complemented by another piece in which Kimberly Elliot looks retrospectively at multilateral negotiations in agriculture and tries to answer the question of whether members have a credible option for moving forward. The third article, written by Paul Batibonak, offers insights on potential steps that could be taken to re-establish trust between countries and initiate constructive dialogue at the WTO.

This issue also contains a contribution dedicated to the CFTA, in which Judith Fessehaie analyses how this mega-free trade agreement could help Africa respond to its economic transformation imperative. Finally, the last piece by Katrin Kuhlmann examines the potential for mutually beneficial US-African economic relations under the Trump administration, underlining areas that could constitute shared priorities.

As usual, we welcome your substantive feedback and contributions. Write to us at bridgesafrica@ictsd.ch.
This article is published under
15 February 2018
In the aftermath of the December WTO Ministerial Conference in Buenos Aires, pessimism about the future of the institution has been reaching record levels and no clear plan has emerged yet on where...
2 March 2018
A group of West African leaders, ministers, and public officials gathered last week for the Fifth Meeting of the Presidential Task Force on the ECOWAS Single Currency Programme, reaffirming their...