TRALAC - Trade Law Centre

AGOA session highlights civil society's importance to prosperity

The 11th AGOA Forum not only brought together U.S. and African officials to discuss infrastructure and trade June 14-15, but also featured an important meeting of civil society leaders to evaluate the African Growth and Opportunity Act's impact on ordinary people and discuss ways to better educate them about the trade act's benefits.

The AGOA Civil Society Session included social organization leaders, small- and medium-sized business entrepreneurs, network members, young professionals and members of the African Women Entrepreneurs Program (AWEP). Together, they represent "civil society," the collective entity of voluntary civic, social and economic groups and institutions that are independent of state structures and enable a society to function.

The Civil Society Session's participants said civil society could help guide government policies and implementation of AGOA provisions in sub-Saharan countries to ensure that its benefits reach the public.

"Civil society, I think, by its very nature, by definition, means that it keeps the government on a short leash in general terms," said Temba Nolutshungu, a representative of the Free Market Foundation, a public policy institute in South Africa. "It takes an interest in what government policies are, those that are in place, and those that the government might be considering" to analyze how each proposed implementation of AGOA might affect different sectors of society.

In some respects, civil society leaders say, AGOA has benefited ordinary people in the trade agreement's member countries. Increased trade flows and the absence of duties on African exports to the United States have created many jobs in diverse industries in Africa, especially among women, whose wages often sustain entire families.

"The woman often is the only bread-earner in Africa," said Lilowtee Rajmun, the assistant director of the Mauritius Export Association. "So a woman working in a textile factory in any country of Africa is feeding, like, 10 people."

A job at a textile factory in Mauritius might yield only $60 a month, but it is important to create as many jobs like that as possible in order to lift Mauritians out of poverty, Rajmun explained.

"AGOA is creating jobs ... [and] is allowing [us] to feed the poor people of Africa," she said. "You can't imagine the joy and the wealth that you're creating through trade, and this is being made possible only through AGOA."

AGOA has also had more intangible, but nonetheless important, benefits. According to South Africa's Nolutshungu, the agreement's criteria for membership in AGOA ensure that African nations continue to move toward democratic governance and reforms. In the past, the United States has removed member countries from the agreement in response to actions that counteract the agreement's terms. Countries are eligible for AGOA if they have established or are making progress toward the establishment of market-based economies, the rule of law, political pluralism, efforts to combat corruption, and the protection of human and worker rights, among other important issues.

AGOA "should be seen also in the bigger picture, in terms of deepening -- reinforcing -- democracy and democratic institutions in the African continent," Nolutshungu said. "By my analysis, that is the single biggest contribution."

However, there is still much to be done to ensure that the benefits of AGOA reach ordinary citizens, civil society activists say.

"It can [affect ordinary citizens] if things are actually done properly, but right now, no one is out there with a bullhorn propagating the whole concept," said Celio Mondlane, the project director for the Joaquim Chissano Foundation and an assistant professor at Universidade Politécnica in Mozambique. "No one is out there creating programs, at least in a large scale, to basically provide capacity building so that the general public can take full advantage of it."

Mondlane is concerned that those who most need the benefits of AGOA do not have enough information about the agreement and do not know how to profit from its provisions.

"You have to remember that we are dealing with small-scale farmers, smallholder farmers and companies that are ... SMEs -- small [to] medium enterprises. We're not talking about the Wal-Marts," he said.

The remedy for this information gap may lie in outreach programs that educate African publics about AGOA and how they can become involved in the production of goods for international trade. If ordinary people develop a thorough understanding of these things, they too will be able to profit from AGOA.

"Any small farmer, or any basket weaver, or artisan or any sculptor -- I mean anybody -- can benefit from this, as long as they have full knowledge of what the American market demands and what sort of internal regulations they have to ... abide by," Mondlane said.