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Covid-19 is accelerating multilateralism in Africa

The African Union helped spearhead a coordinated response to the pandemic.

- July 26, 2020

The global struggle against the coronavirus pandemic has prompted some governments to close their borders and retreat from multilateralism, and instead implement protectionist policies and trade restrictions. African countries are taking a different approach. To combat the spread of infection while minimizing social and economic disruptions, Africa is promoting multilateralism through cooperation and coordination among its countries.

The analysis in “African Development, African Transformation” presents evidence of the emergence of collaborative institutions and initiatives in Africa and their capacity to influence development outcomes and international cooperation. Studying continental programs such as the African Union Development Agency (AUDA-NEPAD), which is complemented by the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) and the Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM), reveals how certain core factors help explain multilateralism’s rise in Africa.

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Why multilateralism is on the rise in Africa

The first factor involves the complexity of challenges African countries face, including persistent underdevelopment, foreign dependency, poverty and disease. When the possibility of a global pandemic first emerged, African leaders were concerned about the severe consequences of the spread of the coronavirus, as many countries lacked physical and health infrastructure, and had low levels of sanitation and high food insecurity. Adding to these vulnerabilities was the disruption of the global value chain and national economic activities, which limited access to essential products and threatened livelihoods.

But the boost in multilateralism also reflects the rise of political ownership and accountability. This is demonstrated by increased citizen support for accountable governments and increased initiative and ownership of global and local solutions by African leaders. For example, when creating the AUDA-NEPAD, leaders highlighted the critical importance of both individual and collective ownership and accountability for the success of the institution and for gaining the strong support of development partners.

Here’s the third factor: broader recognition of the critical importance of agile governance and multi-stakeholder collaboration to mobilize resources and successfully implement policies. Efforts to date include the creation of initiatives such as the African Peer Review Mechanism, which aims to improve governance effectiveness, and the Presidential Infrastructure Champion Initiative, established to accelerate the implementation of regional infrastructure.

The Africa CDC has led the coronavirus response

The African Union spearheaded the policy coordination on the coronavirus, bringing together ministers of its 55 members as early as February to create a proactive and unified response, beginning with the adoption of the Africa Joint Continental Strategy for COVID-19. Much of the collaboration falls under the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), an African Union agency that works to improve the capacity of public health systems to respond effectively to disease outbreaks.

The Africa CDC mobilized resources to bridge the gaps in public health systems and develop an effective response. Even before there were any confirmed cases on the continent, the Africa CDC launched the African Task Force for Coronavirus to coordinate surveillance, infection prevention and control in health-care facilities, clinical management of infected individuals, laboratory diagnosis, risk communication and community engagement.

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In addition, the Africa CDC conducted regional workshops and training early on to strengthen the capacity of African nations to prevent the spread of the virus, and developed accessible guidelines and information resources for citizens and governments alike to acquire knowledge on all aspects of the pandemic.

To address tremendous testing and supply needs, the Africa CDC’s newest initiative, the Partnership to Accelerate COVID-19 Testing (PACT), aims to support “pooled procurement, storage and distribution of diagnostics and other medical supplies” as well as test 10 million individuals, deploy 1 million community workers, and implement technology platforms to enhance health forecasting and the speed, amount, accuracy and reporting of testing.

In early February, Africa had just six labs capable of testing for the coronavirus — the sample from the first suspected case in Côte d’Ivoire had to be sent to Paris for analysis. Africa now has more than 844,000 confirmed cases, and virtually all African countries have some testing capacity, even if mass testing capacity is limited. The Africa CDC has been instrumental in facilitating this collaboration among African countries, allowing them to activate better detection and response mechanisms, particularly when compared to the response to Ebola.

Africa still faces substantial coronavirus challenges

Because of the continent’s lack of economic diversification and overall dependence on commodity exports, the global supply chain disruptions, shutdowns and export restrictions have created issues in acquiring medical supplies, pharmaceuticals and food supplies. This is an area in which heightened multilateralism and regional integration in Africa could again prove beneficial, specifically through the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA).

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Signed by 54 out of 55 African countries, the AfCFTA aims to grant “free access to commodities, goods, and services across the continent.” The AfCFTA is working to remove tariffs on more than 90 percent of goods, standardize trade regulations, establish “trade corridors” to expedite the free flow of essential commodities, and build additional infrastructure to facilitate cross-border trade.

These measures support the development of local manufacturing and the sourcing of more intermediate and final goods among African countries by increasing intra-continental trade and regional value chains. This could help countries access food and medical supplies from their neighbors, shorten supply chains and reduce vulnerability to external shocks and dependence on imports from abroad. All of these benefits would greatly mitigate the effects of the pandemic and also assist in Africa’s economic recovery.

The AfCFTA was due to go into effect July 1, but has been delayed to allow countries to focus on their coronavirus response. Secretary General Wamkele Mene, the new group’s first leader, is working to accelerate the next steps for implementation while helping African countries dealing with the pandemic.

Measures such as AfCFTA may increase Africa’s capacity to respond to future crises, disease outbreaks and global economic shocks, and could also assist in development initiatives. These are all goals consistent with findings from earlier research on multilateral initiatives like the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme, African Peer Review Mechanism and the Programme for Infrastructure Development in Africa. They illustrate the critical importance of cooperation and multilateralism among African nations to unlock Africa’s potential.

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Landry Signé (@LandrySigne) is a professor and senior director at the Thunderbird School of Global Management, where he is also faculty head of the Washington DC-based Executive Master of Global Affairs and Management. He is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a distinguished fellow at Stanford University, a World Economic Forum young global leader, and the author of “Unlocking Africa’s Business Potential” (Brookings, 2020).

Mary Treacy is a research intern with the Africa Growth Initiative in the Global Economy and Development program at the Brookings Institution and a rising senior at the University of Notre Dame pursuing a degree in economics and applied mathematics.