TRALAC - Trade Law Centre

Africa: Civil society plays important role at AGOA Forum

Monday, 03 August 2009

Source: America.gov

The Eighth African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) Forum in Nairobi -- like other such AGOA forums -- not only discusses trade and business but also has an important civil society element that looks at how Africans and Americans can be better educated about the advantages of AGOA and how both can benefit from more trade.

The civil society component has two co-chairmen: M. Ayoma Matunga, programs officer for the Social Development Network in Kenya, who is chairing on behalf of the Kenya Civil Society Alliance, and Gregory B. Simpkins, vice president for policy and program development at the Sullivan Foundation, who is chairing on behalf of U.S. civil society groups.

Both Matunga and Simpkins spoke with America.gov on the eve of the one-day civil society forum August 4 to discuss their role and that of their civil society delegates from both the United States and Africa.

"The role of civil society in AGOA is a result of the act itself that requires that civil society participants in the forum objectively act as a monitor" for the process and provide input to both the business and government or ministerial segments of the conference, Matunga explained.

Simpkins said although the original AGOA legislation was a "little bit vague" on the role of civil society at the forum, "we have developed a concept of being a monitor of the benefits of AGOA.

"Trade is supposed to have tangible benefits. The complaint has been that the average person -- small and medium enterprises have not gotten the benefits out of AGOA that they should," he said.

"That is not a defect of the legislation itself but perhaps a defect of the implementation of the legislation," he said. "So we have discussed with both our African and American counterparts how we can do a better job of coordinating with each other to ensure that that is happening."

Simpkins said all civil society sessions are aimed at determining "what is AGOA doing right, now; what are the defects; how do we overcome those defects; how do we ensure that there is wealth creation and that poverty is being reduced as promised -- that capacity is being built as part of AGOA and that the government, private sector and civil society are working together?"

The civil society element of the forum will have a special session in which U.S. government officials will explain how AGOA is being implemented, Matunga said.

"Most African countries have trade mechanisms that are not often facilitating trade with America. Also, given the extent they have infrastructure, those countries may not support the local producers to meet the requirements for the American market," he said. "These are some of the issues we want to analyze at the forum and offer our recommendations."

Many Africans do not yet know how to take advantage of the preferential U.S. trade terms for the U.S. import of African goods under AGOA -- the products that are eligible and the importance of "adding value" or finishing those products to earn higher income, Matunga said.

He said the full effect of AGOA has "not yet been realized," in part because of an information gap that those in the civil society forum are hoping to close.

Simpkins said that oftentimes the same information gap exists in the United States.

"When AGOA is discussed, it is often just done in the context of Africa trading with America." What is equally important, he said, is that "U.S.-Africa trade is also supposed to benefit Americans and too many Americans don't understand how to trade with Africa."

Simpkins added that U.S. civil society groups are working on a measurement tool to determine the benefit of trade to society generally.

The lack of education about AGOA is hindering African farmers and others from taking advantage of the law, he said.

"Seventy percent of Africans are involved in agriculture but less than 5 percent of U.S.-Africa trade under AGOA and GSP [the Generalized System of Preferences] is agriculture, and there is something wrong with that," he added.

Simpkins said that participants in the civil society forum are hoping there will be a closer relationship between African and U.S. civil society and that increased trade will be the long-term result that will benefit everyone.