Saturday, July 24, 2010

Civil Society an Essential Partner in U.S.-Africa Trade

The focus of the 2010 African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) Civil Society Forum, which convenes in Washington July 29, is to make the U.S.-Africa trade relationship beneficial to both Africans and Americans. The theme of this year's civil society forum is "A Decade of Progress in Bridging the U.S.-Africa Trade Gap."

Gregory B. Simpkins, the spokesman for the U.S. civil society coalition for African trade and investment, previewed the event in a July 22 interview with America.gov.

While Africans need to do more in terms of reform and making their commercial environments more hospitable to help expand U.S.-Africa trade, there are also things the United States can do, he said.

"We need to do more training for producer groups on U.S. sanitary and phytosanitary regulations" and work with governments across Africa, he said, to help facilitate and enhance trade progress under AGOA.

Simpkins stressed that both the executive and legislative branches of government - in the United States and Africa - play an important role in helping to create conditions for enhanced trade. And, he said, there needs to be greater cooperation among government, business and civil society on both sides of the Atlantic.

Simpkins defined civil society as those elements that are not government and not business: chambers of commerce, unions, nongovernmental organizations, advocacy organizations, faith-based groups, policy research groups, journalists and academics.

Comparing AGOA to a football game, Simpkins said: "The governments on both sides make the rules, but they also enforce the rules like the referees. The players, of course, are the businesses. ... Civil society on both sides acts as the sportscaster. ... We [civil society] are the analyst who tells you what happened and why it happened and maybe what should happen, because we are neutral."
Civil society has valuable assets to share with governments and business, Simpkins said. He pointed out that civil society has policy research organizations that can provide information that governments and businesses don't have, and advocacy organizations that can press for reforms.

The two-day civil society forum precedes the AGOA Forum ministerial, which convenes August 2. Featured speakers will include M. Ayoma Matunga of SODNET, a Kenyan nongovernmental organization, and Erastus Mwencha, deputy chairperson of the African Union.

Topics to be discussed include AGOA agricultural trade, infrastructure, supply chains and regional integration, textiles, and trade capacity building.

Enhancing U.S.-Africa trade requires more and better collaboration among the government, business and civil society, Simpkins said. He was working in the U.S. Congress when the original AGOA trade legislation was passed on May 18, 2000, and recalled that the intention of the bill always was to benefit small and medium-sized business.

"We hadn't, frankly, given a thought that oil would so dominate AGOA," he said.

Small and medium-sized enterprises on either side of the Atlantic Ocean are not seeing the broad-scale benefits from AGOA that were originally envisioned, he said. Oil, which makes up much of the AGOA trade, does not create as many jobs as small and medium-sized enterprises. Small businesses, everywhere, he said, are the engine of growth for jobs.

But despite that, he acknowledged that some businesses are doing quite well under AGOA. He added that there are trade obstacles still to be overcome in areas such as transportation, agriculture, textiles and intra-African trade.

Simpkins said small African businesses spread among many African countries need to learn to work together to produce goods in high volume that could be acquired by high-volume U.S. retailers like Wal-Mart, Target and J.C. Penney. Businesses in Asia, he said, have mastered this process and Africans can learn much from them.

After 10 years, some people are frustrated and don't think AGOA is working, he said. "Those of us who have worked on AGOA say, 'It is not failing. It is just not working completely.'

"So we need to get more small businesses" to prosper under AGOA, he said, both in America and Africa, for the benefit of both parties. "It should be a win-win situation for both sides. That is what we are trying to do." Civil society can be the coordinating link between business and government to accomplish that goal, he said.

"We need to make that happen," he concluded.

(by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State)