Last week’s signing of the African Continental Free Trade Area Agreement was met with cautious, muted enthusiasm by most observers. While no one disputes the merits of boosting intra-African trade, a host of formidable obstacles stand in the way of realizing the agreement’s vision, not least among them the ability of governments, and the people in them, to follow through on their promises.
First, not all of Africa is on board. Eleven countries declined to sign the agreement last week, including the economic giant Nigeria. They did not rule out signing in the future, however, and Nigeria has requested more time to examine the agreement.
Additionally, the agreement itself is less than comprehensive. Significant tariffs can be retained and it has nothing to say about structural and regulatory non-tariff barriers. Moreover, the underdeveloped infrastructure that can make regional commerce so challenging cannot be transformed without investment—and the stable, rule-governed investment climate required to reap its rewards.
Skeptics also point to outstanding questions about political will. Implementing the agreement will require tough choices about which products will be among the tariff-free, and as with trade policy decisions anywhere in the world, these decisions create winners and losers. Given the massive disparities among African economies, it is hard to imagine that these choices will be easy ones or that they will be made quickly. After all, there is a great deal of precedent on the continent, at both the African Union and the sub-regional organization level, for lofty assertions of shared principals and policy goals followed by laggardly, widely divergent implementation.
But sometimes overlooked in the litany of reasons to temper enthusiasm for last week’s news is the important question of government capacity. Even when political will is firm and decisions at the top are clear, many states are operating with extremely weak civil services, making policy implementation challenging and often erratic. Donor demands gutted many African civil services in the 1990s. In some states, a toxic mix of patronage-based hiring with a rent-seeking culture transformed officials from public servants to public parasites. In others, a lack of training and a failure to delegate and empower officials created a culture of inertia.
In many parts of the world—not just Africa—it’s popular to disdain civil servants and to vilify them as inefficient bureaucrats best avoided. But policy decisions go unimplemented without capable civil servants, eroding trust in government and frustrating progress on even the most popular and civic-minded initiatives. Liberia’s former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf speaks passionately about the importance of nurturing a talented, professional civil service, having seen for herself how tackling long-term projects like national recovery and immediate crises like the Ebola outbreak of 2014 required competent government functionaries to get things done. Champions of intraregional African trade are likely to come to the same conclusion. As unglamorous as it is, investing in the infrastructure of good government in the form of the civil service is just as important, if not more, as investing in physical infrastructure, such as ports and roadways, if last week’s agreement is to realize its potential.