Sunday, August 9, 2009

Civil Society and U.S.-Africa Trade

It has been clear for a long time that both government and much of the business community has little idea of the role civil society plays in international trade despite abundant evidence that civil society organizations (CSOs) have made a tremendous contribution to the creation and implementation of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). That view was confirmed by the way civil society was treated as an afterthought at the eighth AGOA Forum.

Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga and members of the Kenyan cabinet decided without notice to mandate a joint opening for the one-day business and civil society forums, providing notice to civil society organizers only moments before their forum was to begin. Apparently, the business sector had been informed in advance because the opening included business forum videos obviously prepared prior to the opening. Without consultation, civil society was supposedly represented by a government official in the office that registers CSOs, who proceeded to describe civil society as “finger-pointers” who ask for transparency without providing it themselves. In all, nearly three hours was lost of the civil society forum.

However, the CSOs recovered and even got back on schedule, offering considered recommendations that confirmed what many of the government and private sector speakers themselves separately suggested as policy to enhance U.S.-Africa trade. During the civil society report to the AGOA Ministerial, it was made clear that civil society has always played a significant role in AGOA and continues to be a valuable asset to the effort to stimulate trans-Atlantic trade. In addition to the role CSOs played in informing members of Congress about the development benefits of expanded U.S.-Africa trade, civil society has played an ongoing beneficial role.

They are the think tanks who provide critical economic analysis. They are the faith-based organizations who help provide entrepreneurs their first chance to start a business. They are the business associations who safeguard the interests of our members. They are the conveners of local, national and international conferences examining the effectiveness of AGOA and other efforts to enhance the benefits of free trade. Some present in the audience seemed surprised to consider that CSOs, who are non-profits, could have such a significant role in a business process. However, at the end of the report, many reported having a better understanding of the matter.

The formation of a U.S. collaboration of civil society organizations, named the U.S. Civil Society Coalition for African Trade and Investment, should remedy that once and for all. The coalition has not bound itself solely to examining the AGOA process, but also aims to engage in efforts to envision new ways to make trade work for all stakeholders more efficiently and effectively. The coalition will be an ongoing actor in this process, and its efforts will be enhanced by reinforcing and expanding the existing AGOA Civil Society Network of African civil society organizations. The Network is a founding member of the coalition.

With U.S. and African CSOs working together, civil society should no longer be seen as only an observer of trans-Atlantic trade issues.

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