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Wanted: Leadership for the ACP

 The 79 African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries should use the strength of their combined number and access to their natural resources to demand a voice in global economic and financial arrangements that directly affect their economic well-being and the welfare of their people.

With resources ranging from oil through gold, diamonds, timber, bauxite and a range of natural resources to which the rich countries of the world want access, the ACP countries miscalculate the clout that they could exercise in unison to demand a better share of the world’s wealth. 

They also underestimate how powerful a force they could be in international organisations if they could agree to vote together.  Effectively, they could be a blocking force or a strong bargaining entity with the rich and powerful countries that need wider support to achieve their own national ambitions. They could also bargain more strongly and with more advantageous results if they could agree – and adhere – to standards that they would apply to foreign investors who now play them off against each other.

The problem is that, even though the agreement that established the ACP, allows the grouping to bargain collectively with any third party, the ACP has confined its activity to negotiations with the European Union (EU). Further, the group lacks unity – a fact well-known to the EU and to other rich nations. This lack of unity has been exploited by the EU, and others, to keep the ACP divided and weak. Therefore, the group has failed to realise the enormous potential it has for bargaining more effectively for its member states.

Of course, there is an argument that the interests of ACP countries are so diverse, and even competitive, that it would be difficult (some would argue that it would be impossible) for them to agree on objectives and negotiating positions that would serve their collective interests.

That is the defeatist position – one that has served the interests of those rich countries and investors that have benefitted from a weak ACP organisation that does not bolster the bargaining strength of its individual members. This was obvious in the negotiations between the EU and the ACP countries over Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) when the ACP allowed the solidarity it had shown in negotiating previous aid and trade agreements to dissolve by the creation of separate groups within the ACP to negotiate with a combined 27-nation EU.  The result was wholly unequal and unfair EPAs that will not stand the test of time, and will eventually end up in failure because many disadvantaged ACP countries will not be able to deliver on the pledges they were forced to make.

On the flip side of the coin, the 27 countries of the EU also have diverse interests and objectives, but they negotiate common positions amongst themselves and then argue them collectively in their bargaining with others such as the regions of the ACP. The point is that “diverse interests” are no barrier to several like-minded countries reaching a common position if they have the will to do so in their collective interest. And, the evidence is that when, in 1972, the Europeans expanded membership of their Economic Community from six counties to nine, including Britain, forcing new trade arrangements between the EU and the then independent states in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific, the ACP was created on the basis of the strength in their unity. It was that unity that allowed the ACP to bargain for the Lomé agreement under which poor countries enjoyed both development assistance and preferential access to the EU market for their products. African, Caribbean and Pacific countries stood-up for each other refusing to accept better conditions for some countries if other members of the group were being short-changed.

It is equally significant that the rich member countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), even though they too have diverse interests, manage to reach agreement on the standards they wish to impose on the rest of the world. It cannot be that the rich have a greater capacity than the poor to subjugate special interests for a wider good. The history of the development of Caribbean society proves such a supposition to be wrong. For instance, it is the strength of collective bargaining by trade unions that unified workers and brought exploitative companies to the negotiating table for the delivery of better conditions in the late 1930s and early 1940s and laid the foundation for today’s middle-income countries.

But, there will be no strong, vibrant ACP group that demands a voice in international economic arrangements or that sets common standards for foreign investors unless the leaders of the ACP countries themselves decide to imbue it with that authority and provide it with the resources that it needs to do the job.

Right now, the ACP is in no condition to do so. The governments of the ACP countries do not see it as a powerful instrument for their countries economic and social advancement. The ACP Secretariat remains dependent on hand-outs from the EU to conduct critical aspects of its work, including work that affects its relationship with the EU itself. What possible independence and vigour can it show in such circumstances?

Yet, ACP countries bear the brunt of the world’s crises – including climate change caused by rich countries, and the effects of the financial crisis in the US and Europe. In any truly democratic system, the ACP group which comprises almost half of the world’s states, should have a say in the governance of global matters that materially affect their people. But, they have no collective voice in the G20, no voice of their own in the IMF and World Bank, no strategic place in the World Trade Organisation. And, no one is about to give it to them unless they fight for it.

With proper cultivation and development the ACP group could become a real force for advancing the neglected interests of the people of its 79 countries. Will the leaders of the ACP stand-up?


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