Africa Tries Free Trade

Or, more accurately, a customs union.

With all the proposals for hundreds of billions of dollars in new government spending and new taxes in the United States in recent days, there hasn’t been much good economic news.

Alexander C. R. Hammond, of the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) and of African Liberty, writes about it in “Africa Tries Free Trade,” Reason, April 2021. He writes:

On January 1, the long-awaited African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) came into effect. Aside from the economic benefits that the arrangement will bring to the continent, Africa’s newfound support for free trade and liberalization marks a clear rejection of the socialist ideology that has tormented African politics for decades.

In recent decades Africa has been the sick puppy of the six heavily populated continents. A glance at the Economic Freedom of the World map of economic freedom shows why. Over half of the 50+ African countries are in the least-economically-free quartile of the world’s 190+ countries. Not a single African country is in the top quartile. Hammond calls Nigeria, South Africa, and Egypt “regional economic powerhouses,” but of the three, only Nigeria is in the second-from-the-top quartile, South African is in the second-from-the-bottom quartile, and Egypt is in the bottom quartile.

One of the five measures of economic freedom is freedom to trade internationally. With AfCFTA, this will increase for many African countries.

This agreement is like NAFTA and its successor, USMCA: it’s a customs union. The idea is to have low or zero tariffs between and among members of the group, but a common tariff rate on imports from outside. Nevertheless it’s a big, if slow, step toward freer trade.

Hammond writes:

Within 5–10 years, the AfCFTA will ensure that 90 percent of tariffs on goods traded between member states will be abolished. Within 13 years, 97 percent of all tariffs will be removed. By 2035, the World Bank has predicted, this enormous liberalization effort will boost Africa’s gross domestic product by $450 billion, increase wages for both skilled and unskilled workers by 10 percent, and lift more than 30 million people out of extreme poverty, defined as living on less than $1.90 per day. According to the same estimates, by 2035, the AfCFTA will see more than 68 million people rise out of moderate poverty, defined as living on $1.90–$5.50 per day. The “countries with the highest initial poverty rates,” the World Bank says, will see the “biggest improvements.”

Given Africa’s flirtation with socialism and protectionism from the 1960s through at least the 1980s, this is a welcome development.

For more on Customs Unions, see Douglas A. Irwin, “International Trade Agreements,” in David R. Henderson, ed., The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics.

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