Rethinking Regional Economic Integration to Advance Trade: East African Community

Regional groupings are primarily concerned with promoting economic co-operation and eventually economic integration between their members. Or, when the main objective is political rapprochement and the elimination of the recurrence of military conflict, the creation of close economic relations is the principle means to that end (Baudot 2001:140).

Introduction: Building the Case for Economic Integration

The appalling living conditions in Sub-Sahara Africa are a cause of worry to development and policy practitioners. The people in these countries need to constantly adapt to change the terrible situation for purposes of human survival. Sustainable development is an endeavour that leads to good conditions of living both now and in the future (Neil 2000). For the reason of failed national economic growth policies and initiatives like Parastatal formation, Privatisation and providing agricultural incentives, fiscal policies of IMF and World Banks’ Structural Adjustment Programmes, regional integration becomes a possible viable alternative.

It is easy to justify that the EAC is the right answer to economic and political development challenges, but caution should be taken before making such an affirmation. A system of political and economic governance devoid of elaborate mechanisms and structures that allow wide participation and adequate representation of ideas, different interest groups undermine consistent legitimacy and long term political and economic commitment the EAC urgently demands. The political economists’ classical answer “more research is needed” about the stability and actual performance of the EAC perfectly fits here.

The urgent political and economic freedom that is wanting in the EAC prods us to accept Regional Economic Integration (RTI) as the basis of macro-economic transformation at the present day. This position, however, holds little water due to the myriad bottlenecks hindering the process of reconstructing the East African Community. Institutional malfunctions, multiple memberships, escalating levels of poverty, education and brain drain crisis, the democratic gap, population surge, bad culture of relations and poor energy infrastructure in majority rural regions among others culminate in an unstable economic base to encourage the process of regional integration. Regional Economic Integration often stagnates because this key aspect is weak. A stable economic base is one that can be relied upon to generate the production of resources necessary for the satisfaction of human development needs.

Regional Integration as a Fluid Development Trajectory

Understanding regional integration is like trying to hit a moving target. Each time we think “the process is in our sights, it moves on, it changes and the mark is missed again” (Bromley 2001:144). Regional integration is “thinking of relationships that go beyond normal diplomatic, treaty, trade, or alliance relations and involve some intermeshing of governments, institutions, or societies” (Plattner and Smolar 2000:31). Regional economic integration refers to the “agreements between groups of countries in a geographic region to reduce, and ultimately remove, tariff and non-tariff barriers to the free flow of goods, services, and factors of production between each other” (Hill 1998: 222). Common norms are set up like those of the EU and NATO’s standing political and economic institutions, shared law making, executive institutions and the joint military planning force. These are fast taking hold in the EAC as an ongoing process.

African development needs close integration of economies to withstand unstable but infused capitalist systems of dependency. Self – reliance and sustainable development are possible through the strengthening of integration both at national and regional levels. Regionalism posits a collective action plan to “ameliorate the effects of the national disengagement process by replacing North-South vertical relations with South-South horizontal relations among underdeveloped countries” (Adetula 2004:4). Collective self-reliance is a strategy against dependence on external aid aimed at promoting the principle of autonomous development. With renewed pressure from globalisation and free global trade characterised by oligopolistic competition, regional groupings primarily co-operate in order to “strengthen their autonomy; increase their bargaining position in disputes about distributive issues, and to promote other political or economic objectives” (Gilpin 2001:357). Regional integration is then seen as a means of replacing failed national initiatives of development.

However, regionalism in Africa has failed to upgrade development. It needs a Herculean effort to streamline political economic policies. The first EAC between 1967 and 1977 was an experience of failure. The idea of an immediate formation of common projects was impractical. It faced an ideological obstacle between the members of the EAC Summit.

Economic Interests

The conversation whether or not the EAC will ultimately succeed heavily depends on the economic and political developments that hold the fabric of regional integration together. There is critical need to make common economic policies that can be used as building blocks in establishing RIAs. Different interests and decisions largely affect the nature of economic problems of development, which call for government priority in reorganizing the dominant ideology. Forming RIAs is a call to formulate the EAC bloc with constructive institutions that can spur economic growth systems for the common good expected to benefit people. It is essential to note that:

Regional groupings are primarily concerned with promoting economic co-operation and eventually economic integration between their members. Or, when the main objective is political rapprochement and the elimination of the recurrence of military conflict, the creation of close economic relations is the principle means to that end (Baudot 2001:140).

There are three main areas of concern in the EAC about development. First, is political underdevelopment characterised by poor public policy, differentiated government institutions that effectively carry out popular functions like raising revenue, maintaining political stability and vulnerable dependency on international aid. The second issue is social underdevelopment, which refers to sub-standard housing among the rural poor, urban slums, shorter life expectations, high rates of infant mortality and malnutrition, lower levels of education attainment for the majority, lack of social equity, depleting the environment and the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The third area is broad based economic development problems.

Equitable Economic Growth

Put together, the complex designs of the East African economies have good revenue base that should be systematically controlled. The rate of economic growth is very slow. Acknowledging the positive aspects and achievements of the EAC such as elimination of trade barriers, tariffs, quotas, easy movement of goods and people across borders among others is important.

The barriers to economic growth of East Africa are many and they are mainly reflected on the way people develop their welfare. The crucial task of building a democratic society cannot be dissociated from the renewal of economic prosperity and social justice. In the EAC, the core element of the contemporary challenge of building democracy is tied to the task of eradicating poverty and many related social injustices. This is not an easy task to merge, but it is equally important to note that:

While poverty on its own may not be sufficient to wreck a democratic project, its persistence or even intensification certainly does contribute to the creation of conditions that could stultify the basis for democratic politics. Tackling poverty and related social injustices is, therefore, simultaneously an investment in democratic governance and in the prospects for its consolidation (Cheru 2002:62).

In the EAC, the transformation and significant reform agendas of economic and political renewal entails the awareness that it is costly to design and implement any radical strategy.

The complex issue of reviving economic growth supported by coherent policies and an enabling domestic environment should be taken seriously by all stakeholders. Proper planning has to be developed in small communities to meet the most urgent needs of the people particularly at constituency levels. Broad based planned activities can also help in attracting and retaining investment in business, mobilize and encourage a greater presence and participation of NGOs. Participation, sound economic policies, predictable political atmosphere, adequate infrastructural facilities, transparency and accountability, the protection of property rights and due legal procedures are conditions necessary in empowering the potential of democracy in EAC and at the same time encourage the creation of equitable economic growth.

Regional integration is an appropriate vehicle that can be used to pull myriads from the dilemma of poverty and underdevelopment. However, caution must be taken not to misconstrue regionalism as a scapegoat for failed national economic growth strategies. If the national economic development agenda is off track then the EAC should expect little or nothing at all in terms of gains. Expanding capitalist market systems in the region may superficially be seen as a way of leading to greater production but the local majority have almost no produce to trade on or worse, they are in a situation of austerity.

Ambitious approaches on economic and political integration can primarily make meaning by initiating reforms that lead to socio-economic transformations aimed at improving peoples’ life sustenance, self–esteem, and freedom to determine their destiny.


Government dedication to negotiations oriented toward establishing strengthened South-South bilateral trade links have to be given priority. Proper foundations of EAC must cut the erroneous colonial trade links by evaluating specific economic policy targets and the proper means of achieving them such as modernizing the agricultural sector, manufacturing food products for local consumption instead of relying on the importation of expensive goods, improving infrastructure and controlling the exportation of primary agricultural raw materials. A practical dimension points towards a regional integration that concentrates on equitable gains and is necessarily supported by the public rather than forming a fragmented integration based on fragile institutions.

The EAC bloc should harmonize different economic, social and political policies at the national level to strategically create smooth linkage at the regional level. Pursuing closer and meaningful integration should pay attention to comparative advantage so as to pull together weaker economies like Burundi and Rwanda through specialization.

Institutional development that stems from intergovernmentalism is critical in addressing economic stagnation and high incidences of poverty in East Africa, which is largely attributed to failure of public institutions’ bureaucracies. Formulating and executing realistic growth measures should be an optimal option. Economic and political institutions should seek to promote the common good philosophy and translate into better expanded trade and living standards.

The realistic manner of setting workable and incremental strategies that can be achieved in a linear progressive model makes sense if the EAC is to move away from the traditional straitjacket plans of regional integration to a more open and heterogeneous one. At the centre of this process is a sound economic policy and political coordination to take significant reforms fundamental for the future.