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Creating the conditions for a new era of African prosperity: A chat with Calestous Juma

Calestous Juma, African optimist and world renowned development expert

The election of Donald Trump to become President of the U.S. and the U.K. vote to leave the European Union, aka Brexit, is obviously of global significance – especially when it comes to international trade and so-called ‘globalization.’ While the focus largely has been on how these political upheavals will impact the West and Asia, many in Africa are also worried. One African development expert, however, is not; rather, he sees opportunity.

Calestous Juma, a Kenyan and widely respected development expert now based at Harvard University, notes that today only about one percent of US trade goes to the African continent. Africa already tends to lose out in the global marketplace and in most the current trade agreements, Juma says, so almost any change that may come from the new Trump Administration could be an improvement.

The American presidential election and Brexit are both regarded by many as, among other things, a protest vote registering a revolt against the established order – against the (arguably misleading term) ‘free trade,’ the focus on growth of economies in general as opposed to the welfare of individual workers and families and the widening gap between rich and poor.

The anger of Eurosceptic Conservative MPs over the European single market, a tariff-free trade bloc, matched by Trump’s promise to leave the TPP, is an example of this: Both express dissatisfaction with trading blocs that override national economic policy. Though the reasons behind Brexit were as similar as they were different to Trump, one connecting narrative remains: frustration at centralized power structures, which give nation states less of a say on how our economy and our trade systems operate. This sentiment rings ever truer in Africa.

Professor Juma is an internationally recognized authority in the application of science and technology to foster sustainable development. In 1988 he founded the African Centre for Technology Studies, Africa’s first independent policy research institution, which advances research into scientific development.

Juma has argued for the need for Africa to embrace a new form of globalization emerging on the continent or, as he coins it ‘glocalization’. This has led to a renewed focus on integration between regional economic blocs within the African Union, with countries within the Union pushing for a greater say in shaping their own development paths within such blocs.

Free from the interference of global trading blocs which harm Africa’s development, Professor Juma argues that interregional blocs are forming the basis of Africa’s own unique form of globalization. According to Juma, Africa is in a unique position to learn from the mistakes of globalization and forge its own model of integration.


Why do you think that globalization, in its current forms, is under threat?

One of the reasons globalization is in trouble is that international trade arrangements are negotiated with relatively little consideration of their human and economic costs.

Globalization features such closer connectivity between regions through information communication technologies and transportation. It is often the erosion of local diversity, promotion of homogenization and fostering of unequal trade relations that generate political disquiet.

Many of the concerns about trade-focused globalization were raised during negotiations that resulted in the creation of the World Trade Organization (WTO). The view then was that these were predominantly developing country concerns. They have unfolded to be global concerns.

How do Africa’s regional bloc differ from other trading blocs around the world?

CJ: Africa has the longest record of regional integration in history going back to early colonial days. There are a lot of lessons and experience in its history that has shaped its approach to regional integration.

One of the key features of regional blocs in Africa is the diversity between the different regions in terms of history and reasons for integrating as blocs. For example, the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) has its roots in customs unions and therefore focuses mainly only on trade. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) evolved as a result of dealing with wars in the region and has strong grounding in peacekeeping. The East African Community (EAC) has been built on a longer history that included political federation so in its current form it envisages a political federation.

The roadmap for implementing the protocols of the EAC have yet to address the issue of political federation in detail, so its emphasis for now is trade and development.

No two African regional blocs nor the African Union itself acts through a centralized power system as the European Union. Attempts to push for a United States of Africa have often met resistance from member states that object to centralized authority.

Member states prefer deeper trade integration inside blocs and not centralized political power. This is driven largely by their pragmatic desire to seek inclusive growth across similar standing countries.

Trump’s appeal has been his focus on trade deals which he believes adversely affect working class Americans and eroded social security. What is the African experience of this? How has it adversely affected African economies?

CJ: Africans are familiar with such concerns based on colonial and post-colonial history. They do not need Trump to know about the dangers of skewed trade relations. The difference though is that Trump is concerned largely about trade arrangements, which they were stronger in negotiating. Africans have mostly experienced forced and negotiated trade deals without access to the same level of political agency to shape these deals.

The prevailing narrative of globalization model over the last few decades failed to see how countries can equitably transition out of industrial growth. As manufacturing moved China, the U.S. concentrated its efforts on building its services economy, as with Thatcher’s policies in Britain.

Opponents of globalization are using demagoguery to exploit a real problem with this linear model of globalization. By saying they’ll bring jobs back instead of creating new ones are assuming that the trends are reversible. Industrial migration to developing countries is irreversible.

This view of globalization also created gross inequalities while dismantling social safeguards. This added to popular resentment of international trade treaties. This later became a political platform for economic nationalists.

These are the lessons that Africa is learning, and hopefully they can be used to allow Africa to grow as an integrated economy. The continent is still in the early stages of its integration efforts, so it has a lot to learn from contemporary global developments. Their implementation efforts will be pragmatic, experimental and incremental.

Trump recently claimed that he will close down trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific-Partnership (TPP) when he takes office. What impact will US trade protectionism have on Africa?

CJ: I do not see how Africa will feature prominently in the rise of Trump. Only 1% of US global trade is with Africa. The fact that there is less to say about this topic is a reflection of the fact that Africa didn’t feature in the campaign. We will have to wait until we there are policy statements from the Trump Administration before we can really assess the impact on Africa.

What Trump does reflect are the growing concerns raised by Tanzania and Nigeria over the Economic Partnership Agreements (EPA) with the EU. For Tanzanians these are genuine fears about how globalization impacts its booming textiles industry. Many even fear that the EPAs could undermine regional integration efforts.

Trump enjoyed quite a bit of support from my Tanzanian followers on Twitter. At one point I thought it was because they didn’t like Clinton because of the Gaddafi issue. But upon asking I learned they feared the continuation of globalization.

The Brexit camp has claimed that coming out of the European Union will allow it to trade with the Commonwealth countries. Will this help Africa, or offset new free trade deals which adversely affect Africa?

CJ: Brexit has greater implications for Africa. It is notable that the number of African Commonwealth members states has grown in recent years to include Rwanda, Mozambique, and Cameroon. It is not the growth in numbers that is of interest, but the timing of Brexit.

Tanzania withdrew earlier this year from the EPA negotiations with the East African Community (EAC). It argued that post-Brexit uncertainties had driven the decision, and that unequal power relations between the EU and African countries would destroy local industry.

Brexit has come at a moment when Africa is starting to focus on industrial development as part of regional integration. The timing creates an opportunity for both the UK and the EU to rethink their relations with Africa and to allow the African perspective to come to light more.

China appears to be more aware of Africa’s new vision and is engaging with the continent through foundational investments in infrastructure and in manufacturing in selected countries. U.S. retreat from trade with Asia could see renewed push by China, India, and other Asian countries into Africa.

Currently intra-African trade only amounts to around 14 per cent of all trade on the continent, whereas in Europe it represents 61 per cent of total European trade. Do you expect a change in trade relations with the West will boost trade in Africa?

CJ: The reasons that prevent Africa from trading as much internationally are the same ones that stymie trade among African nations. They include: poor road infrastructure, balkanized markets, and barriers to trade and the movement of people. Uniting under blocs allows African nations to overcome some of these economic and political problems.

Extensive international negotiations on market access have taught Africa a sporting lesson from soccer: it is much harder to compete favorably in the World Cup without vibrant national and regional leagues. It is this logic that informed the creation of RECs as building blocs for continental integration.

It is evident all across Africa that people want to see the recognition and strengthening of their local political identities while participating in wider regional and international trade networks. The negotiations that led to the adoption of the Tripartite Free Trade Area (TFTA) – which includes regional economic blocs within a free trade agreement.

The power of this new trade area is that it covers 26 countries with 620 million people. It also boasts an economy $1.5 trillion USD; it has enormous potential. The successful negotiation of the TFTA inspired Africa to embark on talks to agree on a Continental Free Trade Area by 2017.

The adoption of the CFTA will not result in instant benefits, but it will be the beginning of new relations among African countries, and between Africa and the rest of the world. It is the beginning of a new era of self-discovery.

What can the rest of the world learn from pan-African integration?

CJ: The new Africa seems to be guided by the view that economics trumps politics – a reversal of the view during the era of decolonization. These developments have their own unique African logic and momentum that is independent of the rise economic nationalism in the western world. They deserve to be analyzed in their own right and not in comparison with what is happening in other parts of the world.

The new Africa seems to be guided by the view that economics trumps politics: a reversal of the view during the era of decolonization. These developments have their own unique African logic and momentum that is independent of the rise economic nationalism in the western world. They deserve to be analyzed in their own right and not in comparison with what is happening in other parts of the world.

The fact that we are experiencing such a divergence from the prevailing narrative reinforces the view that the logic of ‘glocalization’ may have wider international appeal than currently appreciated. It might offer a new way to respond to concerns that are inspiring economic nationalism around the globe.

Some countries may turn their backs on 20th century globalization. But this retreat may be more about searching for new models of globalization than discarding being part of the global community altogether. The dangers which the world faces is that this search also gives voice to forces that appeal to sentiments that are repugnant. We must all be vigilant and stand up against such forces and fight for peaceful coexistence among diverse identities.


About Author

Charlie Ensor

Charlie Ensor is a Nairobi-based freelance journalist, focusing on refugee rights, development and humanitarian crises in East Africa. His work has also featured on the Guardian and WhyDev; he also writes his own blog on development and aid issues. Charlie tweets @charlieensor, and you can contact him at