By Philani Mthembu, Executive Director at Institute for Global Dialogue
The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the lack of a regional alternative to access goods and services once global value chains had been disrupted. Such a situation can only be remedied by encouraging the development of more robust regional value chains that feed into existing global value chains, boosting resilience to future pandemics or crises. Regional co-operation and integration are the missing link to ensure greater alignment and coordination between national plans and international development goals.
No country can realistically achieve its national development plans without international co-operation. However, despite a proliferation of national development plans, that often refer to international goals like the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), their level of alignment and coordination with these goals remains inadequate. While there is no clear-cut way to develop such coordination mechanisms, nor a comprehensive toolkit providing guidance on what they should contain, existing regional governance structures can and should play a greater role in this area.
While the nation state continues to be the main unit of analysis, including in international organisations, the regional dimension of global politics has generally played a lesser role despite the advantages of strengthening this layer of interaction. Moreover, the pandemic has shown that when international organisations fail to meet their obligations, the negative effects are exacerbated in the absence of resilient and functioning regional modes of co-operation and organisation, taking place closer to the areas of implementation.
Assessing existing regional efforts
African countries have shown the importance of regional co-operation throughout the pandemic by sourcing medical protective equipment and vaccines collectively through the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, while also coordinating their approach to debt relief, the WTO TRIPS waiver on intellectual property rights, and the production of vaccines to meet the current demand.
Beyond the current crisis, recent years have seen efforts to foster co-operation at a regional level, exemplified through the African Union’s Agenda 2063 and the implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA). In Asia, similar efforts were made with the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and ASEAN initiatives. In the global North, the European Union (EU) has continued to show resilience despite challenges such as Brexit, while regional structures such as the South-American Common Market (MERCOSUR), the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), and trade agreements between the US, Mexico, and Canada succeeding the North Atlantic Free Trade Area (NAFTA), have contributed to institutionalised structures of regional co-operation. More recently, in Latin America and the Caribbean, countries of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) unanimously approved a “Plan for self-sufficiency in health matters in LAC”.
These efforts help to avoid a situation where global goals are agreed on but where the only real form of coordination takes place mostly at the national level. In the global South this will encourage greater South-South co-operation for achieving national and international development targets, while giving regional economic communities a greater sense of responsibility. This is particularly important in areas such as infrastructure, digitalisation and energy issues, which remain central to Africa’s integration and development efforts.
Towards an enhanced role for regional coordination structures
Regional structures can play a crucial role in ensuring that a rise in populism and nationalism does not lead to a sustained global shift towards economic nationalism, limiting the negative effects of these trends on international co-operation and multilateralism. Having well-functioning and well-resourced regional structureswould also strengthen the voice of individual countries at the global level, giving them more negotiation power and agency, which is especially important for developing countries.
Instead of reverting to the national layer in the governance and provision of global public goods, international structures, such as the United Nations and its various agencies, should support existing regional structures to formulate measurable implementation plans for Agenda 2030, developed in consultation with member states. These regional implementation plans, similar to the 10-year implementation plans of the AU’s Agenda 2063, will also act as guiding frameworks for member states and be used to assess the areas in which different regions perform better in implementing their national plans and the SDGs. This is particularly important in the final decade of Agenda 2030.
The implementation plans would have to take into account the particular conditions and dynamics of their regions in the implementation of global development goals, develop clear indicators of progress and conduct regular reviews. Through a stronger peer review mechanism at a regional level, national actors would have to account for their contributions to regional efforts to achieve the SDGs. In the medium to long-term, this will also entrench a stronger development paradigm at regional and international levels.
The international system’s governance and frameworks have yet to catch up with new economic realities of shared challenges, new development priorities, and the emergence of new major international development players. This series offers insights from a group of experts on Development in Transition, from Asia, Africa and Latin America, on why and how the international community should empower a broader variety of actors, be guided by a wider range of voices, and employ new development narratives and indicators, and a larger set of modalities, to achieve shared global goals.