Africa must speak with one voice

Medicines in developing countries cost several times higher than in developed countries. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

“There's always some potential vulnerabilities in any system,” PayPal’s Dan Schulman in a 2017 interview on the future of cash

Those who followed US President Donald Trump’s recent visit to the United Kingdom know that he did not bother to hide his desire to see Britain exit the European Union (EU).

In Brexit, Trump saw an opportunity to exploit the UK’s emerging vulnerabilities by proposing a trade deal where everything will be on the table including UK’s cherished National Health Service (NHS). UK Prime Minister Theresa May was swift in her response, “But the point about making trade deals is of course that those sides negotiate and come to an agreement about what should or should not be in that trade deal for the future.”

The British people may be having differences on Brexit but in healthcare they are firmly united behind their system, which has worked since the end of Second World War.

The philosophy of the health systems in the two countries differ significantly. While the UK has a universal care system at the point of delivery and is highly regulated through Care Quality Commission, the US system is largely run by the private sector. The British have every reason to fear US intentions considering the fact that they are deeply divided on the prospects of scrapping of Obamacare that had the promise of care for all citizens.


Like the future of cash, the future of the UK is uncertain. This is perhaps why no one wants to make any conclusive decision on Brexit. But the fight over healthcare gives Africa a great lesson on how not to negotiate any trade deal from a weaker position. Brexit has weakened the UK’s negotiating capacity. Continued uncertainty will exacerbate vulnerability. We have been in that situation many times to the extent of being taken advantage of by multinational pharmaceutical companies.

Contemporary African health systems are wrought with many conflicting interests from powerful countries that control the World Trade Organisation (WTO) agenda. There are several horror stories that characterize the continent’s vulnerabilities.

A report by Wemos Health Unlimited, a non-profit organization that advocates the right to health of people worldwide, say that multinational pharmaceutical companies are behaving badly in Africa. More often, they experiment with the health and even the lives of African patients, with clinical tests conducted in an unethical manner.

Medicines in developing countries cost several times higher than in developed countries. This is because African countries either individually or collectively fail to negotiate better trade deals that favor the continent.

Joan Apecu in her study, The Level of African Engagement at the World Trade Organisation from 1995 to 2010, says that established that “individual and collective participation by African WTO Members was nominal, minimal and largely ineffectual in relation to the group's significant membership share, in areas identified as priority, and compared to members' participation from other regions.”

She further argues that the degree of engagement and participation of African WTO members is “explained by levels of personal commitment and professional engagement of individual negotiators, regardless of capacity constraints and weaknesses. There were evident relationships between the level of African participation and the governance and institutional structures from which negotiators originated.”

Although this strong indictment explains why the continent still suffers from her people’s inability to negotiate trade deals, there is hope in Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA) if the continent speaks with one voice and negotiates as a bloc. The benefits are enormous. Even WTO will start taking Africa more seriously. CFTA should be working towards build collective capacity around trade negotiations.

Individually, the UK stands no chance of ever making trade deals that favour it as they used to, the much-vaunted “special relationship” with the US notwithstanding. Instead, they have exposed themselves to manipulation. They will have to give in to demands that they would not have considered to be on a trade table just to save face from their Brexit mistake.