Africa needs its own pool of trade policy advisors


Building capacity is key to enhancing the participation of a country in bilateral and multilateral trade fora. FILE PHOTO | NMG

Over the past 25 years, participation of African countries in the multilateral trading system of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) has been quite limited. The question is why African countries do not address their trade issues in the fora provided by the WTO.

Lack of government capacity is often given as a reason for limited participation in WTO matters. Building capacity among the different trade actors (governments and private sector) is key to enhancing the participation of a country in bilateral and multilateral trade fora.

There are different ways to build capacity in Africa. Here, we concentrate on what we believe is the most efficient: nurturing university students. Students are energetic people with unspoiled creativity.

They find ways to make their dreams come true. University students are thus the immediate future and are the agents of change that will drive the continent. Governments which identify and nurture the young talent are poised to succeed.

Kenya recently heard of a team of three young students from Strathmore University who won the global rounds of the John Jackson Moot Court Competition on WTO Law held in Geneva, Switzerland. To show the importance of this prestigious competition, it suffices to note that the Strathmore team emerged as the winner beating in the final round Harvard University.

The competition entailed over 90 universities, with 22 participating in the final rounds. Two other Kenyan universities (Kenyatta University and Kabarak University) also participated in the final rounds of this competition impressing the panellists and experts with their performance.

Kenyan universities and coaches are doing their job. The question is now whether the Kenyan society will integrate that talent. Are we in the presence of yet another generation of world-class law students that will have to leave their country due to the lack of opportunities?

This should not be the case. This new generation of international trade lawyers can steer the country's trade policies in the medium term. They have shown that it is possible to do away with any misguided ideas that African cannot be a top world player.

If they did so in the context of a university competition, they can also do it at the professional level. We need to see our African countries negotiating and debating with the rest of the world on an equal footing. This change of mindset is what Africa needs.

Kenya's increasing importance as a reference on the African continent requires talent, creativity and energy. Particularly, Kenya is currently establishing the Kenya Trade Remedies Agency under the leadership of young, vigorous government officials.

This agency is intended to protect Kenya's domestic industry from unfair competition due to dumped or subsidised imports. While this agency could provide the much needed relief to domestic industry, undertaking dumping or subsidies investigations is a complex and intense procedure.

It is therefore paramount that the agency staff have a good understanding of the legal provisions, which students have gained through the competition.

Mwangi is a dispute settlement lawyer at the WTO while Vidal is counsel at the Advisory Centre on WTO Law.