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Free Trade Area Could Transform Africa

A free trade agreement could be an important milestone for the economic future for the continent, connecting Cairo to Cape Town and much in-between, and integrating Africa more completely into the global economy. The heads of state have laid out an ambitious agenda, bringing together 26 countries; a GDP of more than $1.2 trillion; and more than half a billion people.

Quite simply, it has the potential to transform the continent. Free trade, of course, cannot end extreme poverty and boost shared prosperity by itself.
These agreements must be accompanied by policies and programs that help the majority of the population to benefit from greater trade. This includes quality education for youth, better infrastructure, more affordable communications technologies, and better access to financial services.

Africa has made tremendous progress over the past two decades, achieving impressive growth rates and broadening the base of development. But we are now faced with increasing global uncertainty–declining commodity prices, escalating conflict in some parts of the world, the threat of climate change, and infectious diseases that know no borders. I can assure you that the World Bank Group is strongly committed to helping you manage these risks.
In Africa and the Middle East regions, we provided nearly $20 billion in assistance in 2014, and we’re on track to provide similar levels this year. We’ve reorganized to emphasize our greatest strengths – the marriage of our vast knowledge to innovative financing to deliver programs to your countries that have the greatest impact.

We’re promoting a global pandemic facility to better prevent and respond to health epidemics like Ebola and MERS. And our new Global Infrastructure Facility will partner with the private sector to finance infrastructure. All of us know that the private sector has an important role in development – it creates the jobs that build prosperity. Today, Africa, more than ever, is open for business, but countries must continue to reduce transaction costs.

Currently, it takes an average of 37 days to import and 31 days to export goods in Sub Saharan Africa, compared to less than 20 days to import and export in North Africa, Latin America and South East Asia. The difference is even greater for landlocked countries, where the averages are 50 days to import and 40 days to export. Regional integration is more than trade.

Greater regional integration has a vital role to play in helping countries move beyond conflict. In the Great Lakes Region, the Sahel, and the Horn of Africa, we’re designing programs that will help entire regions, including support for multi-country sustainable energy projects and improvements to cross-border trading, which promote peace and stability. These efforts, in partnership with the United Nations and institutions such as the Islamic
Development Bank, are accompanied by strategic dialogue and development diplomacy.

We’re also looking to expand this regional approach to countries in the Middle East.
In the face of current instability in the Middle East, I understand that it is difficult to envision peace and prosperity for all, but I remain optimistic. We must begin preparing for peace and economic opportunities, and we must invest in the region’s greatest untapped asset – its youth and its women.

We must invest in young people and women by giving them better educations, access to quality health care, and job training skills.
The World Bank Group is ready to mobilize the necessary financial resources and technical assistance to support reforms in education and vocational training, partnering with the government and the private sector.

Our purpose is to improve the quality of education and bridge the current skills mismatch. These steps will give youth, women and the economically disadvantaged much greater opportunities to find good jobs.

The World Bank Group shares a common vision and goal of a more prosperous Africa. We will do all in our power to help you create better lives for all your citizens.

This editorial has been adopted from a speech delivered by the World Bank President to the heads of state and government at the tripartite summit held in Egypt last month.
The summit brought together the (common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (Comesa), the Southern Africa, Development and Cooperation (Sadc) andthe Economic Commission of West African states ( Ecowas).


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