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Regional trade arrangements (RTAs) are an increasingly important element of the global trade environment. Developing countries are active participants in the formation of RTAs and an increasing number of these are being formed on a North-South basis.

There are differing viewpoints on the desirability and on the efficient design of regional integration, especially involving developing countries. Furthermore, the past record of such arrangements, again especially among developing countries, has been disappointing. Thus the first objective of this paper is to review the regional integration debate for those involved in the preparation of food security strategies as part of regional integration programs among developing countries. It aims to provide a better understanding of the motivations, processes and constraints to regional integration and cooperation. The paper concentrates primarily on the economic arguments while acknowledging that political motivations may often be the primary driving force behind RTAs.

The second objective of the paper is to identify the potential role which regional integration arrangements might make to promoting food security among their members. Given the growing propensity of developing countries to enter into RTAs both with each other and with industrialized countries, it is pertinent to ask what impact this might have on their food security, and how these regional groupings might be able to contribute to promoting food security. Can poverty and hunger (as cause and consequence of food insecurity) be alleviated by regional integration? What are the possible opportunities for regional integration to promote food security? Special attention is paid in the paper to the potential and constraints to regional co-operation in sub-Saharan Africa given the severity of food insecurity in that region and its ambitious objectives for regional integration.

Welfare consequences of regional integration

The past experience of developing countries with regional integration schemes is not a happy one. The reasons for this can be illuminated with the aid of the simple theory of customs unions. Preferential trade arrangements give rise both to trade creation and trade diversion effects, as well as to transfers between the member countries. The design of RTAs among developing countries in the past tended to maximize the costs of trade diversion (because of high external tariffs) and also encouraged regressive transfers from poorer to better-off members of such arrangements.

The recent more favorable assessment of regional integration arrangements involving developing countries is based on the following considerations. Regionalism will lead to net trade creation as long as it is coupled with a significant degree of trade liberalization and where emphasis is put on reducing cost-creating trade barriers which simply waste resources. Regional economic integration may be a precondition for, rather than an obstacle to, integrating developing countries into the world economy by minimizing the costs of market fragmentation.

North-South RTAs have been seen as more likely to result in gains to developing countries as compared to South-South RTAs, on the grounds that they minimize trade diversion costs and maximize the gains from policy credibility. Closer examination of these arguments, however, suggests that the assumptions on which they are based may not always stand up. Positive economic outcomes will depend on the deliberate design of these agreements, and cannot simply be assumed.

The growing propensity of RTAs to include aspects of policy integration also poses a challenge for developing countries. Although these aspects are most common in RTAs involving high-income countries, a growing number of North-South agreements now have broad integration objectives. The removal of non-tariff barriers which act to segment markets can be potentially beneficial, but whether this turns out to be the case in practice will depend on the nature of the policy integration. The same set of regulations and standards is not optimal in all countries; differences in standards may well be justified on efficiency grounds. For example, environmental standards tend to be higher in high-income economies because of the high value placed by the public on environmental improvements in these countries. Lower standards may be appropriate in other countries in order to avoid the diversion of resources away from policies with a greater potential to improve citizen’s welfare. Harmonizing standards (upwards) in this situation would impose additional costs on developing countries. The costs to developing countries of harmonizing inappropriate policy regulations may exceed the benefits of encouraging greater market access.

Implications of RTA design for developing countries

There are a number of institutional issues in the design of RTAs which may affect their capacity to act effectively. Most RTAs between developing countries are intergovernmental with little evidence that countries are prepared to cede authority to supranational bodies. As a result, the ‘commitment institutions’ which underpin the sustainability of these arrangements are likely to be weak.

Flexibility in setting integration ambitions can be valuable, including making allowance for variable speed and variable geometry formulations for developing country economic groupings with overlapping memberships and different integration objectives.

The distinction can be made between regional integration based on the exchange of trade preferences and policy coordination, where the objectives are to promote a more efficient allocation of resources, to intensify competition and to underpin political credibility vis-à-vis private investment, on the one hand, and regional cooperation where the primary objective is to ensure the supply of regional public goods, on the other hand. A successful RTA may have positive spin-offs in improving the supply of regional public goods.

The subsidiarity principle can be used to organize discussion on the appropriate role and competences of regional authorities vis-à-vis national and local ones. This is a good starting point to think about the role of regions in promoting food security. It is precisely those regional food security activities which add value to national efforts through stabilization or redistribution, or where there are strong efficiency arguments for a regional approach, which should be encouraged at the regional level.

Implications of WTO rules for developing countries

RTAs represent an exception to the World Trade Organization (WTO) principle of non-discrimination contained in General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) Article I. This has led to an active debate over whether RTAs are a ‘building block’ or a ‘stumbling block’ in creating an open and sustainable multilateral trading system. The legal cover for RTAs within the WTO is an item for discussion in the Doha Development Round. Among the issues for clarification are the interpretation of the ‘substantial trade’ requirement and how to measure the neutrality of trade policy before and after integration occurs, particularly in the case of non-tariff barriers. For developing countries, the issues concern the scope for flexibility and asymmetry in future RTAs concluded with industrialized countries under the cover of Article XXIV.

It would also be helpful if the agricultural negotiations were to clarify the treatment of agricultural commitments in the Agreement on Agriculture (AoA) in the context of regional integration. In particular, the methodologies which should be used in aggregating market access, export subsidy and domestic support commitments when forming a customs union need to be more clearly spelled out.

Developing countries have a number of interests in any revision of WTO rules on RTAs. First, as beneficiaries of a rules-based multilateral trading system, they will want to ensure that regionalism contributes to its strengthening and not its fragmentation. Under this heading, clarification of the rules regarding the required trade coverage, tightening of the requirement for trade neutrality, and ensuring that rules created under regional arrangements are compatible with the multilateral system and are transparent, will be important objectives.

Regionalism and food security in developing countries

Because regional integration among developing countries in the past was mainly concerned with encouraging industrial development, there is relatively little literature on its impact on agricultural development and food security. There are two main aspects to the interface between regionalism and food security: (a) the consequences of regional integration (and, especially, regional trade integration) for food security, and (b) the opportunities which exist to address food security issues within a regional framework.

To the extent that regionalism promotes increased intra-regional trade which fosters economic growth and increases employment prospects and the income-earning capacities of the poor, it will enhance food security. Whether regional integration promotes overall economic growth or not will depend on the design of the agreement, and whether it succeeds in promoting more trade creation rather than trade diversion.

However, the consequences of regional trade integration need country-specific and region-specific evaluations of market integration on the overall status of food insecure households. Potential beneficiaries of regional integration among low-income farm households may be unable to take advantage of increased market access opportunities in the presence of supply-side constraints. There will also be those households in both rural and urban areas who either fall behind or lose out in this process. Where supply constraints are identified, regional integration strategies should include investment and training interventions to address these constraints. Where negative impacts are identified, then a regional integration strategy which is food-security aware should be accompanied by flanking measures to address these negative impacts.

A Food Security Financial Instrument is proposed to finance initiatives both to protect vulnerable groups from any adverse consequences from, and to assist them to take advantage of, regional integration initiatives.

Incorporating agriculture into RTAs will lead to pressure to harmonize agricultural policies either by transferring responsibility to the supranational, regional level or by coordinating national policies. Key issues which will need to be addressed in this process include the level of the common external tariff, rules on domestic subsidies to farmers, the priority to be given to tackling different kinds of market-fragmenting barriers, and the need for financial mechanisms to address any adverse inter-country distributional effects of supporting farm prices within the union.

It will also make sense to pursue a strategy of policy coordination to reduce barriers to intra-regional agricultural trade. Many measures to facilitate intra-regional trade are not specifically agricultural, for example, improved transport, communications and payments links and the elimination of border obstacles. Specific food and agricultural measures to facilitate trade might include:

Whatever the ambitions of regional groupings involving developing countries, it is likely that they will need considerable technical assistance support and capacity building. This is particularly the case where developing countries are engaged in parallel series of trade negotiations covering increasingly complex areas of integration at the same time. This is an area where donor assistance can be useful. The difficulties of managing and coordinating regional institutions in the context of institutional weakness are exacerbated when countries are members of overlapping and possibly competing regional groupings. This problem appears particularly acute in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). For SSA countries, choosing a unique and appropriate regional arrangement is likely to be a prerequisite for success in the next period of regionalism.

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