International Trade Can Help Africa Grow


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Africa tradeOptimism about Africa’s future is no longer scarce. The continent’s growth has been exemplary in recent years. Yet it is just as easy to find signs of distrust in the global economy. 

Multilateral agencies insist that international integration offers opportunities for accelerating economic growth. Official parlance has become tame since the heyday of structural reforms in the early 1990s, but they have found subtle ways to argue that trade is good. The World Bank recently launched “Defragmenting Africa,” providing an exhaustive and exhausting list of policies to increase international trade within the continent. 

Unsurprisingly the prescriptions can be costly. Removing import taxes might improve economic efficiency and enhance consumer welfare, but revenues can fall in countries with limited public resources. Although Africa harbors some of the highest trade taxes in the world (World Development Report 2009), the point is that there are tradeoffs. The same applies to policies that entail investments in infrastructure for “trade facilitation.” 

What would Africa get in return? 

It is unfortunate, but the truth is that most proposed policies will not be properly evaluated. In some cases, the policies are too broad to be subject to impact evaluations in the tradition of Randomized Control Trials. A recent World Bank book, “Where to Spend the Next Million?” is a call to arms to conduct such evaluations of trade-related policies. The case studies are mostly about export promotion programs for firms. It is difficult to imagine a randomized controlled trial where the treatment on a population is simultaneous doses of tariff reductions, investments in infrastructure, and removal of regulatory non-tariff barriers. 

We must look elsewhere for estimates of the potential effects of increasing trade. International comparisons are unavoidable. So, what do international data say about trade and growth in Africa? The graph shows the correlation between average annual growth rates and the ratio of international trade (imports plus exports) to GDP. (The data come from the 7th version of the Penn World Tables.) The correlation is positive, but, alas, correlation is not causation. Thus the unadulterated data tell us little. 

Click on the graph below to see it larger

A paper coauthored with Markus Bruckner (National University of Singapore) disentangles causation from correlation in two ways. First, we asked: what is the effect of growth on trade? To answer, we used data on rain, which affects growth directly and trade only indirectly. Then we used the portion of trade that is not caused by growth to estimate the impact of trade on growth. Second, we took advantage of African economies being small, which allowed the use of rich-country growth as a driver of African trade; exports through demand and imports through supply. In turn, we estimated the causal effect of that portion of trade on African growth.

With both approaches, we found that the effect is positive and significant:  A one percentage point increase in the trade-to-GDP ratio is associated with an average increase of about 0.5 percent in the growth of GDP per capita, and the effect appears to be amplified over time.

Good news for trade, up to a point. Cross-country analyses provide the average effect, but they do not say that every country will be equally affected. In Africa, institutions, ethnic fractionalization and dependence on natural resources are different across countries. We found that the positive effect of trade on growth varies systematically with ethnic polarization, but we could not reject the possibility that the effect is positive for all. 



April 19, 2012

cant agree the less, president kibaki is on record rallying other east african countries to open their borders while the largest ethnic group is also the most economically empowered due to their trade aggresiveness

April 25, 2012

This is a great article and has really helped me with my current project!

I'm an aspiring journalist, and I'm researching for an article I will be writing on how the growth of business and trade has helped developing countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.

I want to look at the role of governements and NGOs in these processes, what has been achieved already, and what still needs to be done to help entrepreneurs in these countries.

I want to focus on the success stories rather than ventures which could be qualified as failures, whilst looking to the future to see how entrepreneurship has to change in Africa to reach and help the poorest of the poor.

I came across this blog by googling "African success stories", and I'm so glad I found it, it's brilliant! I was just wondering if someone could point me in the right direction, or perhaps even have a discussion about how business and trade is helping to reach MDG targets.

I'm relatively new to this topic but I'm quickly becoming very passionate about it. What I need is up-to-date information and statistics, as well as the current consensus on what is best to help developing countries. If anyone would like to help me with this, please don't hesitate to get in touch.

Thank you!

Christoph Hess
May 06, 2012

This blog post is supporting the "trade not aid" approach - thank you very much!

What is China's role with regard to your findings?

Do African countries risk trade imbalances?

Tessie Catsambas
May 30, 2012

The Devarajan-Bruckner paper presents a clear model and analysis that gives us hope for the potential impact of new trade policies and African growth. It is important, however, that if we cannot afford Randomized Control Trials, we can still evaluate the design and implementation of these policies as they get implemented. There is a lot we can learn from vigilant monitoring of key metrics, checking on whether our assumptions in the model conitnue to hold, and developing a deeper understanding of the changes that "seem" triggered by our policy interventions. We can also use key informant interviews (and other methods) to explore what is happening in the "black box of change." Surely systematic evaluation is a good alternative to RCT if we cannot afford RCTs.

November 20, 2014

This website is helpful.

December 07, 2014

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