This year about 50 countries of the African Union signed the historic Africa Convention Free Trade Area
This year about 50 countries of the African Union signed the historic Africa Convention Free Trade Area agreement that paves the way for free movement of goods and services across the continent. This is wonderful news for the region which has largely been on the losing end of numerous international trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The AfCFTA is expected to increase intra-African trade from the current 15% to 52% in 2022. Through it, the region is poised to witness an increase in infrastructure and technological and industrial growth.
With regards to health, free trade agreements have often been associated with scepticism
With regards to health, free trade agreements have often been associated with scepticism. Trade liberalization has often provided a channel that disproportionately increases the imports and domestic production of unhealthy foods and products such as tobacco and alcohol. This has contributed to the rise in non-communicable disease (NCD) epidemic, as happened with Mexico under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). In this case, tariff-free measures provided the leeway for excessive importation of soft drinks and junk food from the USA, which has contributed to the obesity epidemic in the country, now ranked second with the highest obesity rate in the OECD.
Moreover, Free Trade Agreements have been associated globally with an increase in environmental waste, air pollution and other related climate change risk factors, particularly in lower-income nations.
It will be crucial to ensure the impact of the AfCFTA on health is taken into account (...) to ensure the public health is protected
Despite improving the economic conditions of some countries and livelihoods of some people, trade liberalization has also been associated with growing inequalities between and within countries, necessitating adequate checks and balances. Granted, these agreements have largely been to the benefit of developed countries which mainly trade manufactured goods. The reverse is the case for the African region which mainly exports raw material with 85% of goods traded in the region coming from outside the continent. With the expectation to expand the manufacturing, agricultural and transport industry among other sectors, it will be crucial to ensure the impact of the AfCFTA on health is taken into account throughout the implementation, monitoring and evaluation processes within countries and the region to ensure that the public health is protected.
There is a necessity to work in close cooperation with public health academic institutions to build up the evidence-base relating to the links between health and trade
This could be achieved by establishing a unit within the trade body that would conduct timely and regular health impact assessments to identify the potential health effects of the policies and programmes related to the agreement. Moreover, there is a necessity to work in close cooperation with public health academic institutions to build up the evidence-base relating to the links between health and trade. It is the responsibility of the African Union to ensure that this agreement is aligned with its vision for health as it works on achieving the Agenda 2063.
This trade agreement provides a bright future for a region with immense potential for growth and development. Hopefully, social development and health will be part of this economic advancement.