Home » Author: Kirsten J. Fisher » Participatory Trade Politics in West Africa: An Interview with Award-Winning Silke Trommer

Participatory Trade Politics in West Africa: An Interview with Award-Winning Silke Trommer

At the beginning of this month in San Francisco, Dr. Silke Trommer – who happens to be a very good friend of mine – was awarded the ISA (International Studies Association) 2013 International Political Economy Section Best Dissertation Award. A book based on her thesis entitled Transformations in Trade Politics: Participatory Trade Politics in West Africa will be published in the Routledge Global Institutions Series this summer.

Silke’s book presents some important implications for global governance approaches to trade policy-making and here she offers a taste of her work and some connections between trade-policy, global governance, and questions of justice. 9633wqzkafrsxn

Kirsten Fisher: Let’s start at the beginning. What question or problem does your work attempt to resolve?

Silke Trommer: West Africa, or the rather the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), has been in the process of negotiating a trade agreement under the name of Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) with the European Union (EU) since 2003. The region also has a strong civil society platform that has been working on trade and development issues since the mid to late-1990s. From early on in the EPA process, these organisations which are mainly non-governmental organisations (NGO), trade unions and national platforms of local NGOs and social movements demanded to be included and have a say in the final outcome. This was similar in the other regions that the EU negotiated EPAs with, namely in the Caribbean, the Pacific and in Eastern, Central and Southern Africa. In West Africa, however, civil society organisations eventually reached a very high level of integration into the negotiating process, because civil society representatives became part of ECOWAS’ official negotiating team. Civil society representatives thus participated in internal meetings where ECOWAS devised its negotiating goals and strategy, and they also participated in actual negotiations with the European side. This high level of inclusion was not reached in other EPA regions, or anywhere else in trade politics, as far as I am aware. In addition, these groups have managed to influence the course of negotiations, as I show in detail in my book. These are already two phenomena that are rarely witnessed in trade political practice and hence virtually never studied in the literature. In fact, a lot of the literature implies that such a high level of implication of civil society groups is impossible. So my book asks why this happened in West Africa, what the practical experiences were with the model and what all of this means for our theories of trade policy-making.

KF: What did your research find?

ST: Well, there are of course many reasons why civil society groups became influential in West Africa and these reasons expand well beyond the immediate context of EPA negotiations. In a nutshell, I think the main result is that attitudes are important in economic policy-making and that they can change over time. We often neglect this aspect and just assume that economic policy preferences flow more or less automatically from the structures of the global economy. My research found that reality is a lot more complex. Already peoples’ perception of what the relevant structures of  the global economy are, or should be, can vary. Also, even if people have different interests, they can manage to build common purpose around shared identities, etc. This might seem like a banal insight from the perspective of many academic disciplines, but our dominant thinking about trade in particular often assumes away this insight. Hence, my book also asks what West African participatory trade politics means for theories of trade policy formation and hence why the experience is relevant far beyond the West African region.

KF: How does this affect the capacity for individuals to participate in the policies that affect them?

ST: I think it is fair to say that in the area of economic policy in general, there are few individuals in the world today who have input in the policies that affect them. This is of course why people bargain collectively in the first place, but even in doing so, they are increasingly frustrated by economic policy outcomes that go in directions that not only don’t better peoples’ lives, but that actually affect them negatively. At the very latest, since the Occupy movement, we would have to acknowledge that this problem has arrived in the countries of the global North. Now, of course West African participatory trade politics is not a goldilocks scenario either; in fact it is criticised for being skewed in many ways. Many of the organisations that actively participate in the negotiations are part of the African urban elites, several key people are very highly educated. They certainly have grassroots connections, but we are not talking about the illiterate, rural person who only speaks local languages participating in trade politics here, although specifically when we think of West African cotton producers, these decisions very clearly affect their lives. I guess what I see here is a small step into a direction that is a bit better than what we have, if only by introducing the initiation of alternative discourses about the economy into economic policy-making. This might sound like a small achievement, but if you look for example at economic policy reform in Europe, where what you might loosely term Keynesian approaches to macro-economic policy are practically outlawed in certain member states and by EU rules and regulations, that would suggest that we are looking at a very different democratic problem here. It is not only a matter of enabling individual to take part in the making of decisions that affect their lives, which is still an important democratic goal, but it is increasingly a matter of safeguarding our democratic right to discuss alternative viewpoints and ideas on economic policy and to correct economic policy choices where they prove to have negative socio-economic results. In that regard, I think, the West Africans have set a very positive example, and my hope is that we could all look at it and learn from their experience. At the end of the day, that is why I hope people might read the book.

KF: What suggestions can you make to for better representation?

ST: The question of representation is necessarily intimately connected to politics and thus has very distinct dynamics and implications in every individual political context. So having studied West African participatory trade politics, I can tell you what I think about the issue of representation in this case. As said above, I think overall what was achieved was that a broader range of ideas and concerns is represented in the policy process as a result of civil society participation. Does that mean that every street vendor and every woman trader is represented in trade policy-making in the region? No. Does it improve policy-making if views and opinions on what to do are openly exchanged from a broader variety of different perspectives? Absolutely. So the main point is to say it’s not because things aren’t perfect at the end that we should shy away from making small improvements.

KF: What is next for your research?

I am currently working on a project on the future of the World Trade Organisation, where I am investigating the view of trade policy communities in Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, the EU, India, the US and South Africa on the possibilities for multilateral trade governance in the 21st century, together with Professor Ann Capling in Perth. I also have an interest in the informal dimensions of the China-Africa relationship and its implications for the global political economy, particularly the increasing presence of Chinese workers in the Senegalese informal economy.

Silke is currently a post-doctoral researcher at the Asia Research Centre at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia. She is also an affiliated researcher with the Erik Castrén Institute of International Law and Human Rights in Helsinki, Finland, and the African Centre for Trade, Integration and Development in Dakar, Senegal.

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