African Development Bank Vice President for Regional Development, Integration and Business Delivery Khaled Sherif said trade and stimulus were needed to cushion the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and build resilience among African economies to future shocks.
Sherif participated in a 12 May virtual panel sponsored by the Foreign Economic Relations Board of Turkey (DEIK) titled Multilateral Response to Covid-19 Crisis: Turkey-Africa Partnership that also included Secretary General of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) Wamkele Mene; President and Chief Executive of Trade and Development Bank Admassu Tadesse; Nail Olpak, President of the Foreign Economic Relations Board of Turkey; and Husnu Dilemre, Director General for International Agreements and EU Affairs, Turkish Ministry of Trade. Nicholas Norbrook, Managing Editor of The Africa Report served as moderator.
Discussions centered on the impacts of the pandemic on Africa, and how its partnership and trade with Turkey as well as regional institutions could help the continent bounce back. Dilemre pointed to Turkey’s strong diplomatic links to countries across Africa, noting that the country has embassies in 42 African countries, before going on to emphasize the importance of maintaining trade. “We are making sure that even in the present, under the severe measures that are used to control the spread of the pandemic, trade continues without restriction. We believe COVID-19 should not be an excuse to restrict trade,” he said.
In response to a question from the moderator about the scheduled commencement of trade under AfCFTA on July 1, Mene said there would be a delay given the current circumstances: “The conditions on the ground are not permissive for a credible trading to begin on the ground as we had been directed by the heads of state.”
However, he argued that the Free Trade Area, once up and running, would act as a stimulus for the continent. “The stimulus package for us has got to be to implement this agreement. To boost inter-African trade and to position ourselves for year-on-year growth on the back of this trade agreement,” Mene said.
Sherif described a number of obstacles to building stronger economic resilience in Africa, including the continent’s heavy reliance on commodities for exports, lack of social safety nets, the need to import food staples and a low tax base on which governments can draw on for revenue. These have sharpened the economic impact of the pandemic, running down of foreign exchange reserves and leading to the downgrade of sovereign credit ratings for Nigeria, Angola and a few other countries.
“We are dealing with a set of exogenous shocks that Africa has never seen,” Sherif said. He emphasized that the shocks were a result of global measures taken to contain the virus, not the disease itself. “This is not a crisis caused by the coronavirus, because the coronavirus has not spread substantially across the continent, except in five countries.”
The Bank is working with partners to cushion the impact of the economic crisis, he said. “Between the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the African Development Bank, everyone is teaming up to see what kind of stimulus we can provide to the countries that are most in fiscal distress.”
Tadesse pointed to sectors that had been relatively less affected. “The agriculture sector is still going well. We’ve financed quite a bit of fertilizer as an example. Just between January and now we’ve done over half a billion dollars of fertilizer as imports,” he said.
He agreed with other panelists that free trade was key to accelerating growth in Africa. “As we go forward, I think we’ll see aggregate demand across borders picking up momentum, and I think that will act as a stimulus,” he said. “Of course, it will take some time to actually get there but complementary measures to support industrialization and value addition in various sectors, will actually give that momentum the pace that it needs.”
According to Turkey’s trade minister, the country’s bilateral trade with Africa stood at $23.8 billion in 2018, with Turkey’s exports at $14.4 billion in the same period. Turkish panelists expressed confidence that a Turkey-Africa conference scheduled for later this year would go ahead.