A step forward on the free movement of African talent

The CFTA agreement elevates issues already advanced under the Intra-African Talent Mobility Partnership Program (TMP). By the same token, signatory countries can learn a great deal from the effects of the TMP program.

by | Mar 29, 2018

Many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa persistently grapple with widespread unemployment, especially among the region’s growing youth population. At the same time, many domestic and foreign companies in Africa lack access to the right people with the right skills within the national borders in which they operate. Not only does this conundrum adversely impact productivity, but it impedes economic growth and competitiveness and results in an inefficient, wasteful and untapped labor market across the continent.

Productive employment is at the crux of successful economic transformation, from creating jobs to developing skills and retaining talent in Africa. So naturally it stands to reason that one way to close the gap between untapped labor and unfulfilled jobs is to improve the process for allowing workers to travel more freely across borders to gain productive employment—in other words, facilitating talent mobility. The underlying economic rationale for talent mobility is that skilled labour will move to where it is needed the most to balance global human capital markets, improve competitiveness and stimulate economic growth while accelerating economic integration.

With the recent crisis of migrants to Europe and the continuing rapid growth of the region’s youth population, it has become increasingly crucial to harness the latent opportunities associated with the ease of labor mobility across borders. Fortunately, African leaders increasingly are beginning to recognize the importance of this issue to economic growth and sustainable development.

In March 2018, after decades of negotiations, 44 nations signed an agreement at an extraordinary session of the African Union to establish the African Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA). Once ratified by all states, the CFTA agreement would create one of the world’s largest free trade zones and boost intra-African trade by more than 50 percent. At the same session, 27 African leaders signed a separate protocol allowing for the free movement of people across borders, which would cover business, labor, and investment interests.

“Productive employment is at the crux of successful economic transformation, from creating jobs to developing skills and retaining talent in Africa.” – Edward K. Brown Click To Tweet

As Rwandan President Paul Kagame said, the promise of free trade and free movement is also the promise of “prosperity for all Africans because we are prioritizing the production of value-added goods and services that are made in Africa.” South African President Cyril Ramaphosa emphasized that  opening borders to incoming talent is not detrimental to local nationals because it offers all citizens of participating nations a chance to import or export their knowledge and expertise in equal measure. “The easy movement of people across borders should never be seen in a negative sense,” Ramaphosa said.

Such movement is wholly dependent on a well-coordinated labor migration process, which is an effective mechanism to address the shortage of highly skilled professionals while offering source countries the opportunity to reduce excess supply of skills and prevent unemployment among highly skilled professionals. To harness the potential gains, neighboring nations must band together and form regional partnerships to facilitate the free mobility of people, goods and services across borders, thus better enabling the kind of intra-African trade, investment and partnerships envisioned by the CFTA agreement.

A few progressive states took measures to enhance talent mobility in Africa through a pilot program called the Intra-African Talent Mobility Partnership Program (TMP). Funded by the World Bank and supported by the regional economic commissions, the TMP was a voluntary undertaking by some African countries spearheaded by Mauritius in Eastern and Southern Africa and Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire in West Africa. The goal of the program was to accelerate economic integration, open borders and promote common policies and laws in Africa by utilizing “Schengen” and or related type mechanisms. Within the context of existing regional agreements and regulatory frameworks, the program sought to address constraints to intra-African labor mobility and skills development gaps that reduce Africa’s attractiveness as an investment destination and hamper economic growth and transformation on the continent.

Sub-Saharan Africans comprise about 3.8 percent of the stock of total migrants in the OECD countries, but they comprise roughly 12.9 percent of highly skilled migrants.

A few years ago, ACET, as the coordinating agency for the West African component of the TMP program, conducted country studies in the four West African pilot countries – Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana and Sierra Leone – to critically assess issues of labor market and labor migration. A few key issues stood out in the findings, which were specific to the West African context but relevant to the broader discussion surrounding free movement that the CFTA has helped elevate.

  • Intra-regional ties are strong. West Africa has one of the highest intra-regional mobility rates in the world; 68 percent of migrants remain in the region. Common historical and cultural ties in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) region have often defied regulatory controls imposed by governments on intra-regional migration—people move anyway.
  • Highly skilled migrants are more likely to leave. The high rate of graduate unemployment in the region has been a major cause of the outbound migration of highly skilled and educated migrants. Total emigration rates of the highly educated are striking. As at 2010, Ghana and Togo had 36 and 40.9 percent, respectively, of their highly educated individuals living in Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) member countries, for example. Overall, Sub-Saharan Africans comprise about 3.8 percent of the stock of total migrants in the OECD countries, but they comprise roughly 12.9 percent of highly skilled migrants.

Regulatory constraints largely explain the pattern of migration to the OECD. So far the assumption has been that the decision to settle in another country is entirely up to the individual concerned, but this is not entirely true. Mobility highly depends on preparedness of the destination country to admit the potential migrant. The exact nature of the restrictions depends on the legal, institutional and regulatory policies of the destination country. For the West Africa sub-region, the protocols on the free movement of labor are explicit. But, at regional and national levels, supportive frameworks are very weak and not harmonized across countries. Thus, implementation challenges exist at all levels. ACET’s 2014 study, “The ‘Talent Mobility Project’ in West Africa: a progress report of early results” (unpublished), revealed that the mobility of highly skilled labor is restricted by Francophone-Anglophone language barriers, as well as by variations in educational systems, qualifications and certifications, issues of social security portability, and by wide variations in residency and work permit requirements.

The first phase of the TMP ran between 2013 and 2016. By the end of it in the ECOWAS region, four participating West African countries committed to establishing a mechanism to address the skills mobility challenges in their respective countries through the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). The MOU was signed in December 2016 in Abuja, Nigeria, by Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana and Sierra Leone. The agreement covered five key areas relating to labour mobility, namely: (i) residence and work permits; (ii) labor management information system; (iii) mutual recognition of certificates; (iv) portability of social security; and (v) border management.

While this agreement undoubtedly marked a major milestone in facilitating the free movement of skilled labor within the region, it by no means brought to closure the issue of talent mobility among the four African states. The real work to ease the movement of skilled personnel across borders in order to counter the shortage of such skills in individual African countries is yet to begin.

Following consultations with member countries, ACET and the Government of Côte d’Ivoire, as a champion country, are collaboratively exploring sustainable ways of implementing a second TMP phase, which would include more countries in the West Africa region. Ideally, the TMP should be anchored within an implementation framework that will ensure countries are collectively accountable for implementation of recommendations in the signed MOU, while sharing valuable experiences.

Looking at the TMP’s relevance to the CFTA, it may be pointed out that to implement an agreement as ambitious as the CFTA requires the existence of a special coordination platform that brings countries together to think through in a concerted manner the nuts and bolts of actions required to achieve the objectives. As the TMP demonstrated, each country has its own rules, laws and regulations, which need to be modified once superceded by the signing of regional and international protocols. In working together as a team, countries can more easily identify areas needing to be harmonised, and come up with an implementable plan. The TMP offered a practical model to address the challenges inherent in the protocols and, should it continue, would be a very strong driver of change.

Although funding for the program ran out in 2017, in the context of the CFTA signing there are good arguments for TMP signatory countries to seek a second phase of a program that proved phenomenal in one key respect. Twenty years after signing regional protocols on free movement, countries had seen very little traction until the TMP brought them together to look at policies and laws and to facilitate a coordinated approach to deliver on the protocols.

Though the CFTA has been signed, there is no guarantee it will take effect without a concerted push for implementation and, as with previous propocols on free movement, CFTA signatory countries will learn that it is one thing to sign a free trade agreement and another to implement it. The TMP offered a vehicle to drive implementation and a platform to facilitate the coordinated planning of actions towards this. A second phase of the TMP would involve drilling down on implementation with better alignment of country policies and institutions, activities that would equally serve advancement of the CFTA.


Written By

Dr. Edward K. Brown

Director of Policy Advisory Services

African Center for Economic Transformation (ACET)

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