The Role of Africa’s Health Practitioners in Commercial Diplomacy Discussions

By Anselmo

Dr. Wekesa is partnership, research and communications coordinator at the African Centre for the Study of the United States based at University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa.


The COVID-19 pandemic has presented Kenya and Africa, with an overlap of health, economic, social, and political disruptions, which have in turn become the common product of global interactions. Consequently, this has placed a rapidly escalating demand for a new construct for foreign policy, which includes, regional and intra-African cooperation.

Forecasts indicate that health security has now become and will continue to feature as the primary driver in all diplomatic dialogues across the board, including within commercial diplomacy discourse.

Africa’s fight against the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic, will have to sustain the participation of multi-sector and multi-lateral stakeholders, with the objective of actualizing measurable gains plus learning points, during what is now presumed to be a ‘health marathon’ towards the vaccine or other related interventions.

From a diplomacy context, it can be argued that health diplomacy has rapidly become a fundamental, cross-cutting diplomatic decision-making catalyst in Africa and the globe. The recent evidence of this is the announcement of the postponement in the commencement of the African Economic block, by the Secretary-General of the Africa Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) Mr. Wamkele Mene.

The secretary-general cited that this decision was influenced largely by a clear change in the momentary trajectory by the member states, from economic or trade development to National plus Continental Health Security. In addition to this, the second Intra-African Trade Fair (IATF2020) which was scheduled to take place from 1st to 7th September 2020 in Kigali, Rwanda, has also been postponed for one year, due to the COVID-19 Pandemic.

The trade and commerce spheres have presented the most quantifiable adverse implications of the COVID-19 pandemic. As governments interrogate the potential mechanisms to put in place in order to re-open the economies, stimulating international cross border trade will need to feature as a catalyst of the reopening strategies.

How then will health, safety and commerce interplay in order to help governments to sustain the slow, yet upward trajectory in trade and commerce? What are the emerging foreign policies that can be expected, as a result of the marriage between public health safety and commerce?

Once implemented, The AfCFTA is estimated to be the fertile ground to the world’s largest single market. The World Economic Forum (WEF) estimated that the Pan-African market will generate about 4 trillion dollars from investment and intra-African trade.

AfCFTA is being lauded as the African catalyst to leveraging competitiveness of industries and enterprises in member states, enlarging the opportunities for economies of scale improvements, plus enhancing the capabilities of national or continental resource allocations.

African commercial diplomacy practitioners are already poised to act as the negotiators alongside the Foreign Trade Policy attaches when the pan-African market is commenced, and they will place an active focus on the development of commercial cooperation between the business communities of the member states.

Their aim will be to embed sustainable commercial gains for their own countries, in the form of inward and outward trade and investment, through the means of intra-African business promotion as well as, improved commercial facilitation activities.

Africa’s trade has for a very long time been plagued by non- tariff barriers, soft periodic protectionism, as well as by the ‘hue and cry’ from the private investors, regarding the very slow elimination of these non-tariff barriers. COVID 19 pandemic has significantly added to the existing non-tariff barriers and is already spurring some form of protectionism from some of the member states.

An example of these is the added COVID 19 related health safety constraints to cross-border trade, being experienced by logistics companies in East Africa, with regards to the limitation of the movement of their Truck Drivers.

It is expected that, in the coming days, these and other emerging cross-border trade – COVID 19 related Health Safety regulations, are bound to be developed further into African Foreign Trade Policy instruments.

In anticipation of these, therefore, it is paramount for commercial diplomacy practitioners to collaborate with health diplomacy practitioners, so as to begin to develop a sustainable and proactive framework which will be able to assess, interrogate and prospect on the current impact of public health safety non-tariff barriers on commercial activities.

Additionally, it is anticipated that there will be a remodeling of new trade cooperation mechanisms between AfCFTA member states, in relation to the overall long-term influence of these public health safety non-tariff barriers on the African Trade Policy architecture. This will be an extremely crucial variable in the economic state craft of member states.

Global forecasts indicate overall business investor confidence has fallen sharply due to the overlapping adverse implications stemming from the COVID 19 Pandemic. Classical international business valuations will be predominately shaped by actual and perceived public health interventions within the country where the business is domiciled, combined by pandemic risk mitigation instruments hosted within each business.

It is inevitable, therefore, that in an effort to establish a semblance of long term investor security, international business investor negotiations will be more inclined to apportion pseudo-sanctions on business entities, based on the economic valuation of national public health policies set as governors of the private sector.

In view of this, it will be necessary for public health safety negotiators, to posture as arbitrators between investors and business owners, to preempt and resolve negotiation bottlenecks, as well as secure “win-win’s” for the proposed business alliances.

Movement of persons, pandemic resilient trade policy agreements, equitable appraisals of business potential, among others, will be retained as some of the continent’s Foreign Policy fundamentals.

As Africa continues to interrogate this evolution of foreign policy, the continent will need to expeditiously and adequately train health diplomacy practitioners, in an effort to build the continent’s capacity to understand, remodel and successfully negotiate the myriad of health safety-related foreign policy eventualities.

The continent will also have to design a leak-proof human resource pipeline, in order to retain the health diplomats who will not only have the academic competencies but will also have the added tacit knowledge of African nuances that are crucial bridging tools during African commercial negotiations and foreign policy considerations.

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