African negotiators lack skills to negotiate MEAs
Sifelani Tsiko recently in Nairobi, Kenya
The limited capacity of Africa’s negotiators is to blame for outcomes of multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) that are skewed in favour of rich industrialised nations, environmental law experts say.
Nairobi-based Environmental Compliance Institute legal expert, Gerry Opondo told Africa journalists at a capacity building workshop on MEAs that was held recently in Nairobi that rich industrialised nations continue to dominate MEAs because Africa still lacks the capacity to negotiate effectively on these agreements.
“Most African governments are broke and due to lack of resources and skilled negotiating teams – the effect is that most MEAs are skewed in favour of the US, Europe and other stronger economies,” he said.
Africa has for several decades been arm-twisted into signing MEAs and other global commercial agreements, when in most cases it is clear these arrangements favour rich industrialised nations.
This has been worsened by poor participation at some of these major MEAs negotiations.
Limited participation has compromised Africa’s position in terms of its ability to influence agenda setting and decision making in international gatherings for sustainable development.
“Our governments do not help to finance people to attend these major global conferences,” Opondo said. “It’s not a uniquely Kenyan problem, this problem plays out in most African countries. And, when they do, the funds are little and this makes it difficult for African governments to send sufficient teams that can concentrate on the negotiations.”
In some cases, Opondo accused African governments of sending negotiators who were incompetent and not skilled in the MEAs.
“Most of our officials are busy shopping for perfumes, clothes and shoes when others are busy negotiating for their interests,” he said. “Some negotiators sent by our governments are not skilled and rarely do they understand the MEAs processes and frameworks.”
Said Bernard Opaa, a Kenyan natural resources and environmental expert: “African negotiators pay heavily for the poverty penalty. They do not have the skills to negotiate and can easily be distracted by other things.
“Lack of adequate participation is affecting Africa’s capacity to bargain for its own interest. Sometimes it’s due to design and sometimes it’s due to other issues”
He said lack of information and knowledge about MEAs has been a major impediment in realising sustainable goals on the continent.
“Environmental education and awareness is integral in the achievement of SDGs recently adopted at the UN General Assembly. As journalists you have a role to inform the general public and decision-makers about SDGs,” Opaa said.
“Many African journalists lack the capacity to report on MEAs and we want to deepen your understanding on MEAs and the challenges facing the African continent when it comes to sustainable development issues.”
MEAs are international legal instruments that have a goal of environmental protection, to remedy, mitigate or otherwise deal with global and/or regional environmental concerns.
These are usually concluded between a large number of states or international organisations as parties and can be embodied in a single instrument or more related instruments.
Multilateral Environmental Agreements play a critical role in complementing national legislation and bilateral or regional agreements.
Based on their scope, MEAs can be broadly classified into five categories, namely: biodiversity, atmosphere, chemicals and hazardous wastes, land, marine and inland waters.
Some of the examples include the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, Convention on Migratory Species (CMS), Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources and other regional ones such as the Lusaka Agreement on Cooperative Enforcement Operations Directed at Illegal Trade in Wild Fauna and Flora.
Over the years development experts have observed that many African country delegations are comprised of fewer people than those of more developed countries.
This, in part, they say, is because limited funding from donor agencies and multilateral bodies as well as lack of funding from African governments.
As a result, they further noted, the Africa Group often has one of the smallest negotiating capacities in real numbers at most of the major multilateral negotiating meetings.
At most of the meetings, it has been observed that out of the delegation sizes of different negotiating groups — there were about one to four African negotiators against more than 60 for the US and more than 10 for the EU and other Asian nations.
Development experts further observe that size matters at United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of Parties (CoP), as there are several meetings taking place concurrently.
Small or one person delegations, they say, prevent attendance at multiple, simultaneous sessions/working groups.
Furthermore, they say conference venues are vast in size and meetings take place after each other so a smaller delegation means a negotiator attending a meeting in one part of the venue has to rush across to the other side to make another meeting, possibly arriving tired and or late.
“Because of the intensity of the meetings, a smaller delegation is also accompanied by fewer support staff so negotiators can often be exhausted and alienated,” observed one development analyst.
Said Opondo: “These negotiations go on deep into the night. A lot of African representatives leave the conference proceedings much earlier and when around 2am or 3am important decisions are made, they are not there.
“As Africans we don’t contribute a lot to these meetings. Once the text is agreed upon and we are arm-twisted into signing, we agree to issues that we would not have participated in. States are bound when they become party to the MEAs.” Lack of unity among African delegations is also a major handicap for the continent.
Analysts observe that African delegations ‘habitually’ negotiate in isolation, without sufficient support from their countries whereas richer delegations may be accompanied by policy makers and scientists who can decipher the complex technical language, its implications to national priorities, and provide supporting evidence.
Delegations from rich industrialised nations often include technical and resource persons such as lawyers who can interpret legal language and procedures. Opondo said this provided the powerful nations with advantages in terms of tackling challenging decisions under discussion.
“African countries tend to miss numerous opportunities to make appropriate interventions because their negotiators do not have anyone to back them up.”
Other factors that were raised included: lack of familiarity on how negotiations are done, a general lack of dedicated human and financial resources to enable African negotiators to make evidence-based contributions since effects maybe country specific, technical challenges such as slow or lack of Internet, which limits access to networks that can serve as information resources and powerful contacts. Language barriers sometimes affect effectiveness for African negotiators as most countries speak English while others use French and Portuguese.
In small contact groups and late-night sessions, they are often no translations into all the six UN official languages. Despite, the major shortcomings, African negotiators have in recent years with the support of the civil society and pro-developing countries funders played a role to bridge the equity gap, particularly at CoP gatherings.
Many are optimistic that with capacity building, Africa will overcome fragmentation and disunity and foster a sense of common purpose to fight for the continent’s interest. Opondo said the role and effectiveness of the Africa Group in MEAs on climate change negotiations, United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) and others will be enhanced if the group is able to attract relevant stakeholders such as scientists, academics, and law makers to advise or even join country negotiating teams.
“Training and capacity building should be done regionally and internally within countries so that individual states can build negotiating capacity,” he said.
“We have to maximize on capacity building as well as tapping on the expertise of NGO delegates for use in negotiations.”
The Africa group has its own strengths and weaknesses and analysts say it should gear up itself to take the front seat in framing and defining the agenda for MEAs rather than relying on defensive strategies.
As the world prepares for the CoP 21 to be held in Paris in December, expectations are high that decisions that could greatly influence Africa’s future will be tackled with a renewed resolve.
Africa bears the responsibility for its development and governments on the continent need to take collective action in a timely and decisive manner.
Unless this is done, together with the political will to make financial commitments for negotiating teams, then African negotiators will return home with a sense that much more should have been done.
Africa will be trapped in a vicious circle of missed opportunities. In short, it will be off-track and this will jeopardise all efforts to achieve its SDGs by 2030.