Challenges of Regionalisation

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Regionalisation is an ambiguous concept but its status can be defined only if it is viewed from the angle of the concerned countries' strategic objectives and the challenges they feel capable of meeting through their collective action.

To the majority of contemporary Third World Countries, regionalisation appears to have become one of the major requirements of any effective response to the polarisation challenge as a result of the increasing dimension of contemporary capitalist globalisation. This response therefore entails appropriate strategies for inward-looking development and delinking (cf. The paradigm of development) simultaneously at national levels and in the regions concerned, since regionalisation in a way comes to support the associated countries' effort.


The dogmatic liberal condemns in advance any form of regionalisation because the preferences it creates constitute an impediment to the absolute advantage offered by infinite globalisation. The American establishment, and of course the World Bank behind it, have long been opposed to regionalisation. Their adhesion is therefore a recent phenomenon. Henceforth, the ideology and strategy of the dominant system propose another concept and another practice of regionalisation envisaged as the creation of subsets integrated into the entity formed by the proposed liberal globalisation. Regionalisation is therefore viewed as a communication channel for liberal globalisation.

This fundamental distinction is the criterion from which the various institutionalised forms and regionalisation projects in Europe, America, Africa and Asia can be evaluated.

The expansion of capitalism world-wide inevitably paved the way for a constant polarisation that found expression in the ever-increasing contrast between the wealth and power of its centres on the one hand, and the poverty and vulnerability of its peripheries on the other hand. This polarisation has assumed successive historical forms closely connected with the dominant logic of capital accumulation peculiar to each of the stages of its development.

The “classical” model of polarisation from the generalisation of the industrial revolution to all centres during the 19th Century was based on a simple contrast between industrialised countries and regions (the current triad) and non-industrialised countries and regions (Asia, except-Japan, Africa and Latin America).

On the other hand, in the course of this stage spanning one and a half centuries (1800-1950) the modern economic system of the developed nations had been gradually established on “national” bases. The inward-looking national productive systems of each of these central capitalist States acquired their specific character from the nature of social alliances formed by the bourgeoisie in order to entrench and stabilise its hegemony. Once established on such bases, these dominant social entities of the global system in turn shaped the world economy. This world economy then appeared as a really international economy ; in other words, it appeared like a unit comprising central sets relatively autonomous and operating concurrently with one another, as well as a nebulous outlying entity - the peripheries - the arena for conflicting interventions of the metropolitan centres.

It is therefore realised that the national liberation movements in Asia and Africa (and in Latin America, the “developmentalist” movement – known as “desarrollista” in Spanish - of the post-Second World War era), just like the socialist revolutions in the late countries (Russia and China), defined their response to the polarisation challenge on the basis of a twofold objective which consisted in (i) initiating and completing an industrialisation process synonymous with liberating progress and a catching-up process and (ii) constructing a Nation-State and an inward-looking national productive system inspired by central models. That is how the ideology of modernity took shape.

In the course of this “Bandung” stage for Africa and Asia (1955 – 1975), the efforts of such a development produced a new Third World henceforth engaged in industrialisation even though of uneven dimensions and therefore highly differentiated (cf. Polarisation, Central Capitalism, Peripheral Capitalism). On the other hand, the strategies deployed to this effect remained exclusively “national”; in other words, they were formulated on the basis and in the framework of the Nation-State. The major institutions affiliated to the set or group of Third World Countries had either political objectives (resisting pressure from the Western powers – cf. the Non-Aligned Movement) or the economic objective of defending common interests against the dominant capital rather than that of contributing towards regional economic integration.

This strategy exhausted its possibilities and attained its historic limits more or less rapidly for various reasons, thereby revealing the illusion of an impossible scheme for “catching up through interdependence”. The then Third World’s joint attempts to extend this national phase by negotiating better international conditions (the Non-Aligned group’s proposal of a “New International Economic Order” in 1975) came up against the refusal by the Western countries as a prelude to their counter-offensive as from the 1980s.

The post-war period (1945-1990), which is now over, was not only marked by the entry of the outlying entities into the era of industrialisation, urbanisation and modernity. At the same time, the progress of capitalist accumulation in the centres themselves triggered off the progressive and partial dismantling of the national productive systems (without their being necessarily substituted by a globalised productive system – cf. New Phase of Capitalism?). This is a chaotic transition from an international economy to a potentially global economy.


Does this evolution offer a “chance” to the Third World Countries, as purported by the liberal school of thought ? A chance that would enable those who got integrated "faster and more deeply" into the globalisation process to get out of their historic under-development. The new monopolies on which the advantages of the centres (the triad) are based exclude this possibility and in fact inaugurate new forms of an aggravated polarisation (Cf. Polarisation…)

The fact remains that, today, it might appear almost obvious that it is impossible for societies of the periphery to meet the challenges enshrined in the new monopolies of the centres by means of strictly national policies, whether in terms of the economic dimensions of the given challenge (including technological development) or its political dimensions (regional security, the necessary complement to national security). This is the nature of the challenges that the regionalisation projects have to meet in order to become contributory factors for the construction of another world system that will really be multicentric.

The experience of the European construction

This experience is always referred to by various people as the model par excellence that should inspire other projects in the regions of the Third World.

Certainly, the European system presents by far the most advanced standards, with regard to the achievements of the European Common Markets, the institutionalised economic and monetary integration processes in the European Union and initiation of its political construction.

Nevertheless, the historical conditions peculiar to this advanced region of the world, which clearly attest to such successes, have little to do with those conditions that characterise the peripheries of the system.

The European construction was inspired by an initiative of the United States – The Marshall Plan – aimed at supporting the restoration of intra-European trade as an essential element in the reconstruction of an open world economy and not as an alternative to the world economy. Even later on, when Europe accomplished its reconstruction process and made up for its lateness behind the United States, it did not consider itself (or has not yet considered itself) as being “delinked” from the world system.

More specifically, the politicians of the European communities practised selective delinking. The joint agricultural policies, for instance, were actually based on a delinking of domestic agricultural prices from those on the world market. This option is moreover behind the success of Europe that managed by this means to guarantee its food self-sufficiency to subsequently become the principal rival to the United States in terms of world foodstuff exports. The United States itself has always dissociated its domestic agricultural market from the world market. That practice is a good example of the gap between practices of the really existing capitalism and the dogmatic views about liberal economy under imaginary capitalism (Cf. Imaginary capitalism and the really existing capitalism). Nevertheless, in other fields like those of the manufacturing industry in general, the European construction was oriented towards gradually reconciling conditions of the European market and those of the so-called world market. At the same time, Europe (like the United States), condemns any delinking policy adopted by others (Third World Countries) even if it was selective. Do what I tell you and not what I do!

The European construction was also facilitated by the fact that it concerned a group of already advanced countries whose established productive systems were therefore capable of being adjusted to one another without the difficulties encountered in these processes becoming insurmountable. The problem is quite the opposite for the Third World regions because it is a question of creating non-existent productive structures. One can therefore imagine the possibility of accelerating this creation process by taking advantage of the vast area effect enshrined in regionalisation ; in other words, by planning (the word is not too strong) the establishment of complementarities between the various associated countries. In Europe, the late countries (Portugal, Greece, etc.) stuck around the group of more advanced countries and regions. The European Union’s financial affluence certainly facilitated the transfer of (public) capital to these poor regions which eventually felt that the European construction favoured them. It is not stated that this was the sole or the best possible option for these countries. However, other options would have met with hostility from the dominant powers including those of Europe and therefore appeared to be politically impossible such that, today, the die is cast and the European option appears now without any alternatives for these countries. They can only nurture the hope that the European system itself evolves in better directions, socially and economically, for the benefit of all of its peoples.

The European construction also took the necessary time to progress with precaution. It took no less than fifteen years for Europe to achieve the convertibility of its currencies. Moreover, this measured and controlled progression formed part of a general – global – phase of increased expansion (“the glorious thirty”). This general expansion (every partner sees its productions and exports increase relatively easily) obviously facilitates the adjustments that are becoming painful in a difficult global economic situation as witnessed for some twenty years.

Finally, it is noteworthy that the Western Europeans are not particularly interested in transferring their experience to countries of Eastern Europe and to those of the former Soviet Union. In this domain, the European options, modelled on those of Washington, rather aim at dismantling elements of regional co-operation established during the Soviet era. At the same time, there is a demand for an immediate opening of concerned countries to the violent winds of liberal globalisation (for instance, they are expected to ensure the free convertibility of their currency within one year or two!). The consequences of these options that are poles apart from the lessons of the European construction – can only be chaotic and tragic. Those of the concerned countries that appear capable of being integrated in the extended European construction, despite everything, are actually relegated to the status of dominated regions (the case of Czech, Poland, the Baltic States and Hungary). Those countries that cannot somersault (such as Romania and Bulgaria) or that continue to resist (like Yugoslavia) are marginalised, excluded or even combated ! There is a striking analogy with practices developed by the United States in their relations with Latin America and that is why it can be stated that, in this regard, the “Pan-European regionalisation” is seeking to “latin-americanise” Eastern Europe. It is therefore a regionalisation model of the North-South type (here, West-East geographically), based on unequal relations reproducing and deepening the polarisation within the overall system, and not of the intra-North type (as in the case of the European project before its extension was envisaged) or the intra-South type.

In Africa, regionalisation appears as a window-dressing

In Africa, there is a proliferation of regional co-operation (or even integration)-oriented institutions that can be classified under different headings.

First, there is the Organisation of African Unity (created in 1963) with a primarily political vocation, whose real major functions consisted in supporting liberation struggles in the Portuguese colonies, in Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa on the one hand, and in containing and arbitrating in intra-state conflicts. In this context, OAU constituted an insipid substitute for Pan Africanism, which nevertheless remains a potentially powerful ideological and political aspiration.

During the so-called “development decades” (1960s and 1970s) the tasks assigned to OAU were relatively facilitated by the fact that the member States actually enjoyed some degree of legitimacy among their peoples. The real achievements of the forms of development permitted by the trans-ethnic – populist – national base inherited from the liberation movements that eventually became ruling parties justified this legitimacy. The said legitimacy was justified among other things and perhaps mainly by the continual increase in the number of beneficiaries of the development in question that constituted the social base of the authority in power. This social base was composed of a core group of “middle classes” (enlarged through educational progress) and around this group was a nebulous clientele active among the popular classes.

The political situation is tragically different today. The erosion of populist development models and the diktat from the liberal globalisation imposed through structural adjustment plans brutally delegitimised the majority of African States without the forms of sham democracy that took over from the autocratic populist nationalist powers succeeding in restoring the legitimacy of governments unable to offer their peoples anything acceptable in terms of social progress. Africa then entered an involution phase characterised by what is improperly referred to as “internal tribal wars”. It is because these conflicts were not really caused by hostilities between ethnic groups ; instead, they were orchestrated by warlords seeking to control their countries’ resources (oil, diamond, etc.) who used ethnic affinity as a means to that end. Once the local authorities lost their legitimacy, the were unable to face up to the explosion of such criminal ambitions. When called upon for help, OAU – or even UNO -- proved to be equally powerless under such conditions, as attested by the tragic outcome of the ECOMOG operations in Liberia and Sierra Leone (cf. Ethnicism, Culturalism). Under these circumstances, the very idea of regionalisation is meaningless.

For its part, the economic component of OAU’s functions was actually limited to active contribution in Africa (within the Non-Aligned Movement and among the Group of 77 at UNO) towards the establishment of a “common front” presenting claims tendered by countries of the South in their interface with the North counterparts in the new international economic order.

Under these conditions, OAU did not play an active role in the establishment of regional (Pan African) or sub-regional co-operation/integration – even in the initial stages. To say the least, the numerous institutions established in this regard remained inactive.

On the other hand, the co-operation system adopted under the partnership agreements between the European Union and African States (along with those of the Caribbean and the Pacific) presents a different format. However, this refers to a North-South regionalisation system that has so far functioned as a communication channel for the capitalist globalisation that has now become neo-liberal (cf. the Lomé-Cotonou Agreements and E.U. – A.C.P. partnership).

Also noteworthy are the remaining numerous sub-regional institutions of which the leading ones are ECOWAS in West Africa, SADC (after the SADCC) and COMESA (after PTA) in East and Southern Africa, CEAO – UMOA and UDEAC for countries of the Franc Area, SACU and CMA for countries of the Rand Area, agencies of the major world institutions (such as ADB, a quasi-branch of the World Bank) and other minor institutions (like the Mano River Union, the Great Lakes Community, the Permanent Inter-State Committee for Drought Control in the Sahel / CILSS, etc.)

In this regard, it will be observed that the most viable regional institutions are those linked to France or to South Africa (before and after the apartheid system).

Soon after the attainment of independence by its African colonies, France undertook to negotiate the possibility of maintaining the States in the Franc Area in concrete forms that virtually excluded any room for autonomy in monetary management and placed the regional issuing institutions (superficially designated as central banks – whereas they are not) under the authority of the French Treasury and the Bank of France. This system has survived to date, in spite of its vicissitudes (withdrawal and reintegration of some of its members) and has even enlisted new members. A system of this nature does not deserve to be considered as promoting a form of genuine regional co-operation. It is only a vestige of the colonial system that is now on the verge of extinction under the triple effect of the substitution of the Euro for the Franc, liberal globalisation and African involutions. At any rate, if the system happened to break up, there is nothing in perspective to prepare an effective substitute for it, neither in the countries concerned nor in those of the regions of which they are members. Some provisional reforms to that effect were put forward between 1960 and 1970. These reforms were aimed at making the local currency/Franc ratio more flexible, a gradual substitution of a mix of currencies defined for their management ( a mix that could have facilitated an acceptable and effective association with the Euro Area), the extension of the monetary zones concerned by integrating the anglophone countries. France rejected all these measures without discussion, indicating that its main concern was to preserve the exclusive control of its client states. Nigeria, whose resources and potential far exceed those of the African member countries of the Franc Area, lobbied among African authorities to make its voice heard about these considerations through sustained and constant efforts, in spite of its characteristic political instability. France has categorically rejected all these approaches and reportedly supports, on the contrary, centrifugal forces trying to ruin this country.

In Southern Africa, the conventions organising customs and monetary unions between South Africa on the one hand, and Lesotho and Swaziland on the other hand, do not deserve any more to be ranked under “regional co-operation” in view of the glaring inequality between the dominant partner and the countries in question, that it has always dominated. SADCC, which was created in the apartheid era so that the Southern African countries stopped depending on Pretoria, actually assisted in providing these countries with some transport facilities to enable them to avoid South African ports. However, soon after the liberation of South Africa, this organisation was itself transformed into a new co-operation institution (SADC) with South Africa as one of its member countries. At any rate, the new South Africa intends to pursue the same policy adopted by the former one towards countries of the region that it dominates by virtue of its industrial lead. Will the partners indefinitely accept to endure this unequal relationship? It is not certain whether they will.

Certainly, African sub-regional co-operation/integration organisations are credited with meagre, not to say, no achievements. Trade has been negligible, and intra-regional capital flow, non-existent. That was more than foreseeable. In fact, so long as their economies are almost exclusively dependent on exported primary products, the member countries can have nothing to exchange among themselves. The removal of customs barriers and creation of common markets do not suffice to integrate economies of this kind. The sole effect of these measures consists in legitimising trade in foreign products substituting for smuggled goods at the countries’ borders. The African States’ subsequent adhesion to the free trade principles formulated by the new WTO that took over from GATT can only worsen the disappointing effects of the “commercial opening”. A co-operation/integration project is meaningless if the member States do not collectively commit themselves to active industrialisation policies necessarily promoted by the States. In principle, however, the dominant liberal ideology is hostile to any idea of State intervention and planning that would substitute for it the myth whereby private capital (foreign) must spontaneously fulfil the functions of development and diversification.

OAU did take some initiatives -- and persists -- in proposing to African States development "plans" involving their sub-regional or even regional integration. The Lagos Plan of Action (1980) and the Abuja Treaty (1991) are good examples of this organisation's approach. In strictly "technical" terms, these initiatives are far from being devoid of interest or even from being devoid of force and the proposals put forward are far from being absurd, with particular regard to the branches and sectors of new activities suggested for creation, as well as the notions pertaining to their macro-economic linkage and to the distribution of specialisations between the States. The World Bank did perceive their inherent danger : for one thing, the famous Berg Report (1981) produced as an immediate reaction to the Lagos Plan of Action, which has ever since become the Bible of the World Bank, international co-operation institutions and most governments, proposes as a counterpoint, nothing other than pursuing in Africa, specialisations based on "natural" advantages and therefore keeping within the limits of the age-long specialisation in agriculture and mining sectors. To be consistent, the World Bank does not even mention in its Report the potential advantages of an absolutely unnecessary regional integration in the context of the "liberal" strategies it recommends.

The weaknesses inherent in OAU's proposals reside in the fact that their implementation entails active motivation by the States. However, the ruling classes created in the context of the African States in question lack resources or the very will required to engage in a course of action other than specialisation in agriculture and mining from which they derive their revenues. "Regionalisation" under such conditions is outside their real concerns and those of the dominant forces in the global system. It is sheer window-dressing.

In the world system (in which it is completely integrated), Africa occupies only the most subordinate positions that prevent the continent from being an active agent instrumental in shaping the system as a whole. Africa no longer has any national development project nor a fortiori a regional one, in its capacity as a passive subject of the globalisation process (and that is the meaning befitting the term "marginalisation", which does not denote "non-integrated" but rather "integrated as a passive agent").

The Arab world fossilised in its powerlessness

In the Arab world, the popular feeling of belonging to one cultural community if not to one "nation", in the strict sense of the word, is a reality that has assumed strong dimensions in the course of the last few decades. One might therefore have expected this sentiment to also serve as the foundation for serious co-operation between the Arab States, or even to motivate these States to embark on the establishment of a kind of political unity (confederate, federal or unitary). Such is not the case ; in practice, co-operation/integration is as insignificant in the Arab world as it is in Sub-Saharan Africa, for relatively the same reasons and despite the advantage conferred by the Arab linguistic unity.

The Arab League, whose actual designation is the League of Arab States, was modelled on the UNO pattern as an inter-state organisation whose members preserve their full sovereignty that is never renounced, even if partially, for the benefit of supranational powers. In this sense, the League is similar to OAU and to the Organisation of American States, but not to the European Union.

Should the creation of the League also be viewed as an insipid substitute of Pan Arabism ? In the course of its history, the League has established a series of inter-state specialised Arab organisations modelled on the pattern of the United Nations family, but with modest operational results : many surveys, reports and projects, most of which are of standard quality, but few concrete achievements.

Integration efforts in the region thus assumed other dimensions. In a first phase marked by the triumph of Pan-Arabism in the mid-1950s, as well as the outbreak of the Algerian liberation war until the defeat suffered in the third Israeli-Arab war of 1967, these efforts consisted in attempts to fulfil this unity - even if partially in the beginning - by mobilising powerful political inputs, one of the landmarks being the creation of the United Arab Republic (1957-1961) from a merger between Egypt and Syria. However, the failure of this form of Arab unification certainly tolled the death-knell of the Nasser-Baathist strategy and gave free rein to the exacerbation of animosity, and even of conflicts, between governments of immediate neighbours (Algeria-Morocco, Syria-Iraq, Saudi Arabia-Yemen and Iraq-Kuwait).

At the same time, as from 1973, the oil manna for some time appeared to replace the radical political will of the Pan-Arab populism. This manna was actually accompanied by a large-scale movement of internal migrants from the poor countries (Tunisia, Egypt, Sudan, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen) to the rich oil countries (Libya, Irak and the Gulf countries). Then , when they felt threatened by such "invasion", the Gulf countries reacted, as already known, by gradually substituting an immigrant labour force from Pakistan, India and the Philippines. In other respects, the oil manna financed substantial public remittances. However, far from being perceived as the condition sanctioned by the integrative projects, such remittances were generally wasted in the private consumer needs of the ruling classes' and in the public consumer needs of the subsidised States. That outcome was completely foreseeable. The ultra conservative authorities of the Gulf countries act as communication channels of the exigencies of liberal globalisation and the hegemonism of the United States which they have never thought of calling into question. On the contrary, the governments in question have become quasi-protectorates of the United States, in the wake of America's permanent military establishment in the region after the 1990-1991 Gulf war. The financial support provided concurrently with the dominant movements associated with political Islam that swear allegiance to the United States gives a negative picture of the effects of the "oil manna", because political Islam has no interest in Arab unity, hence the call for "Muslim Ummah" as a substitute for it. In Arabic, there is an untranslatable play on words about this manna with the assertion that the manna (al fawra) has taken the place of the revolution (al thawra). Finally, the oil manna has managed to finance some private investments here and there. But here too, the investments absolutely formed part of policies aimed at strengthening parasitic compradores of the middle classes who also do not envisage any future prospects outside liberal globalisation.

Under the circumstances, regionalisation/integration in the Arab world has failed to make any progress worthy of the name in the course of the last three decades.

Like Sub-Saharan Africa, the Arab world occupies only subordinate positions in the world system. The volume of its oil exports cannot actually constitute a real substitute for an effective industrialisation that can satisfy domestic needs and assist in shaping world markets. Like the case of Sub-Saharan Africa (Gabon), there are some "marginalised rich" countries in the Arab world (the Gulf countries) just as there are many "marginalised poor" ones. Both groups of countries lack the means to impose themselves as active agents helping to shape the world system. They remain as passive agents compelled to unilaterally adapt to the system even though the region's oil supply might be of vital importance to western consumers.

The Arab world is therefore living through a phase of its history marked by lack of projects specific to them. It is therefore not surprising that the others take the initiative in making "proposals" which they impose on their Arab partners.

Thus, the United States of America, which considers the Middle East as a priority region under its exclusive authority (the Europeans being invited just to support its presence in the region) ever since the defunct Soviet Union was discarded, has concocted the Middle East "common market project", together with Israel and Turkey, its two allies (and with the unconditional support of governments of the Gulf countries). Not only does this project legitimise Israel's expansionist practices in the occupied Palestine relegated to the status of a Bantustan ; it also offers the Zionist State the advantage of serving as the indispensable financial and technological intermediary between the multinationals and countries in the region. In this context, one can talk of "regionalisation" only in the sense of a North-South project (United States, Israel, Middle East region) operating in the framework and for the benefit of liberal globalisation and American hegemonism.

For its part, Europe made qualified proposals for "Euro-Mediterranean partnership" that fell within the same logic (Cf. The Euro-Mediterranean partnership). Even though this project would already have failed, it did help to deepen the Maghreb-Mashrek cleavage. In fact, by virtue of the agreements on their association with the European Union, the Maghreb countries are more integrated into the European productive system (to which they supply poorly paid sub-contracted products) than the Mashrek countries.

The "sharing of the burden", in the American political jargon, finds expression here in a division of labour that assigns to the United States, the Middle East and its oil resources, and to the Europeans, the Maghreb and its emigrants (to Europe).



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