Regional Organisations

in Africa

Today, ECDPM launches a whole series of policy briefs on the political economy dynamics of regional organisations in Africa (PEDRO). Using the online repository that we present below, you can learn more about 17 African regional organisations and read our analysis of what seems to work - and why - in a whole range of policy areas. We hope they trigger useful discussions on what it means to think and work politically, regionally.

The political economy of 17 African regional organisations according to PEDRO

Addressing borderless problems

From rivers to forests, energy networks, peacekeeping and, of course, markets, many of the challenges and opportunities for development in Africa are inherently cross-border and/or regional. This implies a need for mechanisms for sharing regional public goods like rivers, creating them as in the formation of larger markets, and minimising cross-border bads such as conflicts or diseases. While it is easy to see why countries should work together to address these, it is harder to grasp what it takes for them to do so in practice, or why cooperation is easier in some areas and/or regions, but gets blocked in others.

Over time, an array of regional organisations have emerged in Africa to help their member states cooperate and jointly address common challenges. Yet multiple, overlapping memberships (for example, the DRC is member of 14 organisations ) and highly ambitious agendas bring additional complexity to an already complex set of issues. This was highlighted in the regional map that ECDPM launched to show the sheer number and extent of regional organisations in Africa and overlapping memberships.

Despite different historical legacies and varying degrees of effective implementation, regional organisations often resemble one another, pursue similar aspirations, and ostensibly aim to solve a range of similar regional problems. All African regional organisations also share a continued high-level of dependence on external funding. While they seek to reduce this dependency, it continues to shape (and at times hinder) their agendas and aspirations, and it often leads their member states to feel a lack of ownership.

Big questions

All this raises a range of tricky questions. How much traction do regional organisations have among their member states to get regional agreements implemented? What are member state interests in using a specific regional organisation? What are the specific sectors or issues where member states’ interests are aligned, or that are amenable to effective regional cooperation?

PEDRO - a project on the political economy dynamics of regional organisations, co-financed by Germany’s BMZ - answers these questions for 17 Regional Organisations in Africa. By examining the multiple sectors in which these organisations try to add value, PEDRO provides 31 policy briefs and background notes with region- and sector-specific knowledge shedding light on why things are as they are, and the scope for reform and improvement, whether by internal policymakers or external partners. You can access them via this online repository (blog continues below):

Thinking and working politically, regionally

Beyond the more traditional fields of economic integration, trade, transport, and peace and security in the Regional Economic Communities (RECs) recognised by the African Union, the studies also look at a range of more specialised regional organisations. These include organisations governing the Nile, Niger, Congo and Lake Chad basins, but also the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) Agency, the Central African Forestry Commission, and the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre.

Common to almost all regional organisations is the mismatch between the logic to cooperate and the political drive within member states to put in practice what their leaders have agreed to, creating large implementation gaps. Collective action failures, the ‘tragedy of the commons’, and winners and losers within and between countries ultimately define how much traction a regional organisation can have. If those who stand to lose can throw a spanner in the works of implementation, or simply delay proceedings, that may be enough to undermine the benefits of regional cooperation.

Rather than bemoan this reality, the studies also show some cases where a flexible, adaptive approach to regional cooperation can, in fact, help address problems on the ground. The Nile Basin Initiative comes to mind as one such example. In other fields, growing attention to the need for greater economic transformation has led to regional industrialisation strategies that may also benefit from flexible approaches. The domestic interests of influential stakeholders tend to dominate economic policy in such ways that the wholesale implementation of regional overarching strategies stand little chance. Here, regional dynamics driven by coalitions of stakeholders who seek to remove obstacles to incremental reforms in support of economic transformation may, therefore, offer an answer.

Growing concern about the links between climate, food, economic opportunity and migration all point to the need to better understand what regions do and can do, and to understand the politics these entail.

Current EU problems show that the challenges of regional cooperation and integration are not unique to Africa. Rather, they reinforce the importance of understanding national dynamics and to think and work both politically and regionally - all the more reason to get a better handle on what really makes regional organisations tick, and how (domestic and international) efforts can improve regional cooperation in practice.

Africa is home to numerous Regional Organisations, such as economic communities, river basin organisations, power pools, and more. On average, African countries are members of 6 regional organisations, with certain countries having joined up to 14.

Multiple memberships may present challenges in terms of finance and capacity to manage multiple regional agendas; may be partially driven by interests related to 'regime-boosting' and patronage; but may also be necessary to address the different combinations of alliances and interests around cross-border dynamics in Africa.

Key to understanding the role and effectiveness of regional organisations is to understand who is a member of what and why. In the course of our work on the Political Economy of Regional Organisations, we have developed an interactive map to illustrate the numerous memberships.

The interactive map covers 40 African organisations for regional cooperation and integration. Discover which countries belong to which organisations and navigate the complex landscape of overlaps.


So what to make of this tool? Scroll down to read a blog by ECDPM's Bruce Byiers discussing the meaning of multiple memberships and the case of Tunisia.


In August 2017, Tunisia's Prime Minister announced his country’s request to join ECOWAS, Economic Community of West African States. In the same speech, he also affirmed that Tunisia will join the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) next October, after being an observer since 2005, while the country is awaiting a response on its 2016 request to join the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS). This follows the 'agreement in principle’ for Morocco to join ECOWAS in June this year, six months after rejoining the African Union, and Mauritania’s similar request to rejoin the West African group after leaving in 2000. [...]

>> Click to read the whole blog


Find out more about our work on the Political Economy of Regional Organisations at

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Photo courtesy of: (1) ECDPM, (2) Marcus via Flickr.