Volume 51
Issue 4
Spring '21

The Africa Continental Free Trade Area: Toward A New Legal Model for Trade and Development

Written By: Katrin Kuhlmann and Akinyi Lisa Agutu


International trade law is at a turning point, and the rules as we know them are being broken, rewritten, and reshaped at all levels. At the same time that institutions like the World Trade Organization (WTO) face significant change and a global pandemic challenges the rules of the market, Africa’s new mega-regional trade agreement, the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), is emerging as a promising framework for redesigning international economic law. As this Article will argue, the AfCFTA presents a new normative approach to trade and development that is positioned to rewrite the rules in a more inclusive and equitable way and, over time, possibly affect global trade well beyond the African continent.

Historically, trade and development have been linked through the framework of Special and Differential Treatment (S&D), which has been a central feature of the WTO and is increasingly shaping regional trade agreements (RTAs) as well. Although the connection between trade and development is more important than ever before, traditional S&D is not positioned to deliver on broader priorities of social and economic development in the current international climate. Fortunately, as this Article will argue, Africa’s approach under the new AfCFTA sets the stage for a needed refresh of S&D. While the AfCFTA incorporates traditional aspects of S&D, it also includes elements of a forward-looking, rules-based approach to further economic and social development and advance the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This new dimension of S&D holds great potential for promoting integration through trade, representing the needs of a diverse group of countries in the rulemaking process, and reshaping international economic law more broadly to generate positive development outcomes.

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