The USAID Trade and Investment Officer, Jeff Cochrane has told delegates to the first ECOWAS Business Forum that the private sector must “speak with one voice”
Mr Cochrane made this statement at the opening session of the ECOBANK sponsored three day ECOWAS Business Forum at the Accra International Conference Center in Ghana yesterday Monday
Speaking under the conference theme “harnessing private sector energies for challenges of integration” Mr Cochrane said “We all say that the private sector must be consultative and often we even claim to have done so but in reality let us admit that we are rarely successful in doing this well.”
He questioned “When you listen to the private sector it does not mean inviting business people to sit in the audience while government officials make speeches, … when you listen to the private sector it does not mean inviting a few business friends together to chat with them about what would be best for their particular businesses … when we listen to the private sector it does not mean forcing businesses to join organizations that government themselves control by finance …No!” he said
“if we are serious about listening to the private sector these are not the right ways to do it, there are better ways.”
The first he said was that “the private sector must speak formally with an independent voice through an organization that is funded by its own members, governments must be prepared to meet with that organization on a regular basis for consultation but governments must not control the meeting in any way, governments must listen and understand.”
Secondly he said “the private sector must speak with one voice as much as possible otherwise we have large manufacturers advocating for what they want, we have NGOs typically speak for small and micro enterprises advocating for what they think those businesses want and so on.”
“If the voice of the private sector is divided into too many small voices in too many directions it becomes too easy for governments to say the private sector does not know what it wants.”
Thirdly he said “governments must listen to the private sector on the private sectors own territory, it its own facilities on its own factory floors in its own market places and not just in the halls of government institutions.”
This he said “means that senior government managers must regularly leave their offices to see with their own eyes how business is done in West Africa.”
Mr Cochrane called on the senior government officials in West Africa to come out and “See what equipments businesses must buy or what bizarre work schedules have to be established to cope with erratic and unreliable electricity supply.”
“check telephone bills to see how a disconnected regional telecommunications market is driving up costs, visit with the commercial banks to discuss why they so rarely make loans to the small and medium enterprises that provide the best hope for employment growth in West Africa, see how long goods are delayed when they enter the regions sea port and airports, discuss with shipping companies how inadequate port facilities and resulting demurrage charges force them to raise the rates to business.”
The USAID official called on these government functionaries to “inspect how much duty is really paid and not just how much is supposed to be paid.”
He asked them to “See how long it takes custom officials to process containers across the land borders of West Africa, count the number of road blocks and check points that are erected in the regions highways where goods are delayed and inappropriate dues are paid.”
Government managers he said “must see these things with their own eyes to understand why it costs so much to do business in West Africa, why West Africa has so much trouble competing in the global market place and why consumers pay so much more in West Africa for ordinary goods and services.”
He noted that “ECOWAS understands that if economies in West Africa are to grow the private sector must be fully engaged in the process or making and improving government policies.”
Ghanaian Vice President Aliu Mahama while declaring the conference open noted that the meeting is “long over due” because “The very essence of ECOWAS and for that matter other regional groupings is the desire to feed up economic growth through integration of resources and markets as a platform for the private sector to flourish.”
Admittedly he said “ECOWAS has made efforts to promote business and the investment climate within the sub region. Many of these efforts have focused on making the protocol on free movement of persons, goods and services within the sub region more effective through better regulation of cross border transportation, customs management and interstate infrastructure”
The Ghanaian Vice President lamented that “whilst we embrace the principle of free movement of goods services and people within the sub region, many impediments continue to frustrate efforts of member countries” noting that “promotion efforts among member countries are not always well coordinated and can even be said to lack the necessary motivation for sustainability and success.”
“In a region still dominated by issues of limited social and economic resources high rate of illiteracy fairly rigid agro-rural economies a predominantly youthful population and a weak industrial and services sector we cannot continue to assume that the private sector has the capacity to take advantage of available opportunities” he said.
Alhaji Aliu Mahama noted that “Globalisation and the explosion in information and communication technology make it imperative that we speed up regional integration and entrepreneurship development enlarge regional markets and investment opportunities and engage the private sector more intensively in the process to promote ownership sustainability and the efficient use of resources.”
He urged the African private sector to be more “proactive” promising that the private sector “can count on government support, who will therefore act quickly to resolve bottlenecks in partnership governments and the appropriate agencies.”
Statements were made by Chairman Ghana Chamber of Commerce, the Chairman African Business Roundtable, ECA, WTO and others.
The session was Chaired by the Chairman of ECOBANK who are one of the main sponsors of the conference.