Africa has no choice but to integrate into world economic and financial systems, if it is to grow sustainably and reduce extreme poverty. This is a major challenge that is being addressed through the New Partnership for Africaís Development (NEPAD) Ė a vision and strategic framework for Africaís renaissance. A program
of the African Union (AU), NEPAD is leading the Continentís efforts to address core development challenges. Within the framework offered by the initiative, African regional economic communities (RECs) have a significant role to play, as they are the main institutions expected to implement NEPADís programs. To this end, the RECs need requisite human and institutional capacity for effective implementation of the Continentís integration strategy.
Given the nature of the Continentís economies, regional cooperation and integration are important for facilitating the integration process. The success of the European Union (EU) since the 1950s bears a strong testimony to the potential benefits of regional integration. If properly conceived and implemented, regional
integration offers numerous advantages to developing economies. Closer trade links among such economies have the potential of strengthening their capacity
to participate in world trade. Countries can thus overcome obstacles caused by the relatively small size of the domestic markets, by offering producers opportunities to realize greater economies of scale and benefit from the establishment of regional infrastructure. A regional approach in major structural areas such as tariff reduction and harmonization, legal and regulatory reforms, rationalization of payments system, financial sector reform, investment incentive and tax system harmonization, and labour market reform, among others, enables participating countries to pool their resources and take advantage of regional institutional and human resources. The regional approach also allows countries to have a common front for asserting their interests from a stronger and more confident position in the global market and in international economic relations.
African countries were and remain fully cognizant of the benefits of regional cooperation and integration. This realization at independence made regional
integration a core element on the Continentís development agenda. The establishment of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in 1963 by the newly emerging states was inspired largely by the determination to promote the unity of African countries and coordinate their cooperation efforts for the achievement of improved living conditions for the people of the Continent. Regional cooperation and integration were also seen as vital for safeguarding the Continentís hard-won independence, ridding it of the vestiges of colonialism and apartheid, and overcoming the legacy of external exploitation and domination.
Over the last forty years, the institutional framework for Africaís integration process has evolved through a number of phases, in response to changing realities.
The establishment of the African Union (AU) in 2001 constitutes the latest phase in the development of regional cooperation and integration on the Continent.
Drawing on lessons from experience with regional integration in the postindependence years and taking account of the challenges facing the Continent in a rapidly globalizing world, the AU is expected to serve as the key instrument for the achievement of a rapid and sustainable development of Africa and the effective integration of the Continent into the global economic and financial system.