Making trade work for peace in the Great Lakes

On 16 and 17 March International Alert, with the support of the Swedish embassy and World Bank, organised a unique regional conference in Bukavu in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) on supporting small-scale cross-border trade in the Great Lakes region of Africa.

Small-scale cross-border trade plays an important role in enabling the flow of (mainly agricultural) produce between countries in the Great Lakes, and provides economic livelihoods for thousands of traders, in a region that has long suffered from armed conflict and where economic opportunities are limited. It is also a highly visible reminder of the economic interdependence between these countries, despite the political tensions that continue to plague relations between them.

The conference brought together 100 participants from Burundi, DRC, Rwanda and Uganda, including representatives of trade, finance and gender ministries, officials from regional organisations, as well as civil society organisations and women cross-border traders.

Its aim was to get a commitment to take concrete steps to promote small-scale cross-border trade in the region, for the sake of economic development and peace, focusing specifically on sub-regional agreements. It was also an important opportunity for women cross-border traders to be heard by national and regional officials, and to raise awareness of the daily difficulties they face in making a living – doing a job that provides an income for at least 45,000 traders and their dependants in the region.[1]

The economic potential of cross-border trade is hampered by a variety of problems, such as harassment of traders, lack of access to credit and markets, high taxes and payment of bribes. Certain customs regulations are not adequately applied and state authorities fail to protect small-scale traders from extortion and violence. These factors constrain the development of trading links beyond mere individual survival to allowing traders to create cooperatives and expand their trade, to the benefit not only of themselves and their families, but also the state.

After two days of intense discussion and sharing of experiences and lessons learned, the participants identified and agreed on concrete steps to improve conditions for small-scale cross-border trade in each of the four countries. Actions agreed include posting information about taxes at the borders (including in local languages), ensuring ‘gender-sensitive’ border controls (by dedicated female staff) and implementing one-stop border posts, to reduce the time it takes to cross the borders.

Through the 'Tushiriki wote' project, funded by the Swedish International Development Agency, Alert and our partners will closely monitor and follow up on the implementation of the commitments made.

Alert has been helping to strengthen collaboration between small-scale cross-border traders and improve their trading conditions in the Great Lakes since 2009. Our aim is not just to economically empower traders (the majority of whom are women), but also encourage increased trust across borders (between traders and governments alike), gradually laying the foundations of sustainable peace in the region.

You can find out more about this work here and read Alert's CEO Harriet Lamb's reflections on the event here.

[1] This figure comes from surveys carried out by Alert in 2010 and 2011 at five border points in the region (Goma, Bukavu, Uvira, Arua, Cibitoke). The real figure would be much higher when the whole region is taken into account. Apart from merchants, cross-border trade also provides a significant income for those who produce the goods traded, wholesalers and the employees of commercial companies, as well as those who transport the products (and their families).

Photo © International Alert