Developing Further The Social Dimension Of The African Continental Free Trade Area

Published 1 month ago
By Forbes Africa | Letlhokwa George Mpedi-The writer serves as Vice- Chancellor and Principal at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa
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There has been little consideration of the impact of this movement on social security, an important policy tool that addresses socio-economic challenges, contributes to long-term development, and promotes a more equitable and resilient society. (Photographer: Eduardo Soteras Jalil/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Lauded as the key to Africa’s economic fortunes, the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) has been met with much excitement. Indeed, this area holds great economic promise for the continent but there are some glaring gaps that require consideration – particularly from a social dimension. Established in 2018 by the African Continental Free Trade Agreement, AfCFTA entails the creation of a consolidated marketplace for goods and services throughout the African continent.

According to a 2022 World Bank report, this agreement could generate vast economic benefits, embracing 1.3 billion people and a combined GDP of $3.4 trillion. If fully implemented, the agreement is expected to increase income by 9% by 2035 and help uplift 50 million individuals from extreme poverty. It aims to boost intra-African trade, promote industrialization, foster economic diversification, and ultimately lead to increased economic growth and job creation. As the agreement outlines, this integration will be strengthened and underpinned by allowing the free movement of individuals across the continent.

Yet, there has been little consideration of the impact of this movement on social security, an important policy tool that addresses socio-economic challenges, contributes to long-term development, and promotes a more equitable and resilient society.


In Africa, particularly, its impact cannot be overlooked.

Without the necessary safeguards in place, the AfCFTA exists as nothing more than a romantic ideal. Intra-African migration has increased by 30% in the last decade and is on an upward trajectory. However, existing systems may find themselves under strain as demographics shift and the demand for services and support transcends traditional geographical boundaries under AfCFTA. As it stands with current policies, African migrant workers and their families may lose their social security benefits when they return to their home nations because these benefits are often limited to specific territories.

Compounding these concerns is the limited scope of social security coverage on the continent. According to the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) World Social Protection Report, only 17.4% of the population in Africa receives at least one social protection benefit compared to 46.9% globally. This low level of access to social protection is attributed to the labor market structure on the continent and limited domestic resources allocated to social protection. As AfCFTA takes hold, there is a need for social security coordination to expand social protection coverage, especially for migrant workers and their families.

There are some considerations. First, it should guarantee the equal treatment of all workers in order to prevent unfair discrimination against migrant workers. Second, it must consider all elements of a worker’s career to ensure comprehensive insurance coverage and the determination of benefits. Third, there should be a recognition that residency, employment, or economic activity in one state allows for the acquired rights and benefits to be upheld in another state.


Fourth, the applicable laws should be established to prevent double benefits or double obligation to contribute towards a social security scheme. Fifth, these efforts must make social security benefits transferable or exportable by reducing restrictions on the payment of benefits and receipt of services when workers reside in a different country. In this regard, African countries should adopt crucial policy measures to develop the social dimension of this area by ratifying and implementing the existing ILO conventions and recommendations regarding migration and social security.

The equality of treatment, among other principles and standards, should be incorporated into domestic law. Moreover, African countries must also conclude social security agreements to coordinate and ensure the portability of social security rights and benefits. In this regard, bilateral labor arrangements or Memorandums of Understanding (MoU) should include social security provisions. Additionally, unilateral measures developed by sending and receiving countries must be taken, such as the inclusion of national social protection floors. Beyond social security, the social dimension should include initiatives that address practical obstacles to the AfCFTA, such as language barriers, xenophobia, exorbitant cross-border remittance fees, and lack of information and awareness.

As researcher and postdoctoral fellow Balkissa Diallo argues, “For the true elimination of trade barriers, AfCFTA efforts must embed the facilitation of African migration into their structures — and also consider existing dynamics that prevent this from happening.”

If AfCFTA has any real hope of succeeding, it must also integrate with society beyond the economic policies and trade agreements.