Aid for Trade in Nigeria: A Conversation with Ovie Ebhohimnhen

I had the pleasure this month of speaking to Ovonlen "Ovie" Ebhohimhen about Aid for Trade Programmes in Nigeria. This is for our newly launched podcast series, Project:Development. In this series, I’ll be spotlighting aid-funded programmes and their impact on global development.

Ovie is a Trade Negotiator at Nigerian Office for Trade Negotiations. He's a lawyer with keen interest in Oil and Gas, International Trade, Technology Law and Data Protection. The theme of our conversation was how Nigeria can build its capacity to trade with countries - both far and near.

Have a read of my summary below for a better idea of what was discussed!

Aid for Trade: A snapshot

Recognizing that “many developing countries face a range of supply-side and trade-related infrastructure obstacles which constrains their ability to engage in international trade”, the Aid for Trade Initiative helps to “minimize the impact of these barriers on developing countries, particularly least developed countries, ability to trade.” (Source: WTO)

In our first episode, Ovie shared insights into trade investment in Nigeria and foreign donor participation through the aid for trade initiative.

I set the scene of the conversation with my first question about Aid for Trade initiatives: asking Ovie if there are any in Nigeria and what he thinks they seek to achieve? To paraphrase his response, “There are a couple. I’m aware of one which seeks to promote trade facilitation.

Ovie brought us up to speed on the current landscape, explaining that there are ‘high-level representatives’ from the Nigerian Ministry of Trade and Investment and in the Customs Services who are involved in these programmes.

Ovie also tells us that these programmes are being funded by the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), the U.S. Agency for International Development – popularly known as ‘USAID’ and the International Trade Centre (ITC)

The ITC programme is helping MSMEs with market access and to prepare their goods for export.

Answering a question about Nigeria's priorities and areas of focus, Ovie drew our attention to trade facilitation as a means of benefiting from trade initiatives and programmes.

He summarised how Nigeria could benefit from the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) Agreement. Again, to paraphrase, he said: “Businesses and countries will benefit if there are proper mechanisms for trade facilitation”.

Trade facilitation

Trade facilitation is a specific set of measures that streamline and simplify the technical and legal procedures for products entering or leaving a country to be traded internationally.

It’s relevant in both the regional and global context. Simply put, it’s responsible for holding things together from (straightforward) border procedures and data exchange, to trade document harmonisation and dispute resolution. Effective trade facilitation could also reduce trade cost, while increasing economic output.

Ovie gave examples of how Nigeria can prioritise trade facilitation in the next question. I was curious and wanted to know how donors and recipient countries of aid can measure the success of Aid for Trade Initiatives? Basically, how do we keep value for money at the core of design and implementation? Ovie responded with three guiding principles: (1) ease of doing business and (2) cost-effectiveness and (3) regulatory frameworks.

Although Ovie didn’t go into too much detail about Nigeria’s Ease of Doing Business ranking, I think more can be done to assist foreign and domestic companies in navigating trade opportunities within the country - and even beyond.

Nigeria is currently ranked 131 out of 190 countries on the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index 2020. The index looks at things like starting a business, dealing with construction permits, getting credit, paying taxes, trading across borders among other indicators.

Responding to a question on how we can measure the success of aid for trade in Nigeria, Ovie told me that attention should be placed on reducing costs, maximising efficiency and fair regulatory frameworks. He re-assured me that the aid agenda works towards achieving this goal - while the results aren’t as ‘quick’ as a lot of us would have expected - they’re still achieving the goals.

It’s interesting to hear (albeit very little during the recording of the podcast) how Ovie receives the idea of aid in trade. It seems to align positively with the FCDOs current position on aid.

The UK government announced in July 2020 a reduction in foreign aid spending in unprotected areas of UK Aid. The Tory government argues that the UK economy shrunk due to Covid-19 and must therefore respond with a revised Aid budget.

In a statement published 21 April 2021, Foreign Minister Dominic Raab, outlines that the remaining £10 billion will be channelled into health, girls education, science, technology, trade and economic development in this financial year (2021/22).

So, as far as we know aid-funded trade initiatives will continue for the foreseeable future. And we get a glimpse through the podcast recording of the crucial role these initiatives play in global development.

Barriers to development

What are the current barriers affecting Nigeria’s chances of success in International Trade and what can the Aid for Trade Agenda do to address this? This was my next question to Ovie.

I wanted to know what Ovie had to say about the main impediments and how these barriers can be broken down. His response to this question was very interesting.

Ovie explained why he doesn’t consider infrastructural issues like poor roads and railways as impediments to development. And elaborated on why he thinks Nigeria can expand on what's readily available.

….On Dr Okonjo-Iweala’s WTO victory

Of course! I had to ask Ovie for his thoughts on Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and the significance of having of a Nigerian-American Director General at the World Trade Organisation.

Ovie, similar to how a lot of people felt when the news broke out, was happy to know that she had been selected to lead the organisation. He spoke briefly about her achievements prior to becoming WTO DG.

‘Leveraging results’

But in terms of how Nigeria can benefit from having one of its own at WTO. Ovie acknowledges that “no country can survive on its own” and Nigeria should work on "boosting productivity at home". Once this seems to be ironed out, it’ll then be easier to leverage the results with the international community.

So, how then can Nigeria boost productivity? Ovie explains that the government needs to work to improve key infrastructures and increase the standard of goods and services.

Ovie notes that Dr Okonjo-Iweala can leverage her position as DG to encourage fair trading. But if Nigeria doesn’t do the back-breaking work at home by boosting productivity, then she’ll "just be another Nigeria who has now become a source of inspiration for women (and men) who wish to emulate her success."

The full recording of this interview will be made Available in May 2021.