Milestone as Comesa summits go digital
The Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa held its first ever paperless meeting of presidents and ministers on October 10 to 19, 2016, in Antananarivo in Madagascar, marking yet another first for Africa.
While other organisations may have gone paperless in the sense of providing participants with electronic copies of documents, Comesa went an extra step of preparing reports of meetings in real time in three languages beamed on large screens in the course of the meetings.
Comesa has been no stranger to institutional engineering. As the largest free trade area in Africa, the organisation has a number of trade facilitation initiatives and specialised financial institutions to facilitate trade and investment. These include simpler and harmonised customs documentation and a regional bank, insurance for non-commercial risks, and a regional payment system under which cross border transfer of funds is completed within 24 hours.
The 19th Summit of Comesa presidents and ministers was paperless. Working documents were uploaded to a secure cloud and passwords provided in advance of the meeting to the countries and registered participants. At the meeting itself, the documents were uploaded onto laptops and each of the 19 countries provided with three laptops, each costing $300 (Sh30,400). The documents were saved as well on pen drives, which were provided to participants. This saved tonnes of paper and trees.
The system was efficient and saved time. The secretariat prepared draft reports of the meetings in advance. The drafts were beamed on three screens each for one of the three working languages of Comesa – French, English and Arabic – when the meetings were in session. Secretariat staff, working in the three languages, then made all the adjustments as the discussion happened, in the full view of the meeting. This amounted to finalising the reports of the meetings in real time in the course of the proceedings.
Secretariat staff was happy to complete report writing at the end of each session, agenda item by item, and so were translators who were able to complete their work session by session. For they too did not have to stay up working late into the night on the reports as was the case in the past.
Presidents and ministers were seen crouching at the laptops intensely reading the meeting documents. Many young officials downloaded the documents onto their mobile phones and joked about being genuinely paperless. It was a risk. It was taken and it paid off. Yet another breakthrough for Comesa.