WTO: no deal is better than a bad deal

OneWorld Country Guides provide little cheer on the subject of international trade. One after the other they present a catalogue of woes, from entire economies destroyed by obscure commodity pricing mechanisms to poor farmers heading for the urban slums as their produce is undercut by European subsidies.

How different this picture would be if OneWorld instead produced a series of Guides for rich countries! World trade volumes have almost doubled in the last 10 years and the happy few are reaping the rewards. The 30 most successful countries in the world account for over 85% of global trade; Africa’s share is a miserable 2%.

The Doha trade round which comes to a head at the WTO Ministerial in Hong Kong next week has the stated objective of improving the share of world trade for poor countries. The big idea is to persuade North America and Europe to reduce farming subsidies and remove barriers to agricultural imports.

In return developing countries will be asked to allow greater access to trade in services which cover a wide range of industries including finance, telecommunications, advertising and transport. It’s as though the rich countries are saying: “we’ll buy your food but you must put the money in our bank”. Is this a model for development?

OneWorld Guides certainly verify that agriculture is important to poor countries. Bangladesh, Burkina Faso and Uganda are not untypical in providing employment on the land to over 80% of the working population, with agriculture contributing over a third of GDP.

Such countries are no strangers to the obstacle course of finding export markets for their produce. Mali and Benin have waited years for WTO action against unfair US subsidies on cotton and Vietnam is still waiting for equity in the trade for shrimp. The long-established chicken industry in Ghana collapsed under the weight of dumping of surplus meat from the European Union. It’s a wonder that George Orwell is not more often misquoted by African leaders: “all trade is free but some trade is not quite so free.”

The Doha dream of a more level playing field for agriculture could remove some of this injustice. But Mexican farmers have not enjoyed the experience of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), many of them losing their livelihoods as US agribusiness moved in. And the rich buyer countries have a habit of inventing trading mechanisms which make life difficult for the sellers: Uganda will testify to its strenuous efforts to diversify in the face of unpredictable world market prices for coffee and tea.

More serious still is the risk of replacing staple produce with crops for export, often encouraged by the economic gurus of the World Bank. For example, Guatemala faces the

indignity of importing US grain having converted many of its farms to grow exotic produce for the supermarkets of its northern neighbour. And western consumers are as fickle as the futures markets – greater awareness of the environmental impact of transporting produce over long distances is just one bombshell waiting to explode the WTO’s best-laid plans.

The picture emerging from OneWorld Guides is that trade in agriculture is a messy business for poor countries, perhaps raising the question of whether the Doha package is really worth bothering about. Whilst any increase in trade is of course desirable, is there any evidence that a boom in agricultural exports will lead a country out of poverty?

Argentina, New Zealand and Australia might fit the bill at a pinch but a very long time ago. Today India and China have burst through the development barrier almost at the expense of agriculture, their farming sectors now in disarray with hundreds of millions of rural people living on the wrong side of poverty.

If the globalisation of agriculture offers something less than a stepping stone towards a modern economy, it is little wonder that the poorest countries are hesitating before handing over the silver spoons of access to their service economies. The WTO agenda is possibly being driven more by countries like Brazil, China and India whose more robust economies are less vulnerable to the downsides of trade in agriculture.

The troublesome framework for agriculture in the European Union has its origins at least in part from the post-WW2 crisis in food production. Farmers were granted concessions in the UK and France in particular out of determination that never again would they lack self-sufficiency in food and be forced into rationing through inability to pay for imports.

This right to self-sufficiency was seen as absolute and not as a bargaining chip which is one reason why the Common Agricultural Policy has survived to the point at which it is patent nonsense. We should therefore not be too surprised if poor countries in today’s more globalised world feel they have a right to fair trading rules in agriculture on grounds of global justice alone.


this article was first published by OneWorld UK

50 cries for global justice

Benin acquired a special significance for OneWorld on November 5th. Publication of a Country Guide contributed by volunteer Dan Gerber brought the number of Guides in the OneWorld range to 50, completed over a period of 14 months. Guides are written by volunteers with the aim of providing a quick online introduction to relevant development issues in each country, with plenty of links to more detailed material.

Benin is a chastening subject country, fitting indeed for the milestone. Having spent 15 years overhauling its economy and governance to meet the prescriptions of its global paymasters, poverty indicators remain stubbornly at rock bottom with “a quarter of the population unable to meet its own basic food requirements”. Vital cotton markets have been protected by rich producer countries which are typically to be heard advocating free trade.

Climate change menaces the low-lying major city of Cotonou as well as the vital trunk road to Nigeria which hugs the coastline. Meanwhile the donor community has failed to respond decisively to a country which abides by most of the rules.

So much for the story of one country. As Editor of OneWorld Guides it has been a privilege to build up a picture of global development issues through individual pieces of the jigsaw such as Benin, rather than the more typical overviews. Many of the texts have been disheartening: the setbacks to democracy in Nepal and Togo, the legacy of wars in unexploded ordnance in Cambodia, Bosnia, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, and the exodus of African health workers to pamper old ladies in European nursing homes.

Accounts to cheer have been harder to find but all the more uplifting for that: countless millions lifted out of poverty within a relatively short period in Vietnam and China, the possibility of reconciliation in Aceh in Indonesia, and the chaotically peaceful overthrow of a dictator in Kyrgyzstan.

What reflections can be drawn from all 50 Guides, a genuinely random selection driven by availability of volunteers? Is there common ground amongst the

unfathomable diversity of the struggles of the poor from North Korea to Burkina Faso, from Armenia to Bhutan? One message is clear and consistent; that progress within individual countries is invariably uneven and, more importantly, that the tools we use to measure progress are failing to register the resulting inequality.

Three separate but related profiles of inequality are emerging; firstly the familiar broad divide between rich and poor, at its most extreme in Brazil, and which is unerringly trailing in the wake of the liberal economic model. Secondly, regional divides such as in China, the country deemed to be the success story of the last decade, but which itself concedes that wealth has concentrated along its coastal belt leaving the interior dangerously close to active dissent. And thirdly the urban/rural divide which has become almost universal, the clearest example being India where consistent government neglect of 400 million people dependent on the land led to a surprise election result in 2004.

Target-driven approaches such as underpin the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) fail to address this polarisation of poverty. To oversimplify the point – a country could achieve the Goal of halving poverty through strategies which focus successfully on the favoured half of the population whilst ignoring the rest.

Likewise, a claim of economic growth of 5% pa is hollow if it reflects a 10% improvement for the emerging middle classes and zero for the poor. To borrow the words of the Guide to Nigeria, a country boasting 10% growth: “this is

growth without a human face, as it is not reflected in the life of the ordinary citizen.” Some would argue that a development model that places such value on headline economic growth needs shaking up; certainly its progress indicators are inadequate.

The second broad message emerging from these 50 developing countries is less explicit and more difficult to pinpoint. It is that the cake of international aid is being sliced in irrational and inefficient ways. A year of extreme natural disasters running alongside exceptional food insecurity – the “tsunamis of Africa”– has of course highlighted the faultlines in humanitarian relief and the unpredictable nature of both public and government response to appeals. Eritrea, Mali, Malawi and Pakistan are countries for whom the term “aid fatigue” offers little consolation.

Long term development aid can be no less baffling. Donor governments and the multilateral agencies repeatedly stress that beneficiary countries must be accountable for democratic governance, respect for human rights and sound

financial management to qualify for support; yet Bangladesh and Vietnam remain magnets for donors whilst a cluster of compliant West African countries that includes Benin, Ghana and Mali are relatively starved of funds.

Final thoughts are derived from omission. Each Guide begins with an assessment of prospects for achieving the MDGs but it is clear that the texts have been able to draw on little substantive material beyond the formal reports published by individual governments. Five years down the line the MDG programme has made a desperately slow start.

Most of the progress reports have taken nearly 5 years to compile, detailed costings are hard to find (only Bangladesh and Tajikistan within the OneWorld range), and there is evident difficulty in superimposing the Goals on to Poverty

Reduction Strategy Plans (PRSPs) and other existing national plans. The recent New York summit commitment to produce national development strategies accommodating the MDGs during 2006 comes across as a belated afterthought of the 2000 summit and betrays the inertia of the Millennium Declaration.

An even more deafening silence from the Guides is climate change. There is reference to the melting snows of Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, glacier melt in Nepal, floods in Bangladesh and the very survival of Maldives but with no specific linkage to poverty and development. Likewise the two global summits in 2005 addressing MDGs and a future Kyoto Protocol are quite separate affairs. Obvious connections seem to be missing here. Both

agendas are at best stuttering; the first is driven by concern for the poor requiring action by the rich – the second is driven by concern for the rich requiring cooperation of the poor. If sustainable development was a business, these two enterprises would be merging tomorrow.

Similarly, campaigners for global justice and climate change could perhaps usefully spend more time together in 2006. And for OneWorld, Benin as the 50th Guide may have put down a marker for our Guides to take a closer look at the role of climate change in the fight against poverty.


this article was first published by OneWorld UK

No retreat from Kyoto, says UK Chief Scientist

The UK will respect its Kyoto Protocol obligations, and will play a full role in forthcoming negotiations on how a successor treaty could control greenhouse gas emissions in the fight against climate change after 2012, according to the government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir David King.

In response to questions at a climate change forum in Singapore this week, Sir David appeared anxious to paper over cracks that have appeared in the UK’s position following controversial remarks made by Prime Minister Tony Blair at the launch of the Clinton Global Initiative in New York last month. Blair was reported to have questioned whether international treaties were the best way of reducing harmful emissions, a position long associated with the Bush administration, which has refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol.

Sir David acknowledged that alternative strategies concentrating on environmental science and technology had been discussed by the Prime Minister during a panel session with the US Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice, but said it was completely inaccurate to infer any change of course: “The UK is totally committed to the Kyoto process.”

Sir David stressed that his own role is to place scientific knowledge in the public domain rather than to formulate policy, but he is known to be an advocate of international treaties to enforce emissions targets and timetables. At last year’s Greenpeace Business Lecture, he expressed the view that “Kyoto is not enough … it will need to be ratcheted up so that we can really bring emissions under control”. And in the Singapore forum he repeated that “effective action demands international agreement”.

The forum, “Global Action to Tackle Climate Change”, enabled Sir David to deploy the devastating scientific evidence of his Greenpeace lecture in an Asian context. “The world’s cities have been built in the wrong places,” he said, predicting a rise in sea level of 6.5 metres from a thaw of the Greenland ice sheet.

Sir David appeared concerned that recent research had cast doubt on scientists’ understanding of the process of ice melting on this massive scale. Previous estimates that carbon dioxide concentration of 500-550 parts per million (which could be reached in only 60 years at current emission rates) would trigger the mass Greenland thaw may have to be revised downwards.

As the highest point on the island of Singapore is barely 150 metres and much of its most valuable property and industry is built on reclaimed land, the audience was left to reflect on the wisdom of the Singapore government, which has aligned itself with the US in abstaining so far from the Kyoto Protocol.

The UK has its own share of small and not-so-small islands. Activists will doubtless be seeking early clarification that the Prime Minister’s commitment to enforceable treaties to mitigate climate change will not prove as fleeting as the showcase G8 and EU leadership roles that expire in the new year.


this article was first published by OneWorld UK

Tories hit the road to Damascus

London Event: January 11th, 2005; jointly hosted by Centre for Social Justice and World Vision

”Idealism without illusions: a Conservative approach to combating poverty”

Michael Howard, Leader of Conservative Party
Oliver Letwin, Shadow Chancellor

So much for Gordon Brown’s personal crusade to meet the 0.7% UN target for overseas development assistance. A Tory government will match every penny and adhere to the same timetable – promised the Shadow Chancellor, Oliver Letwin, in his first major speech on international development.

This policy proposal has been in the public domain in recent weeks. Both speakers now took the opportunity to soften up the audience of charity managers with promises that more aid would be channelled through civil society, with less going to multilateral agencies. Michael Howard was quick to accuse the European Union of inefficiency and of misdirecting aid to relatively affluent recipients. The Tories instead will focus on the very poorest countries.

Other promises built on these principles. Michael Howard introduced a proposal to set up an advocacy fund to assist poor countries fight their corner in WTO disputes. And Oliver Letwin promises to advocate reform of the World Bank so that it concentrates more on grants and microcredit, and less on grandiose project loans.

The sting in the tail for this particular audience may be the unreserved commitment of both speakers to the principle that aid should be conditional upon free enterprise, liberalized markets, and free trade: “The spread of liberal markets has done more for poverty than aid,” insisted Michael Howard, citing the economic growth of China as a “huge achievement which we should celebrate”. He did accept the need to undo the hypocrisy of European tariffs and subsidies, and to recognize at least the principles of fair trade: “I believe in fair trade becoming fairer and free trade becoming freer,” he said.

Oliver Letwin echoed variations on this theme of fairer and freer trade, concepts that may require much unpicking over coming months. There was little reference to the responsibilities of corporations enjoying the benefits of free global trade, and none at all to the regulation of the arms trade, the issue which had done so much to undermine the last Conservative government.

Absent too was a sense of real belief in these new policies – which do, after all, represent a significant shift in Tory thinking. Reading prepared speeches and taking no questions, Michael Howard and Oliver Letwin lack the conviction and passion that might persuade diehard liberals to walk the gangplank and vote Conservative. Gordon Brown delivers more political punch just by walking on to a platform. This is a mountain the Tories have to climb


this article was first published by OneWorld UK

Wangari Maathai: African leadership on parole

London: December 16th, 2004; event co-hosted by Gaia Foundation and a number of development and environment organisations

What we are doing to the earth, we are doing to ourselves

Speaker: Professor Wangari Maathai, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate

How can an environmentalist win the Nobel Peace Prize? And how does an African woman gain such recognition? That both of these bastions have fallen together is a measure of the achievement of Professor Wangari Maathai who spoke in London at an evening of celebration in aid of the Foundation set up in her name.

The message of the Nobel award, Wangari suggested, is that we should stop being surprised about the conjunction of peace, environmentalism and African women. It’s time for NGOs in particular to remove their labels – environment workers, peace workers, development workers – these are unhelpful divisions; “if you are truly concerned about people”, she said, “you have to think holistically”.

The heart of the presentation was a detailed account of the work of Wangari’s Greenbelt Movement in Kenya, from its humble beginnings in the 1970s with a single group of women learning the skills of nurturing trees. The paradigm contained some telling messages for development projects. When the Kenyan Forestry Commissioners proved ineffective teachers of their skills, the group “decided to abandon professionalism and deal with common sense”. And creating livelihoods for women was not regarded as a sufficient measure of success; of far greater importance was the process of learning about power structures as they tried to replicate their work in neighbouring communities.

Wangari explained how the women came to recognize that the “governance structure was not conducive to protecting the environment because politicians are the most destructive members of society, engaged in illegal logging, corruption and mismanagement of resources”. Awakened to the importance of the ballot box, the women emerged as workers for democracy as much as workers for the environment. Likewise came the realization that tribal conflict has its origins in the fight for natural resources and can be resolved only through dialogue and understanding.

Recognition of Professor Wangari’s work enables her to paint the lessons of the Greenbelt movement on a wider canvas. The traditional three-legged African stool symbolizes her message for the continent. The 3 legs are represented by good governance of resources, democratic space for people to feel included, and dialogue to ensure peace. As with the tree-planting programmes, the stool will topple unless each leg is in place. “If a country has no peace, no democracy and its resources are badly governed, then you will waste your money“ was Wangari’s message to the donor community.

However interdependent the legs of the African stool, it is the question of good governance that most agitates Professor Wangari. For her the challenge of this Nobel Prize is especially that “African leaders must rethink their roles so that they represent the people of Africa properly” she said; “we must enable children to grow and have families instead of being shot in the frontline of battles they do not understand”. Now herself pitchforked into a potential leadership role surely beyond that of Deputy Minister for Environment in Kenya, Professor Wangari Maathai stands today as a champion of the holistic values she so passionately advocates.


this article was first published by OneWorld UK

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