Friday, June 29, 2012

Always Too Little And Too Late For Africa

It’s not unusual in Washington trade policymaking to address the needs of the poorest countries of Africa – that also happen to be the biggest growing economies – too little and too late.

Last week a large delegation – for its size – of trade ministers, Geneva ambassadors and embassy officials from the so-called "Cotton-Four" countries of Burkina Faso, Benin, Mali and Chad were in Washington to lobby against subsidies to US cotton growers. Those contend – and the World Trade Organization agrees – that government subsidies contribute enormously to falling world prices for cotton. The result for growers in the four African countries is less income – and, by extrapolation – less national revenue to support infrastructure, health care and education.

The delegation held a press conference at the embassy of Chad to talk about the results of their mission. It came just as the full Senate was putting the finishing touches on a five-year farm bill – that extended the US cotton program, but changed its nature to an insurance program in which US cotton growers would pay to participate.

Observers, members of the Senate Agriculture Committee and the National Cotton Council say the change addresses WTO concerns as outlined in a case against the United State brought by Brazil.

But the Africans don’t see the difference. The old system was a combination of price supports and direct payments to cotton growers. The new program, they agree, is an insurance program, but they cite a Congressional Budget Office report that scores costs for both programs at about the same. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it must be a duck.

The delegation said over and over again that all they want is for governments around the world to stop subsidizing their cotton growers and give African farmers a chance to compete. It is that simple.

While waiting for questions and answers to be translated into English from French, this reporter indulged in the munchies placed around the table. One was a bowl of peanuts – another problem for Africa. Obviously, the peanuts were from Virginia, not groundnuts from West Africa. It is illegal to import peanuts into this country from anywhere in the world – another aspect of the old farm bill that was continued unchanged for another five years.

(p.s. – also on the table was a bowl of animal crackers – lions, elephants, etc. Nice touch.)

Jim Berger

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