18 April 2006

Africa's Show of Unity in Trade Talks Laudable


Nairobi — If the developments at the just-concluded African Union (AU) ministerial conference on World Trade Organisation talks are anything to go by, there is a real danger of failure to conclude ongoing Doha round of free trade negotiations.

In the words of WTO Director General Pascal Lamy, the refusal by the big players - the European Union, the United States, Brazil and India - "to make real offers that can facilitate the signing of an agreement" is to blame for the stalemate.

Billed as the development round of the WTO-fronted effort to free global trade, the ongoing negotiations have their foundation in the idea that the best way to fight mass poverty in places where it has become endemic, such as Africa is to increase the volume of trade among nations - instead of continuing to pump in money in the form of aid.

This is an approach on which nearly all WTO members are agreed. Yet the negotiations have not been made any easier. The negotiations have faced numerous pitfalls since they began nearly six years ago.

At the centre of it all are differences over what the various parties see as the best way to realise the stated objective of this round of negotiations. While poor nations have been pushing their counterparts in the developed world to effect reform measures that will improve their access to agricultural markets, the developed world has been pushing the developing countries to open up their markets for their industrial products.

The United States has been particularly reluctant to cut down on the subsidies it offers its farmers in sub-sectors such as cotton while the European Union has not been forthcoming on tariff reduction for agricultural products entering its markets.

Then there is the Brazil, India axis that is recalcitrant on tariffs on industrial products entering their markets.

The problem for Africa is that all these three parties are coming into the international arena as allies while pointing an accusing finger at other parties.

With only a few days remaining to the end of the month - the date by which the parties should have struck a deal - there is little hope that these parties will soften the hard stance they have taken on the talks.

The reality, however, is that there is an urgent need to reach an agreement before the end of the year. This is particularly because the United States - a key party in the negotiations - has in place a law that gives its executive the authority to negotiate a new global trade agreement that expires at the end of the year.

Those who have been closely following on-goings in Washington say Congress is unlikely to renew this mandate. This makes it a do-or-die deal.

Despite the lack of progress, the Nairobi meeting was for Africa a milestone in the quest for a just global trade framework. It marked one of the rare occasions when the continent showed unity of purpose in pursuit of an agenda that is clearly in their common interest.

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