Africa: UK Envoy Calls for Urgent Citizen Advocacy on Trade

Paul Boateng.
18 March 2008

Washington, DC — Paul Boateng, the British cabinet minister who left that post to become his country's high commissioner to South Africa, has been visiting the United States with the declared aim of pressing for an agreement in the Doha Round of international trade talks that would open markets in developed countries to goods from African and other developing countries. Although he acknowledges that trade negotiations rarely spur broad interest or engagement, he argues that everyone who cares about Africa's future or an efficient global economic system should become informed and involved as public citizens.

Boateng, born of a Ghanaian father and partly schooled in Ghana, was a strong supporter of the Commission on Africa, the group set up by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair to promote a strong and prosperous Africa. During his visit, he spoke to AllAfrica's team in Washington, DC.

Tell us why you are here.

I make myself available to my Foreign Office and governmental colleagues at specific times for specific purposes. The purpose at the moment – because of the current state of Doha, is to build up a head of steam around a successful conclusion to that round.

That requires that senior officials conclude their work – currently taking place in Geneva – so that ministers can take final decisions about modalities around the end of March or beginning of April. If we don't do that, we're going to lose this opportunity to finish this round in 2008.

It's a long, drawn-out round; it has development at its heart. The longer we delay, the more the poorest of the poor are denied access to markets and the less chance there is of concluding it before 2010, because of the political cycle that affects our countries.

So we've got a window of opportunity at the end of this [U.S.] administration. Successful conclusion to Doha is linked – in turn – to "aid-for-trade" and the importance of ensuring that you have not just free-and-fair trade rules and market access, but that Africa is freed to take advantage of that access and of a fairer international regulatory and legal system around trade.

That means addressing capacity and skills issues within Africa itself: infrastructure, transport, the problems around systems, customs. For instance, the fact that it takes 117 days to get a shipment from the capital of the Central African Republic to the nearest port, which would take five days if you were taking the same goods to Copenhagen!

How does the U.S. fit into this?

We have a window of opportunity in the political cycle globally to make a difference to world trade. The U.S. is absolutely central to that. We in the developed economies have a particular responsibility, but also a particular opportunity, to contribute to and benefit from a freer, fairer system of trade in our world.

Such a system will give access to global markets to the poorest of the poor in Africa and elsewhere, but also – and importantly – will empower consumers in the developed and developing world. Greater access and greater competition will end the elements of protectionism and subsidy that really are a conspiracy against producer and consumer alike.

A freer and fairer trading system can benefit everyone. But it also needs to be linked to aid-for-trade. It's not enough simply to have a level playing field and to have free-and-fair trade in the regulatory context.

It seems to my government that we have a responsibility in the developed world to [help developing countries build capacity to trade] through our development funding. But it requires a willingness to embrace the opportunities. It's very important that this issue of trade and aid-for-trade moves up on the political agenda.

A lot of concerned people find that their eyes glaze over when they read about Doha – about "applied tariffs" and "bonded tariffs", about the industrial or services sectors. How would you describe the issues to somebody who has no idea of what's going on but ought to care?

Think when you go to Gap to buy a pair of jeans, how they got there. Think about the circumstances that brought those jeans into being: the hands that made them, the cloth that they are made of and the cotton that gave us the cloth. Think about all the transactions, including your own, that contribute towards getting those jeans on your butt.

Think about that. When you do, think about a small, poor country like Lesotho, landlocked in the southern tip of Africa. Think about how it came to pass that some 48,000 people are engaged in producing jeans for the global market using cotton from a variety of sources. As a result of a decision made here in America in the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act [passed by the U.S. Congress in 2000 and extended in 2006 until 2012], when those jeans are made in Lesotho for Gap ,they can be imported into the U.S. without any tariff and without any restrictions.

The result: people are employed in Lesotho who would not otherwise be employed. Food is put on the table. You have access to very high-quality jeans, which you would not have at that price, were it not for the fact that the clothing industry in Lesotho has been made economically viable by the removal of that tariff barrier.

The result is that clothing factories are being opened in Lesotho with capital from Taiwan. In the past year some six million dollars has flowed into Lesotho to expand a factory with some additional 3,000 workers to produce yet more T-shirts and jeans for export to the U.S. under that same act.

Doha is about extending that opportunity to trade to many, many more millions of people, encouraging many more billions of pounds and dollars worth of investment globally through the removal of yet more tariffs and barriers – not simply on the apparel industry but on every industry and process, whether it's agriculture or other forms of manufacturing. Think about that when you go to the shops.

Why wouldn't everybody be in favour of that? Why have the Doha negotiations not sailed through to a conclusion?

Because it requires everybody to make some compromises, and nobody actually likes making compromises. Everybody feels much more comfortable when they don't have to trade off various interests against other interests.

When you've got all the countries of the world engaged in a process where everybody has to consent in order to reach an agreement, it becomes that much more difficult – particularly when some countries have more muscle and expertise than others, and other countries feel put upon and at risk, and also when pretty strong sectional interests like, let's face it, cotton farmers in the European Union and the U.S., and some in China, enjoy subsidies on the scale that they do.

Those subsidies cost farmers in West Africa something between U.S. 75 and 100 million dollars a year alone, in their impact on those poorer countries, in the market distortions they create. Those subsidies reduce world prices by something like 10 to 15 percent, [affecting] cotton farmers in West Africa, who don't enjoy the same levels of subsidies or indeed any at all.

Now cotton exports are, in fact, of marginal relevance to a huge economy like the United States. They do affect some vested interests. But in a country like Burkina Faso, cotton represents 50 percent of the value of their exports and is a mainstay of the national economy.

You've got to persuade strong vested interests and politicians in my country and our [European] economic union to make some sacrifices. You've got to persuade their counterparts in the U.S. and in China to do likewise. And you've also got to persuade African countries like South Africa that maybe they should be adjusting their position on access to their markets for services, where we in the U.S. and the EU have a bigger interest still.

So it's a trade-off. And trade-offs on an international scale, like trade-offs in personal relations, aren't always easy to achieve.

What's at risk? What's the message to people who have interests to protect that they see as threatened by an agreement. What's in their longer-term interests?

Well, our global trading system is at risk from stultifying, from failing to realise its potential. It needs to be growing and dynamic. If the trading system is actually to be helpful and to provide the basis upon which the stakeholders and shareholders are likely to be able to benefit, it needs to embrace the challenges of the 21st century.

A successful Doha Round could generate billions of dollars of wealth, lifting millions of people out of poverty in Africa. Doing that – by putting money in those people's pockets – benefits us in the developed world, because we're in a position to sell them all sorts of other stuff, all sorts of other services.

We all benefit from having access to markets. We all benefit from being able to do business, because it's doing business that gets people jobs and keeps people in jobs. It's when you can't do business because the world trading system is beginning to silt up, to stultify, that jobs are at risk.

So what's at risk is the capacity of the world economy to grow. It's not just a question about doing favours for poor countries. It's about doing us all a favour. It's a win-win situation if the world economy is freed up to grow and to be dynamic.

None of us are rich enough to afford a failure in the Doha Development Round, but of course the poorest of the poor stand to suffer most. When they suffer, that breeds global instability. That breeds conflict and violence and terror. None of us are safe from that in the 21st century, anywhere in the world. So we've got a vested interest in making the world stronger, richer, more cohesive.

What is the role of bilateral agreements, such as the Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) being negotiated by the EU?

Well, they are always going to be with us. You are not going to see a world in which there are no bilateral agreements. What you want to do is to make sure that they do not become the norm, because they put countries, and trading relationships between countries, in silos. That's not desirable. They can end up as a straitjacket for an economy.

Where you can, you want to get multilateral agreements in place, because they're much more beneficial, they create much more flexibility and they create much more scope for economic development and integration for everybody. The UK has argued very forcibly within the EU that EPAs should be developed in ways that don't run counter to economic regional integration.

We believe that the future of Africa is as a trading partner. Realising Africa's economic potential must lie not simply in opening up external markets to Africa but also encouraging trade within Africa. This is why, for us in the UK, the need for a successful conclusion of the Doha Round is linked with the need for us to step up aid-for-trade to improve, for instance, the experience of small market traders at border posts.

Part of our development agency's regional program is designed to encourage the development of one-stop border posts between countries like Zimbabwe and Zambia, for instance, between Botswana and South Africa, between Botswana and Zambia, between Swaziland and South Africa. You've only got to go to see for yourself the lengthy queues between the two countries. That needn't be, and the way you avoid that, it seems to us, is by building capacity within the customs and excise regulatory systems of African countries.

The way you avoid that is by simplifying processes and procedures and building capacity within Africa itself to promote trade. That means better roads. It means better rail links. It means better ICT.   It requires that instruments like NEPAD and the African Development Bank work better together, and with the donor community, to deliver those infrastructural projects. Without them, you are not going to get the full benefit of freeing up and liberalising world trade.

How optimistic are you that the Doha Round will be completed this year, and if it isn't, what's likely to happen?

Well, I'm a professional optimist. Look, I'm a politician and also an activist in a very complex world. You have to be optimistic. It's going to be tough. What I do know, however, is that it's do-able. It can be done.

But to do it requires a mobilization of effort at every level. It requires the effort of civil society in all its manifestations: corporate, NGOs, community, individuals. It requires the commitment of governments. It will require the considerable technical and professional skills of a range of experts who are addressing these issues in Geneva and in other for a, and it will – above all – require a degree of willingness to make some compromise on the part of all of us to arrive at a better place.

There is a South African phrase and philosophy which has a resonance throughout Africa – it's one of Africa's great strengths – called ubuntu: "We are what we are because of others." I would like to see the spirit of ubuntu infuse these negotiations – to recognise that there is a wider communality of interest, and that if we display a willingness to subsume some of our own interests within that wider collective interest, then we will all grow as a result of it.

That's what called for at this time. If we allow that spirit to infuse us – and I believe it's not impossible – then I'm optimistic that it can be done. But what we've all got to understand is that time is running out. We are talking in terms of weeks rather than months for decisive actions. And therefore, acting now as citizens and as stakeholders is very important.

Would you talk about the work of the Africa Commission and how it's being carried forward?

We saw the Africa Commission as seeking to impact on the G8 [most industrialized countries] in ways that put the [UN] Millennium Development Goals at the centre of the relationship between the developed economies and the developing world. But it's very clear that unless we step up action around the MDGs, they will not be realised – and our objectives around infant mortality, around education, our overall health care objectives in relation to HIV/Aids, TB, malaria, they just aren't going to be met.

It was important to make the commitment to step up aid to Africa and to the developing world. Last year Britain spent a billion pounds on its development aid, and we are on track to meet our commitments. But it isn't happening across the board. We committed in 2005, as developed nations, to increase aid by 50 billion dollars a year, half of that to Africa. That hasn't happened.

One of the things we have learnt is that government can't do it by itself. There is a call to accelerate progress to reach the MGGs to harness the efforts, not just of government, but of the private sector, civil society, NGOs and faith groups to deliver.

We also need, however, to recognise that the multi-lateral institutions – the UN, the international financial institutions – need reforming if we're going to be able to deliver on the MDGs. [Reforms are needed] so they are better able to respond to the needs of a broader range of countries, so they become more representative, more accountable, are able to identify and respond to new challenges like those around climate change. There clearly is a need for a fund to assist the developing world adapt to and to mitigate the impact of climate change.

You have seen from the inside what governments have to take into account in making decisions about aid, about relationships. What would you say to citizens about what they can do effectively to lobby their governments?

Well, I'm a politician and a diplomat and, as it happens, also a lawyer. But I am above all an activist. For me, the most important thing is citizen activity. Citizens should be engaged on these issues. They should take decisions in their own lives about what is important to them. They should be aware of their decisions as consumers and the impact of those decisions on the lives of others.

That is why I personally support, and my government supports, the initiative around fair trade. The Stern Report makes clear the case for businesses and shareholders to take decisions that reflect the reality of climate change; that citizens, again in the field of climate change, need to make choices as consumers which reflect the scale of the problem and the challenges that we face; that citizens should be engaged in dialogue with the political process to ensure that the politicians respond appropriately to the scale of the challenge.

Obviously, I spend much of my life at this time in Africa. I also happen to have been brought up in Africa. On the journey from Accra, where I was brought up, to my family's cocoa farm, I see what's happened to the forest. You can see it. I have memory as a child of the journey, and I know what the journey is like today.

There is an issue for all of us in Africa about how forests are preserved and nurtured. We know for instance that if you give farmers, as opposed to traditional leaders, responsibility for trees that are growing on their land, the chances are the trees won't be chopped down. One wants to see that spread, but that requires the renegotiation of the relationship between farmers and traditional leaders.

We know that that, in turn, needs to be backed up by fairly tough legislation in the countries of the developed world to stop the importation of trees from the tropical rain forest. We know that requires the building up of effective customs and excise regulation in both the countries of the developed and the developing world. It requires active citizens not to buy, and to blow the whistle when they see those regulations being abused.

And do you see multinational citizen collaborations and networks as part of that?

I do. I'm very excited by that. And I see the internet as a way of bringing people together from different communities and different generations... I believe in global activism and I don't think you can have a situation in which we just turn our backs on globalization.

Globalization is a fact; it's a question of how you manage it. That's what matters – there's no stopping it. It's there. It exists. It's an incontrovertible fact. The question is: what we do with it? Do we manage it in ways that are positive and enrich our world, or do we simply bury our heads in the sand?

One of the impediments to Africa reaching the MDGs for health is the way in which the continent subsidises wealthy countries – through the emigration of African-trained health professionals to those countries. What can be done to mitigate this?

You can't say in the 21st century to people with skills, "You may not use them in the world." You can't get away with it – for a start, you can't enforce it. And I really don't see the point in expending a great deal of time and energy and, potentially imposing restrictive and draconian regulation.

What you have to do is to share good practice and share good people and to encourage and facilitate their movement, to give people a sense that in order to develop their potential and capacity, in order to acquire skills, they don't necessarily have to move. That's a beginning, because very often – and I can understand it – people who are practising medicine in a primary health care system which is on the verge of collapse want to move, because they want to develop their skills in better surroundings. So, first of all, we've got to get in place the developmental policies that enable the resources to exist that prevent the collapse of the primary health care systems.

But also, and importantly, we have to embrace the fact that there are very many people in the developed world who would actually quite like to practise medicine in the developing world. I'm amazed at the resistance, for instance in the South African government, to health care professionals – including health care professionals from the African Diaspora – who wish to practise as clinicians in South Africa. It's a very difficult thing to do.

We live in a world in which people choose to live parts of their lives in many different places. We've all got to manage that and to develop a mindset that manages that. That's part of the responsibility of being a citizen, of being a policy-maker, of being a politician in the 21st century. And it's the responsibility of all three of those categories.

You can't look to politicians to solve it; politicians can't look to border controls to solve it. Life isn't like that anymore, even if it ever was. We've got to get real about managing globalization, and managing the movements of peoples and the interactions of peoples from many different lands and cultures and to make the most of it.

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