'Trade has the potential to make a big impact on poverty'

The WTO summit in Hong Kong must do all that it can to help the world's poorest nations, by Alan Johnson, Hilary Benn and Margaret Beckett
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The Independent Online

It is a rare thing in Britain when industry, the trade union movement and non-governmental (NGO) organisations unite on a single issue. But on the need for progress to help the world's poorest countries at this week's trade Ministerial in Hong Kong, they have done just that.

The case has been put clearly and eloquently by Sir Digby Jones, the director general of the CBI, Brendan Barber, the general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, and Barbara Stocking, the director of Oxfam GB.

And for good reason. This year has been the year in which the fight against global poverty has won hearts and minds.

The Make Poverty History campaign has raised awareness of the importance of aid, debt relief and trade. And using the G8 and EU presidencies, the UK has made real progress.

In June, Gordon Brown and his fellow G7 finance ministers agreed to debt cancellation that could amount to a total of $55bn (£31bn). And in July, at the G8 summit in Gleneagles, the Prime Minister secured an agreement that pledged $50bn extra in aid a year by 2010.

Attention is turning to trade, which has the potential to make an even bigger impact on poverty.

This week, in Hong Kong, the 149 members of the World Trade Organisation will meet to try to agree a way forward on the Doha Development Agenda - the talks launched four years ago with the aim of using the global trading system to help the world's poorest countries.

It looks as if little short of a miracle will take us as far as we wanted at Hong Kong. But we must push for as much progress as possible, and even more importantly, use the summit as a spring-board to a successful conclusion to the round for next year.

An ambitious outcome to the Doha round has the potential to open huge opportunities for developing countries. Total global gains could exceed $200bn.

Few would dispute that lasting prosperity comes to nations that look outwards, rather than those that turn inwards.

But we also recognise that a deal on trade is no panacea - developing countries must retain the right to design their trade reforms in a way that suits them. And they need our support to make these changes.

This is why G7 finance ministers agreed to increase spending on "aid for trade" to $4bn, and to give priority to infrastructure as aid to Africa doubles by 2010. For its part the UK will treble its aid for trade-related capacity, building to £100m by 2010. This should be part of a wider development package that includes market access for the least developed countries, strong special and differential treatment and pro-development action on sugar and cotton.

What "ambitious" progress on trade at Hong Kong might look like has been much debated. What is clear is that we need to spend more time thinking about what we in rich countries should offer the developing world, and less about what we should protect.

It is vital thatthe EU and US make progress to open up their agricultural markets - we must cut our trade-distorting agricultural subsidies and barriers.

Reforms here offer huge opportunities for developing countries, while also making our own economies much more efficient. But we also need to see a balanced outcome in Hong Kong. We must aim for progress in non-agricultural areas as well, such as industrial goods and services, although we must do so in a way which gives developing countries the flexibility they need to design and sequence reforms in line with their national priorities. Agreement in these areas has the potential to increase global incomes by more than $50bn a year within a decade.

With an ambitious and well-designed deal, increased trade and development can go hand in hand.

Not only is this an issue where British industry, its trade union movement and the NGO community can find common ground, there is also agreement across the political spectrum in the UK.

Progress will not be easy, but we will take this strength of unity with us to Hong Kong to try to secure the best possible outcome.

Alan Johnson is the Trade and Industry Secretary; Hilary Benn is the International Development Secretary; and Margaret Beckett is the Environment Secretary