If you met Hassan Abukari, it is extremely unlikely you would beat him up. He is a 36-year-old farmer in Zugu, northern Uganda, another sunken face in the roll-call of 852 million severely malnourished people sharing the planet with us. He lives with his wife and two sons in a tin shack - their physical and mental development stunted by hunger - and he harvests 27 sacks of rice a year, each worth around £5. But although you would not punch him in the gut, your tax-money does, every day - and if the World Trade Organisation (WTO) negotiations in Hong Kong this week continue to flounder, the blows are about to get harder.
At first glance, it might seem hard to see how the hefty chunk of your taxes that goes towards subsidising food production across Europe hurts Hassan and millions of people like him. But when he goes to his local market, Hassan sees bags of rice grown in Kansas, frozen chickens bred in Denmark, and dairy products made in Devon. All of these products are being sold for far less than it actually costs to produce them - the joy of subsidy! - so Hassan can hardly compete. Most African businesses die at this stage, before they are even born. Only a few hobble on.
Agricultural subsidies - and particularly the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) - hit Hassan from three directions. They depress global prices, so his bag of rice sells for at least £3 less than it would in an undistorted market. This isn't a small sum: it will be the difference between survival and death if one of his family falls ill. They subject him to unfair competition within his own local market, because he can hardly compete against dumped goods. And - a final kick - they make it almost impossible for him to sell for export, because they erect an iron wall of tariffs around the rich world.
The Doha trade round - which has now chugged along to its Hong Kong hiatus - was supposed to end this global scandal. After years of being battered by a system rigged against them, most African countries were reluctant to participate at all, but Western statesmen sold this as - cue trumpets - a development round. They waved the prospect of an end to agricultural subsidies. The great Make Poverty History movement rose up in the democratic world to try to force our politicians to actually do it. For a moment, it even seemed like the planets were lining up to make it possible: it looked like the enlargement of the European Union might finally dislodge the monstrous CAP.
And now... and now... Nothing. The machine has ground to a halt, gummed up with the narrow, selfish interests of the already-rich. Echoing in the background, there are the noble appeals of men like Nelson Mandela, who says: "In Hong Kong, there is a chance to make decisions that will lift billions of people out of poverty. Sometimes it falls upon a generation to be great. You can be that great generation." Somewhere in a delegate's briefing pack, there lies the report by Oxfam showing that a change in trade rules could lift 300 million people out of extreme poverty in a generation.
But more important than any of this, it seems, are the concerns of a few millionaires and mega-corporations. The very term "farm subsidies" conjures up images of sweet, ruddy-cheeked residents of Ambridge. In reality, the British subsidies crippling Hassan are overwhelmingly paid to people like Tate & Lyle (£120m of your taxes a year), Elizabeth Windsor (£1.2m) and that well-known pauper, the Duke of Westminster (£300,000). This is typical of the rich world: from the US to France, it's not only pigs that are feeding at our farm troughs.
This year, most of the world's politicians began to respond to public pressure - and the sheer, irrational lunacy of these subsidies - and began to put cuts seriously on the discussion table at Hong Kong. In the run-up to the meeting, the Bush administration even said it will reverse its obscene policy of doubling agricultural subsidies over the past decade and adopt huge cutbacks - with one condition: the European Union has to do the same. It was the biggest game of "Chicken" in human history, with Chirac and Bush eyeball-to-eyeball on top of their sports convertibles, waiting to see who would swerve first.
Well, the French swerved - hard. They have unequivocally, coldly ruled out the possibility of any further erosion of the CAP, and said "any change" will make them veto the EU negotiations.
They insist we must continue to subsidise each cow in Europe to the tune of $2 a day - more than Hassan and his family spend. The French agriculture minister, Christine Lagarde, airily dismissed the whole agriculture debate earlier this week, saying: "There's been a lot of work on agriculture but very, very little in those areas that are of real concern for developed nations."
The democratically elected leaders of Africa let out a sad guffaw: this is their first, second and third priority. Why are there no popular protests in France about their government knowingly prolonging the starvation of Africa? I would expect no better of the foul French right, but is the French left really so pickled in postmodernism and so hostile to any form of trade that they, too, cannot support the poorest people in the world?
Thanks in part to this obstructionism, it now looks as though Africa - and millions of Hassans - will be even worse off at the end of Hong Kong. The ideology of the WTO itself has actually struck further blows into Africa. Right now, we have a global economy where there are protective walls around the rich, and the poor are mostly left exposed to the economic elements. Most people in Africa - backed by aid agencies like Oxfam - believe this situation needs to be reversed. After all, every major Western country protected its industries in their infancy - remember the Corn Laws? - so how do we expect, say, Ghana to develop without doing the same?
But the WTO rejects all this evidence. They see protection for the rich and protection for the poor as equally bad. Any progress from the rich world has to be matched by a sacrifice from the poor world. And, when there's no progress from the rich world, let's force the poor to give something anyway. So although they have failed to force the rich countries to strip away their subsidies and tariffs, they are still pressing hard in Hong Kong for African governments to dismantle the few fleeting protections they have in place. The result? The few tariffs Uganda was able to erect on imports - to protect Hassan from dumped goods - face being whittled down. "Calling this a development round now," one Oxfam officer comments, "is a sick joke."
And as for Hassan... well, let's just hope none of his children gets ill. With rice prices depressed and distorted by our taxes, he can't afford to buy any medicine. Now, remind me again - why won't France slay its sacred, subsidised cows? And why is the WTO's ideology still standing?Reuse content