Most commentators now anticipate the failure of the current round of World Trade Organisation talks. They are not the only ones. I have yet to meet a single senior politician in any country who believes that they will succeed, yet they feel they must soldier on with negotiations in the increasingly diminishing hope that they may make a breakthrough. Should they fail, it will be a massive blow to the world economy which will result in all sorts of political and economic repercussions, none beneficial to our countries or our individual lives.
The greatest opprobrium must be saved for the collective failure of the world's richest and soon-to-be-rich states in denying, once again, the poor of the world the chance to reduce their poverty through a more balanced global trade regime.
It is well to remember that this interminable haggling began in the Gulf port of Doha in 2001. The Doha Round, as it became known, was conceived as a development round. One which would act principally to the benefit of the poorest countries, enabling them to advance from their financial doldrums. It was a noble and timely hope.
Since those negotiators first assembled the world has changed utterly. China, India, and Brazil have emerged as new giants on the world stage. Back then, 9/11 had just happened, followed by Afghanistan. Iraq could not have been imagined. Russia's increasing oil and gas political power was still a chaotic stew of unproductive carpet-bagging, and a confident Europe looked forward to embarking on its giant extension as a trading block and could not have imagined itself as it is today, cowering paralysed and frightened in the huge glare of the new world economy.
There was, however, one constant. The terrible and persistent ghost at the planetary economic feast. The continuing and increasingly awful condition of Africa and its people.
Back in the Sixties, India and Africa shared more or less the same economic figures, and it was Africa that was expected to achieve the faster and higher economic growth. But African states never developed from the skittish single-commodity market into a more balanced economy, and fell into a condition of seemingly inexorable decline with all its attendant and baleful consequences. Hunger, disease, conflict, corruption, lack of education and opportunity.
It is a staggering statistic that China may pull 1 per cent of its population out of extreme poverty this year. This is millions of people in a country that four years ago was a net recipient of foreign aid. The same can happen to Africa. But only if all parties deem it to be sufficiently important to allow the conditions for this renaissance to occur.
Africa accounts for a pathetic 1-2 per cent of world trade. But a further tiny 1 per cent increase in trade from Africa would be the equivalent of five times the amount of aid the continent currently receives. Unfortunately this economic weakness is mirrored in the negotiating strength of Africa at the WTO, ie it doesn't have any. At the global poker table, Africa isn't holding any cards.
It is time to acknowledge that while we hope, for all our sakes, that the various negotiating interest groups grow up and complete a successful accord, the reality appears to indicate otherwise, and therefore perhaps we should consider a Plan B.
Should Doha succeed, it will be good for us but frankly not that great for Africa. It will produce some correctives, but nothing near what the continent requires. Should the talks fail, the rich world will probably retreat into catastrophic protectionism, bilateralism and incoherent policies dependent on taxation and subsidy. For Africa, failure will be a disaster, a massive psychological rebuff, a cynical statement of lack of intent, and the withdrawal of a platform, however small, upon which to build.
Either way, perhaps we should begin thinking of a "stand-alone" trade deal for Africa's poor. Surely our shame at our moral and political failure would allow that for the economically weak of the world. It wouldn't require the reinvention of the wheel, rather a broadening and lengthening of already existing agreements that could be costed and extended to specific African circumstances.
Today, Asia is pulling its weaker countries along in the wake of China and India's mighty surge, Latin America and the Indies are perking up under the pull of Brazil and the US, but who will bethe China, India and Brazil of Africa? For this we must look to South Africa and Nigeria - the stirring giants of the African continent. A new African trade deal, removed from other countries' global ambitions and considerations, can focus solely on the specific needs of African states.
The Commission for Africa is clear on what basic issues need to be addressed. First: OECD countries would grant 100 per cent market access to all Africa countries with no strings attached, no tariff escalation and greatly reduced and simplified non-tariff barriers.
Second: OECD trade distorting subsidies would be abolished or ameliorated so as not to harm or impede African producers. It is feasible to consider the minimal cost to European or American agriculture of such subsidy elimination, and develop compensatory mechanisms.
Third: democratic African governments must be allowed to be just that. They must be allowed what theorists call "the policy space" to determine their own trade policies. As the Commission for Africa states, that means no enforced liberalisation by the IMF, the World Bank or the EU. But simply policies determined by free national elections and accountable governments under law in the interests of the poor and their specific national conditions.
Finally: most of Africa's trade problems are on the supply side. They have too little to sell, and what they do have they can't get to market, or the quality is inferior. Investment is critical in infrastructure, transport, distribution and communications. Internal borders and tariffs must be rationalised. All this costs money and will require serious "Aid-for-Trade" policies.
Last year we began for the first time to properly consider and deal with the vexed issues of debt and aid. Brave and bold political breakthroughs were led by this country. Now Tony Blair can complete the hat-trick he began with the Commission for Africa and tackle the greater issue of trade within and without Africa.
It would be a great challenge but one which this government, through Blair and Brown, should relish. They have consistently shown world leadership on this. They work well together and share a passion for Africa.
In a time of weak world leadership, when the WTO negotiators are failing so miserably, let us remind their bosses - Bush, Chirac, Merkel et al - that we agree with them when they argue that, long term, "aid isn't the answer", and that the continent of Africa and its people must trade its way into the global market and sit where it rightfully belongs, negotiating as equals with the rest of us.
The writer was a member of Tony Blair's Commission for Africa
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