The rich nations must do more than say the right words at Cancun

10 September 2003

The detail of world trade negotiations is notoriously boring. But behind the impenetrable figures, the interminable acronyms and the jargon about tariff escalation and trade facilitation lies a stark and scandalous fact. Africans are dying unnecessarily because of the policies of rich nations. That is the iniquity that hangs over the World Trade Organisation summit, which opens today in Cancun. It cannot be allowed to continue.

Cancun is a defining moment for attempts to reduce poverty across the world. It provides an opportunity to reform the unfair trade rules which systematically disadvantage poor countries. Success could save millions of people; if Africa could lift its share of trade by just 1 per cent, 128 million would be lifted out of extreme poverty. Failure would further widen the already obscene inequalities that scar globalisation. It would also jeopardise the survival of a rules-based multilateral trading system, and reinforce the trend towards regional and bilateral power politics in international trade.

With the stakes this high, it might have been hoped that Western governments would offer some political leadership. No such luck. In the two years that have passed since rich governments promised to make this a "development round" of talks they have broken promise after promise.

Take the case of agricultural dumping. The West spends about $1bn a day on agricultural subsidies - six times the amount given in aid. The benefits go to those least in need of support, like the sugar barons of East Anglia and Texan cotton farmers. Yet the costs are borne not just by European and American consumers and taxpayers. They are most terrible for farmers in the Third World who see their markets ruined by cheap goods from the EU and the US.

Having pledged to eliminate agricultural export dumping, the Bush administration has increased subsidies; and the EU has fudged reform of the Common Agricultural Policy. The two farm subsidy superpowers have now joined hands to concoct a proposal that would allow them to continue current practices. It merits early despatch to the Cancun dustbin.

If poor countries are to benefit from trade, they need to be able to sell their goods in rich countries. The problem is that the West preaches free trade for others, while practicing protectionism itself. When Bangladesh exports to the US, goods attract tariffs 15 times higher than those levied on exports from Britain. Europe is no better. For the millions of women in South Asia producing garments, these taxes translate into lower wages or no job at all.

In their rhetoric, rich countries recognise the case for opening their markets to the poor. Yet the EU and the US have arrived in Cancun demanding that developing countries make the deepest tariff cuts. Meanwhile, Pascal Lamy, the EU trade commissioner, is tabling demands for a World Trade Organisation investment agreement that amounts to little more than a charter for northern-based transnational companies to prise open developing country markets. Even the recent WTO deal on cheap drugs is a dubious lining on a dark cloud. It is far from clear that public health and the need for access to affordable medicine will take priority over corporate profit.

Failure in Cancun is not inevitable. Rich countries should commit themselves to phasing out agricultural dumping, opening their markets, and ensuring that public health comes before corporate profit. We have had enough "development round" rhetoric. It is time to deliver the goods, and without slapping a tax on them.