Geneva: As ministers from over 100 countries gather in Ghana to review how effective aid is in helping developing nations deal with poverty, many economists argue the answer is elsewhere -- in freeing up trade.
The meeting in Accra this week comes just over a month after talks at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to secure a breakthrough in the long-running Doha round collapsed at the end of July.
Rich and poor countries alike have called for efforts to save the Doha round and build on the compromises that were reached in July’s talks. Senior negotiators are likely to meet in September to see whether the talks can be revived.
Economists of all persuasions agree now that growth is the key to lifting people out of poverty -- a view reinforced by a major World Bank report in May on growth and development.
And the key to growth is trade, the WTO says.
“Trade openness is believed to have been central to the remarkable growth of developed countries since the mid-20th century and an important factor behind the poverty alleviation experienced in most of the developing world since the early 1990s,” it said in a report last month (July).
Former New Zealand Prime Minister Mike Moore, who headed the WTO when the Doha round was launched, put the case for trade in a characteristically forceful manner earlier this month.
“Seven years ago, we introduced at Doha what was to be a “development round”. All trade rounds are,” he said. “President Kennedy, who introduced the Tokyo round, famously said: ‘This will lift all boats and help developing countries like Japan.´ Case made, I would have thought.”
Since Japan’s rise to prosperity, many other countries, such as South Korea, Chile and India, have followed a similar path.
Many developing-country leaders share the view that the solution to poverty lies in the increased economic capacity that trade can bring rather than in aid handouts.
“Africa critically needs to realise development and get itself out of poverty through the establishment of fair trade rather than aid,” Kenya’s Trade Minister Uhuru Kenyatta, who coordinates African countries at the WTO, said after the collapse of the WTO talks.
The Doha round, launched in Qatar capital in late 2001, was expressly intended to help developing countries export their way out of poverty, by tackling the unfinished business of previous trade rounds such as the distorted global food trading system.
Many advocacy groups argue that trade negotiations are still skewed against the interests of poor countries.
Forcing them to open up their markets to provide more export opportunities to Western businesses could threaten the livelihoods of millions of subsistence farmers and snuff out infant industries.
The Manila-based Focus on the Global South said the collapse of the Doha talks was a welcome respite for poor countries.
“The aggressive push by the rich countries led by the U.S. and the EU for more trade liberalisation at a time of global crises of food and fuel (became) too blatant for developing countries to stomach,” it said.
But many changes sought by developing countries -- such as cuts in the multi-billion-dollar U.S. and EU farm subsidies -- have been on hold since the Doha talks collapsed.
Developing countries also recognise that they benefit from the rules-based multilateral trading system the WTO represents, not least because of the power it gives small and weak members.
African countries would much rather tackle U.S. cotton subsidies that squeeze them out of the market in a comprehensive WTO trade round rather than sit round the negotiating table with just with the United States.
For developing countries, many of which are in unstable areas, the security aspects of trade are also important.
The prosperity and contacts promoted by trade foster peace, and when trade rules affect major economic sectors, such as West African banana growers, they must be negotiated carefully.
“If goods cannot cross borders, armies will,” said U.S. Franklin Roosevelt’s World War Two Secretary of State Cordell Hull who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his contribution towards the creation of the United Nations.
Trade and aid are closely linked.
The WTO coordinates the international Aid for Trade programme, in which developing countries are helped to build trade capacity and infrastructure by ensuring that their trade projects are part of their aid and economic strategies.
And one of the trickiest parts of the WTO Doha agenda covers food aid. The proposals would tighten rules on “monetisation” where rich countries send food surpluses to developing countries to be sold locally and the funds distributed.
The aim is to prevent this being used as a disguised export subsidy which squeezes local farmers out of business.