Sunday, June 01, 2003

Playing Politics with African Lives? - The Independent

Political fallout from the Iraq war is threatening catastrophe for millions of farmers in Africa, because the Americans may torpedo a French plan to ban the dumping of subsidised farm produce in African markets.


The French President, Jacques Chirac, has proposed a moratorium on all subsidies of produce that are sold in Africa, which could go a long way towards enabling African farmers to achieve self-sufficiency. But the plan has had a frigid reception in Washington. The US says its export credits should be exempt.

I hope very much that this is not true (this is the Independent we're talking about, after all). There are things which simply shouldn't be used as fodder for petty point-settling, and this is one of them.

I loathed France's obstructionism during the build-up to the war in Iraq more than most, but I am not willing to let that get in the way of recognizing that they are currently offering to do more to ameliorate the crisis in the Congo than most, however paltry even the French effort may be. When, in addition to that, one considers Chirac's pivotal role in obstructing all attempts to-date at reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, this initiative of his really is a big deal, and I don't see how any grown adult can seek to block it simply for the sake of petty vengeance.

If there does turn out to be substance behind this story, Bush will be shown to have been one of the great hypocrites of modern times, and whatever goodwill I might have had towards him will have been utterly squandered. I imagine that I would not be alone in this regard. Have Bush and his advisers really considered the public relations disaster that blocking Chirac's proposal would precipitate, especially in the eyes of an already skeptical world?

Of course, even granting that the proosal is adopted with enthusiasm by all parties, the likely benefits are hardly as great as one might assume. Agricultural subsidies to all other markets would still continue, and given the importance to many African countries of cash-crops, like cotton, that are grown mostly for export, in many cases the practical benefits are likely to prove nonexistent. There is also the fact that many agricultural exports, like a lot of other commodities, are highly fungible - their prices are connected in various markets by world trade, so that subsidies in one continent will still drive down prices in another.

Caveats aside, however, this is still a step forward, and it shouldn't be sabotaged in the name of teaching France a lesson.