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DEVELOPMENT: Views Clash at UNCTAD Over What’s Best for Africa

Francis Kokutse

ACCRA, Apr 23 2008 (IPS) - ‘‘Africa is not a basket case. The continent is just suffering from the effects of events that it has no hand in and cannot control.’’

These are the remarks of Ekplom Afeke, a Togolese activist who is attending the 12th meeting of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) currently underway in Accra, Ghana.

Afeke says the continent has been deprived of trade and investment over decades. If that has not been bad enough, the effects of poor environmental management outside the continent are today compounding Africa’s crisis of poverty.

He is not alone in his analysis. United Nations (UN) Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, who is chairing the meeting, has expressed frustration at the negligent attempts made by the international community to increase trade and investment in Africa.

He cited the ‘‘benefits of globalisation, especially increased trade and investment’’, which he considers the surest drivers of long-term growth and human development, ‘‘were regrettably yet to be of any benefit to Africa’’.

Africa’s share of global trade and foreign investment is a mere three percent. ‘‘A sure way to boost this figure is by ensuring a rapid breakthrough in the Doha Round (of global trade negotiations), one that incorporates significant development and infrastructure advances facilitated through aid for trade”, Ban told the conference.

In the past decade African governments have benefited from the boom in commodity prices, increasing their spending on the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDG) to promote broad-based development.

Unfortunately, the secretary general said, ‘‘the MDG challenge has been complicated by the alarming rise in global food-prices. High prices threaten to undo the gains achieved so far in fighting hunger and malnutrition”.

Afeke said, ‘‘just look at the issue of global warming and its effect on Africa and you would realise that the continent is again being made to suffer for something that it has not started,’’.

The secretary general seems to agree with Afeke when he told delegates that, ‘‘climate change is another area of great and growing concern in Africa. The people of this continent, who have contributed so little towards this problem, cannot be expected to bear this burden on their own.’’

UNCTAD Secretary General Supachai Panitchpakdi was critical of commodity-driven growth in his address to delegates.

Even though trade between developing countries tripled between 1995 and 2005, ‘‘the performance of developing countries as a whole in recent years and progress in least developed countries and other low income economies has been slow and has continued to rely primarily on exports of low value added primary commodities.

Against this background, it becomes clear that the current rate of improvement in living standards ‘‘is too slow to meet the (MDG) of halving extreme poverty around the world by 2015’’, said Panitchpakdi.

Ban also agrees that many countries are not likely to meet these goals. He singled out Africa as one being ‘‘at risk’’ because ‘‘not a single country is on track to meet all of the MDGs by 2015’’.

However, all is not gloomy in Africa. Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, according to Ban, have all reported gains in various areas of development. Other countries like Senegal have made strides towards meeting the target to extend access to safe water.

Niger, Togo and Zambia have made impressive progress in malaria control through the free distribution of bed nets.

‘‘These success stories need to be replicated and scaled up across Africa with effective support from the international community,’’ added Ban.

Sadly, the MDG campaign is not the only international effort that Africa is part of. The UK’s Oxfam has warned in a report released on April 21 that the European Union will do ‘‘irrevocable damage to the development prospects of some of the poorest countries in the world unless it overhauls free trade deals due to be finalised this year’’.

These trade deals are the economic partnership agreements currently being negotiated which, according to Oxfam, ‘‘will hurt poor people and undermine development across Africa, the Caribbean and Pacific’’.

According to Oxfam, their analysis shows that ‘‘these deals have strayed far from the development template they were supposed to follow. The cost will be enormous: annual losses from tariff cuts of 360 million dollars for Africa alone and a further 9 billion dollars for compliance for all the countries involved’’.

But the UK’s international trade minister Gareth Thomas, who was also at the UNCTAD conference, stuck to his guns, saying that there was an urgent need to conclude trade negotiations that will enable developing countries to ‘‘trade their way towards growth and prosperity’’.

He said, ‘‘we are weeks away from a make or break point in the World Trade Organisation (WTO) trade talks. If the world wants to do its best for the poorest countries, it needs to banish protectionism and seal a deal now’’.

Thomas argued that ‘‘fairer trade means getting rid of export bans, reducing agricultural subsidies that distort trade and lowering tariffs’’.

When this is achieved, he believes that it will ‘‘help farmers to better respond to the current high global food prices and increase production, but this is only part of the solution. We also need more investment to boost agricultural productivity. If farmers are able to get the higher prices, then they will invest.”

Ban similarly added that ‘‘we need a substantial increase in expenditure on agriculture. In particular, trade and investment should be used to bring about a ‘green revolution’ of improved agricultural productivity across Africa’’.

In contrast, Afeke thinks that UNCTAD conferences have not solved problems in the past. He is sceptical of what the future holds. However, he sees ‘‘some commitment’’ on the part of some leaders, especially Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio ‘‘Lula’’ da Silva.

Lula, as he is often called, has stepped up technical cooperation between his country and a number of African countries to increase agricultural production. ‘‘These are the visionaries of the future without whom Africa would never leave the starting blocks,’’ said Afeke.

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