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Andrew Mitchell: Blair must be bold to make poverty history

Mitchellandrewwithchildr Andrew Mitchell MP is Shadow Secretary of State for International Development.

Perhaps it is just as well Tony Blair was forced to spend an extra night in Africa this week after his plane broke down. The delay would have given him more time to reflect that despite his glitzy public relations coup last summer, when he orchestrated the global campaign to make poverty history, progress remains pitifully slow.

War, famine and disease show little sign of relaxing their cruel grip on the Continent for all the Prime Minister’s good intentions.

As world leaders clustered around him at Gleneagles in July to commit to this life and death crusade, the wristband generation took to the streets in their hundreds of thousands, a noisy and enthusiastic chorus for the goals mapped out by their politicians.

At the Live8 concert in Hyde Park, 200,000  people, mostly young, joined forces with their idols from the music world to parade their passionate commitment to the cause.  Worldwide, three billion television viewers watched ten concerts and 1000 artists, and 31 million people texted their mobiles to pledge support.

The pictures were great, the music even better and the sincerity of Blair and the world’s leaders was little in doubt. Everybody felt good and everybody felt good about feeling good.  As Blair said after the Gleneagles conference:  “this could, just could, be the beginning of the end of extreme poverty in our world .”

Yet seven months later, how much good has really come of the fanfare of publicity last summer? Isn’t Blair’s anti-poverty crusade in danger of going the way of his many other eye-catching initiatives?

True, there has been some progress in increasing aid, preventing disease and reducing the debts of poor countries.

But on the critical issue of trade liberalisation – which would generate billions of pounds for the world economy and offer the hope of lasting prosperity to the three billion people who live on less than two dollars a day  - we are going nowhere. The long hard slog of translating ringing declarations into practical poverty-fighting measures us defeating us.

December’s meeting of the World Trade Organisation in Hong Kong, which I attended, achieved precious little, mainly because the European Union stubbornly refuses to the reduce its massive agricultural subsidies and the swingeing tariffs it imposes on produce from the world’s poorest countries. Next month’s (March) informal ministerial WTO talks currently offer little prospect of a rescue mission.

America’s record may not be perfect, but on average  its taxes on food imports are only a fifth of those imposed by the EU. Even worse, the EU taxes imports from the poorest countries, such as Namibia and Swaziland, at more than 20 per cent, while applying an average tax of just 1.5 per cent to rich countries such as Japan.

And there is the rub. Britain is not present at the WTO talks. Although few of the millions who demonstrated their support for making poverty history last summer would realise it, Britain has ceded control of its trade policy to the EU. So although Blair and Gordon Brown may advertise their concern for the world’s poor, they have no direct input into the faltering Doha round of trade talks. These were launched more than four years ago only weeks after 9/11 and were meant to be the flipside of the war on terror – a bid to alleviate poverty through trade and “drain the swamp” in which terrorism breeds.

This presents the Prime Minister with a dilemma. Either he bangs the drum for trade justice and risks having the relative weakness of his position exposed. Or he keeps his head down and hopes that only avid readers of the business news pages will notice that the Doha round in running into the sand, with some experts predicting the negotiations could still be dragging on in 2009. A recent poll by the University of Adelaide found that only one fifth of the Geneva-based trade negotiators thought there was even a 50:50 chance of the talks being concluded this year.

How many more millions of lives have to be lost to famine and disease before the EU, in particular, wakes from its torpor?

My advice to the Prime Minister is to be bold. He, Brown and his Trade Secretary Alan Johnson, almost invisible so far on the issue, should turn up the heat right now, both publicly and privately. They should be making clear to the EU – in particular their mutual friend Peter Mandelson, the trade commissioner, that Britain is insistent on a deal this year and that it demands that the EU cuts its subsidies and lowers its tariffs on agricultural goods from the developing world. Mandelson’s job is to stop wringing his hands, take on French vested interests and seize the mandate to make an ambitious offer on agriculture.

With a demonstration of political will from Blair, the informal  WTO talks pencilled in for next month (March) stand a chance of making progress.

If Blair picks a fight with the EU over trade justice, he can be sure that the Conservative Party will back him all the way.  And when we regain power, we will make helping the world’s dispossessed to trade their way out of poverty our top priority. Western protectionism must be ended, once and for all.

But this is not just a matter for Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson. Groups in the West who would benefit from freer trade should speak up. The powerful vested interests that would lose from further reform have made their voices heard, loud and clear. But those groups who would gain from a successful round – such as European consumers and firms in the service sector – have been notably quiet. They should speak up.

Measures to strengthen the legitimacy of the WTO are also needed. One way to do this would be through an Advocacy Fund, which would help poor countries field the expert analysts and negotiators that they need to participate and benefit fully from trade negotiations.

Governments that truly believe in free trade should make unilateral tariff cuts. WTO negotiations centre around the maximum tariffs that are allowed, not the tariffs that are actually applied. Getting rid of a tariff or subsidy is not a ‘concession’: the benefits from tariff cuts go mainly to the country that cuts its tariffs. Free traders should just get on and do it. Sadly, this option is not open to Britain because of the EU straitjacket.

Most importantly in the long term, we need to make the moral and economic case for free trade.

Think of the poorest person you have ever seen, Gandhi would say, and ask if your next act will be of any use to him. Will stopping poor people from trading with each other help them? No. Will stopping them voluntarily exchange goods and services with people in rich countries help them? Of course not.

Poor people should be free to trade with each other, and they should be free to buy and sell from us in the West. As long as the exchange is voluntary, no trade will take place unless both parties benefit from it. That is the beauty of trade: it is not a zero-sum game, in which one party must win at the expense of the other. Would anyone seriously suggest imposing tariffs or quotas between, say Surrey and Sussex? Or Manchester and Liverpool?

It is deeply ironic that world trade talks suffered such a setback in Hong Kong – a city whose wealth is built, to a large extent, on free trade. Too many lives are at stake for us to give up now.


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