Keeping our commitments

By Raymond C. Offenheiser

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Four years ago, the world's most developed countries made a commitment to help the world's least developed countries by making global trade work. The clock is ticking but less than a week before crucial W.T.O negotiations are scheduled to begin in Hong Kong, it appears that this chance may be slipping away.

The U.S has taken some steps in the right direction. The President spoke unequivocally about the need to cut trade distorting agricultural subsidies during his speech to the UN General Assembly this past fall and Secretary of Agriculture Johanns and US Trade Representative Robert Portman have echoed the President's position. American negotiators have put new proposals on the table attempting to restart the stalled negotiations. But, it is still not enough to deliver on the promises of a "development round" and lift millions of people out of poverty.

The Doha Round of trade negotiation was supposed to change the dynamics on trade. Launched in 2001, negotiators announced that this trade round would put the interests of developing countries at the heart of the effort. But four years later, the negotiations have stalled and development concerns are sliding to the bottom of the agenda.

For the more than 2.5 billion people in the world that rely on agriculture for their livelihood, Hong Kong is more than a meeting of diplomats - it is an opportunity to meaningfully improve their lives. Throughout the world, poverty is concentrated in rural areas, with more than a billion people living on less than $1 a day. The average cotton farmer in Mali earns about $400 a year from the entire cotton crop. Between 2001 and 2003, Oxfam estimates that West African countries, including Mali, lost over $400 million dollars because US subsidies depressed global cotton prices. The backbone of Mali's economy, providing employment for more than 3 million people, falls victim to rules that have permitted rich countries to benefit for decades from dumping subsidized cotton. By leveling the playing field, we could have a massive impact on poverty reduction.

The Doha Round promised developing countries that it would do things differently, that the development of poor nations would occupy center stage. What that means is drastic cuts in agricultural subsidies and offers of market access for developing countries. But this will require that leaders of the U.S., EU and Japan see a greater good for both developing nations and their own citizens. In the US, it means envisioning a new era for American farmers that shifts subsidies from anachronistic, trade distorting support payments to new programs that support sustainable rural livelihoods and stewardship.

President Bush has delivered the right message on cutting subsidies. But the opportunity to lift millions out of poverty through fair trade rules still lies far out of reach. The US should take the lead and demonstrate to the rest of the world that we believe in the power of trade to change lives, and that we care about the lives of farmers in the US and abroad. Two and half billion people are watching and waiting.

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