Tuesday 3 June 2003

Africa's scar gets angrier

At Evian, the world's rich nations missed a golden opportunity to back fair trade

by George Monbiot

George Monbiot Perhaps the defining moment of Tony Blair's premiership was the speech that he gave to the Labour party conference in October 2001. In June, his party had returned to office with a monumental majority. In September, two planes were flown into the World Trade Centre in New York. The speech appeared to mark his transition from the insecure, focus-group junkie of Labour's first term to a visionary and a statesman, determined to change the world.

The most memorable passage was his declaration on Africa. "The state of Africa," he told us, "is a scar on the conscience of the world. But if the world as a community focused on it, we could heal it. And if we don't, it will become deeper and angrier." This being so, I would respectfully ask our visionary prime minister to explain what the hell he thinks he is doing in France.

A few weeks ago, President Chirac did something unprecedented. The head of the state which had formerly prevented any real change to Europe's farm subsidy regime suddenly gave ground. He wanted to show that the G8 summit he is hosting in Evian, which concludes today, would offer something other than just the usual spectacle of the rich and powerful deciding how they would make themselves still richer and more powerful. He approached the US government to suggest that Europe would stop subsidising its exports of food to Africa if America did the same.

His offer was significant, not only because it represented a major policy reversal for France, but also because it provided an opportunity to abandon the perpetual agricultural arms race between the European Union and the US, in which each side seeks to out-subsidise the other.

Our farm subsidies, as Tony Blair has pointed out, are a disaster for the developing world, and particularly for Africa. Farming accounts for some 70% of employment on that continent, and most of the farmers there are desperately poor. Part of the reason is that they are unfairly undercut by the subsidised products dumped on their markets by exporters from the US and the EU. Chirac's proposals addressed only part of the problem, but they could have begun the process of dismantling the system which does so much harm to our pockets, our environment and the lives of some of the world's most vulnerable people.

We might, then, have expected Tony Blair, who created a major diplomatic incident last year when he rightly savaged Chirac for refusing to budge, to have welcomed the lost and heavily subsidised sheep into the free-market fold. But our prime minister, instead, has single-handedly destroyed the French initiative. The reason will by now be familiar. George Bush, who receives substantial political support from US agro-industrialists, grain exporters and pesticide manufacturers, was not prepared to make the concessions required to match Chirac's offer. Had the EU, and in particular the member which claims to act as a bridge across the Atlantic, supported France, the moral pressure on Bush may well have become irresistible. But as soon as Blair made it clear that he would not back Chirac's plan, the initiative was dead.

So, thanks to our conscience-stricken prime minister, and his statesmanlike habit of doing whatever Bush tells him to, Africa is now well and truly stuffed. Every trade distortion Blair once promised to address remains in place. Several of the food crises from which that continent is now suffering are directly exacerbated by the plight of its own farmers.

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