Global Trade Alone Will


By Jacques Diouf

International Herald Tribune
February 18, 2000

Rome - Whatever agreement emerges from the next round of multilateral trade negotiations, one thing is clear: Developing countries must be allowed to give priority to their agriculture sectors. Few nations have experienced rapid economic growth and reduction of poverty without first developing domestic agriculture. Economic growth based mainly on exports is not sufficient for broad-based development. Export-led economies frequently benefit only a small segment of the population, bypassing the often-poor majority.

With 790 million people enduring hunger and malnutrition in the developing countries, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization believes that eliminating hunger should be the world's overriding priority. Further liberalization of the global trading regime will not be enough to pull the least developed countries out of poverty.

The huge subsidies and protection that some high-income nations dole out to their farm sectors reduce the chance that farmers in developing countries can ''grow'' their way out of poverty and hunger. Farm subsidies and protectionism distort world markets and discourage investment in the agriculture sector of developing countries. In the rural areas where most of the world's poor and hungry live, subsidies paid to farmers in richer nations are yet another blow to local farm production.

Just as troubling is the pronounced drop in external assistance to developing countries' agriculture. There is little evidence at this time that private capital will replace public investment in agricultural research and extension, irrigation and infrastructure.

The Uruguay Round agreement on agriculture granted the developing countries ''special and differential treatment.'' That treatment should be made more effective. Developing countries need to negotiate greater access to export markets. Such access is one of the most effective and sustainable kinds of economic assistance.

Globalization can have important benefits for developing countries, stimulating productive enterprises and encouraging investment and technology transfer. But further trade liberalization must be carefully phased in. Import restrictions should not be removed overnight or domestic food security may be harmed. At the same time, produce needs to be improved.

The FAO was mandated by the 1996 World Food Summit to assist developing countries to participate in multilateral agriculture trade negotiations as well-informed and equal partners. Because many developing countries do not have enough technical and legal specialists, the FAO is leading an umbrella program for training, which explains World Trade Organization agreements and prepares specialists to analyze issues likely to come up in future negotiations.

The program shows specialists how to benefit from the process, how to minimize adverse effects, how to evaluate carefully proposals made by other negotiators and how to develop their own negotiating positions. To meet the need for technical assistance in low-income countries, the FAO launched a program for food security, which focuses on sustainable expansion of agricultural production and productivity. It is designed to provide adequate and nutritious food at the national and household levels. It operates in 55 countries, focusing on some of the most vulnerable groups in society, particularly women and the poor.

Trade globalization will not end hunger and poverty, but it has a critical role to play. If developing countries are given an equal opportunity with the wealthier countries to develop agriculture and export farm goods, all will gain. The benefits will be felt both in the North and the South. As the number of hungry people decreases and incomes rise, demand for goods from the wealthier countries can be expected to rise.

It is the moral responsibility of the international community to ensure that globalization does not lead to an ever widening gap between the poor majority and the wealthy few. This would further inflame passions that already bring people into the streets, demonstrating against what many see as manipulation of the world trading system by a cabal of super-conglomerates and the governments that support them.

The writer is director-general of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. He contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.

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