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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.

8 comments for: Andrew Mitchell: Blair must be bold to make poverty history

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