Two pieces caught my eye yesterday:
First, my old Professor Dani Rodrik's offers a characteristically acerbic critique of the Doha Round. A waste of time, he says; most of the benefits would go to rich country taxpayers. And why is it published in an English-language Egyptian newspaper? Maybe Egyptian cotton farmers were hoping to benefit from Doha?
Second, the Firestone Company has signed an agreement with workers in Liberia. For the first time in the 82-year history of the world's rubber plantation, the company has done a deal with elected workers' representatives. (The ILRF has a self-congratulatory press release, but I would give more credit to the workers' union, Liberian government and media for keeping up the pressure). I wouldn't expect the miserable working conditions in the plantation to change immediately, but higher wages, more schools and buses to take tappers to work and their children to school are certainly steps in the right direction. As ever, the difficulty will be in implementing the deal: after all, workers are already supposed to be limited to an 8-hour working day when in fact it takes more like 12 hours to reach the daily quota (see picture).
At first glance, these two items are entirely unrelated. But I began to wonder why we never hear about rubber in the global trade talks? Or, for that matter, cocoa, coffee or oil palm?
Probably because none of the commodities above are grown in the USA or Europe. The most egregious trade restrictions, the ones that protect a few rich-country farmers at the expense of millions of Africans, are in cotton and sugar. Even Rodrik agrees that farmers in West Africa would benefit from a more liberal trade regime in cotton - but the US blocks it because of a few thousand swing voters in Florida. Meanwhile, in Europe we still make sugar out of beet. Maybe we're afraid that pirates will cut off our supplies of cane from the Caribbean.
I certainly hope that global trade negotiators will find a way to salvage some useful parts from the wreckage of Doha. But let's not pretend that selling a bit more cotton or sugar will end poverty in Benin or Burkina Faso. Low productivity means poverty, whether your crop is freely traded or not.