The World Trade Organization summit in Cancun over the weekend opened with a plea made by Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mali to the United States and European Union to end subsidies they provide to American and European cotton farmers. Cotton is the primary agricultural product of each of these four African nations, and thus should be their primary source of income.
But because of the subsidies distributed within the European Union and United States, which encourage overproduction followed by the import of the surplus, foreign cotton floods the markets of Benin and its counterparts. So generous are the subsidies given by our government that American farmers can sell cotton in Africa at prices lower than local farmers. According to a report in the Guardian, cotton prices are at their lowest since the Great Depression, forcing African farmers into steadily increasing poverty.
Such a specific issue gives us insight into one of the larger problems facing the world community today: an imbalance in economic opportunity, maintained in hypocrisy by the wealthiest nations. We in developed nations speak of aiding others in development, but policies like farming subsidies contradict our words.
Agriculture is the primary source of income for 2.5 billion people living in developing nations. Through farming subsidies we strip them of this source and fuel an epidemic of starvation.
According to an estimate made by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 800 million people living in developing nations are chronically undernourished. People die daily from lack of food. Trade imbalance is a major source of that lack. The FAO warns that poor countries will become poorer if they cannot improve their ability to compete in the trade of agricultural products both domestically and abroad; they will fall further into debt, face increasing food shortage, and become more dependent on aid.
Introducing aid into the equation highlights how deeply developed nations contradict themselves when it comes to dealing with developing nations. We pledge aid in the fight against disease, but do not seem to realize that disease is inseparable from the other challenges facing these nations. We seem not to recognize the fact that poor nations do not have the resources they need to fight disease because we have not given them the chance to gain them. It is only just for us to give of our wealth in the struggle against AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. But we risk negating a just act with continued injustice.
In the long term, our aid alone will not be sufficient. Nations stricken by disease will gain victory only when we allow them to develop the ability, through development, to fight for themselves.
With a consistent effort, we can help poor countries solve the developmental problems now facing them. The question of why our nation and its peers hesitate to seize the opportunity to do so, and thus halt the deaths of millions each year, is one that should plague us all. According to the Independent, South African President Thabo Mbeki labels world trade imbalance a form of genocide.
Strong words, and on one level they express well the amount of guilt that will fall on us if we choose to maintain the status quo. But they also miss the true source of the problem, which is indifference — not an active choice to oppress or kill, but a lack of will to do anything more than self-interest demands of us.
President Bush recently pledged more aid to Africa than our country has ever pledged before: $3 billion per year for the next five years. This pledge, however positive, must be accompanied by other steps. He has proposed that we give $3 billion to Africa, but we already give $3.9 billion in subsidies to cotton farmers. If we aid with one gesture and harm with another, then we do not aid at all.
That $3 billion in aid becomes no more than a $3 billion sacrifice to our national conscience. It serves no purpose, save that it allows us the illusion that we did not stand by idly while millions suffered and died.
Sam Anderson is a senior in Ezra Stiles College.