Nov 8, 2010

When will America open its markets, Mr Obama?

I have a great respect for US President Barack Obama. I admire his intellect, and of course his ability to mesmerise the audience with his brilliant expositions. I know he stands tall, and exudes confidence and hope.

There is no denying that in today's world where political leaders are merely rubber stamps for business and industry, Obama does have the ability to chart out a new pathway. But the more I see him hardselling the unwanted merchandise from the US corporations, the more I feel sad. As much as he may want us to believe in the ideals of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, the fact remains that he himself is no where even remotely closer to following what the 'global hero' (as he calls Gandhi) had preached.

Obama is in reality a prisoner of the corporate world. Knowingly or unknowingly, he is trapped in a vicious cycle of economic growth that is plundering the natural resources and making this planet inhospitable.  

The sooner the US President sheds the black corporate robe that keeps him chained to promote unsustainable economic growth, the better it would be for a world that is looking up to him as perhaps the lone saviour who has the ability to stem the rot. I only hope that like his predecessors he too does not disappoint. Only history will tell.

When he told a group of students in Mumbai yesterday: "Well, if our country is open to everybody, countries that trade with the US have to change their practices," I think he was merely echoing what the business leaders accompanying him had briefed him. This is where the President has been wrongly informed. This is where he is behaving more like a salesman for the corporates whose arm-twisting antics in WTO and numerous bilaterals being signed world over have still not opened up the kind of market they always dream.

Let me take this opportunity to draw attention to two contentious areas of free trade: agriculture and pharmaceuticals. It is here that US is trying every trick of the trade to stop imports. It is here that the US is refusing to open up its markets, and its policies are actually killing farmers in Africa, Latin America and Asia.

1. Former US President Bill Clinton had recently apologised for flooding Haiti since early 1990s with cheaper American rice, which had destroyed Haiti's ability to feed itself. If Mr Obama is presented with the stark facts of how unjust has the WTO been so far, I am sure he would like to apologise for what the US has done to harm developing country agriculture and food security. This is what Bill Clinton had said: “It may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked. It was a mistake.

Clinton—now a UN special envoy to Haiti—told the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee March 10, 2010. “I had to live everyday with the consequences of the loss of capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people because of what I did; nobody else." [read the fill report at http://devinder-sharma.blogspot.com/2010/05/bill-clinton-apologises-for-flooding.html

2. In 2001, nearly 25,000 US cotton growers received roughly $3.9 billion in subsidy payments, for producing a cotton crop that was worth only US$ 3 billion at world market prices (One Arkansas cotton grower received US$ 6 million, equal to the combined annual earnings of 25,000 cotton farmers in Mali). It's also more than the gross domestic product of several African countries and three times the amount the US spends on aid to half a billion Africans living in poverty. In 2002, direct financial assistance by a number of exporting countries, including China, European Union and the US, to the tune of 73 per cent of the world cotton production, destroyed millions of livelihoods in West African countries (Benin, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Chad). India and Pakistan too have been forced to lower import duties, allowing a surge of cotton imports thereby pushing farmers out. [read my article The Great Trade Robbery, available at: http://www.countercurrents.org/en-sharma020903.htm]

And what did the US do, Mr President? Instead of doing away with cotton subsidies, it actually bribed Brazil, which had won a case against the US in the WTO dispute panel. It offered to subsidise instead Brazil's rich cotton growers to the tune of $ 147.3 million a year. This is a small fee to ensure that Brazil keeps its mouth shut, which also means that the US can continue to distort the global cotton market by the huge subsidies it provides to its rich and pampered cotton growers. [read my analysis: http://devinder-sharma.blogspot.com/2010/04/us-bribes-brazil-with-147-million-in.html]

3. Although 80 per cent of US monumental agricultural subsidies go to the agribusiness industry, the US continues to increase its farm support. This makes the international prices slump as a result of which US farm produce becomes 'competitive.' A recent UNCTAD-India study had categorically brought out that if the US were to do away with its Green Box subsidies, its farm output would dip by over 40 per cent. This will bring in cheaper food exports from developing countries. Mr President, it is the massive subsidies you dole out for your agribusiness companies that the US market becomes inaccessible. On top of it, US has thrown in non-trade barriers to keep the agricultural imports out.

4. You want India to provide more market access. What you probably are not aware is that India has already gone in for an autonomous liberalisation and has opened up its market. This happened in March 2008 when George Bush wanted India to open up, before the US could reciprocate. The import tariffs for the most important farm commodities have already been brought down to zero. Wheat import tariff is zero, rice is at zero (whenever US asks us to do), maize is at zero, pulses is at zero, edible oils is practically zero (or 7.5 per cent as the case may be for some categories), what further reduction do you expect now?

India opened up, but the US did not reciprocate. The US in fact approved the US Farm Bill 2008 that makes a provision for an additional farm subsidy of $ 307 billion for the next five year. Come on, Mr President show us that you mean business, and that you follow ethics and justice in trade. When will you start reducing agricultural subsidies so as to provide market access for developing country agricultural products?

5. You want us to accept GM foods. You also want India to open up for the agricultural commodities. What you are probably not aware is that it is because of the industrially produced food that US today supports the sickest population on earth. US has more people living with Alzheimer, dementia, cancer, allergies, autism, APHD, and diabetes than any other country in the world. As far as GM foods are concerned, please tell which laws in the US makes it mandatory for the companies to do safety tests. The bio tech companies do their own tests, evaluate their results, declare the crops safe, and all that the regulators do is to stamp the approval.

Why do you want India to import such unhealthy foods, just because it benefits US corporations?

6. A sick nation needs affordable medicines. No one knows it much better than you. But as Health GAP (Global Access Project) states: "The US as well as European countries are also challenging India to grant monopoly protection to the data that drug companies use to obtain regulatory approval for a medicine. This measure, called "data exclusivity," would undermine cost cutting generic competition by delaying the entry of generics to market. Data exclusivity is not required by the World Trade Organization?but pharmaceutical companies have pushed aggressively for it. India's refusal to create a regime of data exclusivity was another feature of its Special 301 Report listing.

As a result, India's ability to make low cost, generic versions of newer medicines is under threat, and U.S.-funded AIDS treatment programs will be forced to waste money procuring more costly medicines. Isn't it time that you provide more market access for generic drugs from India, which alone produces 80 per cent of world's requirements of cheaper drugs?

Mr President, providing more market access for agriculture and pharmaceuticals by the US too is a 'win-win' situation. Try that, and I can assure you much of your problems in health and unsustainable farming would be taken care of. Michelle Obama has already shown the way by turning White House lawns organic, and also by launching a nationwide campaign to reduce diabetes among children. You will helping her, as well as billions across the world by providing more market access for agriculture and pharmaceuticals.

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