Sunday, 24 June 2007

Trading insults: Doha disappoints again

There was a depressing sense of déjà vu to Thursday’s collapse in the Doha trade talks. The meeting of the so-called G4 – the US, EU, India and Brazil – was widely seen as a last chance to achieve the target of getting a deal by the end of the year.

Insults and recriminations quickly followed. The US and EU pointed the finger at Brazil and India for not moving far enough on opening up access to their manufacturing markets. Meanwhile Brazil and India argued that the US and EU were demanding too high a price for what were unacceptably unambitious reforms to their trade-distorting farm policies.

It is easy nowadays to become numb to bad news on trade talks. Last July's suspension of the trade talks was a particular low. The early optimism after the trade round was subsequently resumed seems to have been replaced with a tangible negativity about the prospect of the Doha talks living up to their much-hyped objective of being the first-ever “development round”.

But perhaps the greatest danger right now is fatalism. The fact is that a deal is tantalisingly close, and still possible. For the World Trade Organisation’s Director General Pascal Lamy, while a convergence of views among the G4 would have been “helpful”, it was not “indispensable”, and ultimately some, including Oxfam, are happy the process will now revert to a broader discussion among the WTO’s 150 members.

Staying focused and optimistic is vital, if only because failure would be disastrous. Trade is a far more powerful lever for poverty reduction than aid could ever be.

Above all, as negotiators try and find a way forward in the corridors of Geneva, they should remember that business (despite what a vocal minority may say) is overwhelmingly supportive of a deal for Africa. The US and EU should also bear in mind that the vast majority of businesses in their countries recognise the importance of a sound deal for more developed economies as well.

Saturday, 16 June 2007

Straight talking at the WEF

The 17th African World Economic Forum kicked off on Wednesday with an opening plenary styled a “conversation” between two Presidents, an aspiring President, a Vice President and a lonely CEO.

Our hopes were raised by Tokyo Sexwale, the moderator, who assured us that this would not be another talk shop, but quickly dashed by President Mbeki who told us that there was nothing new to say about the challenge of Africa.

But this didn’t deter the energetic octogenarian President of Senegal, Abdoulaye Wade, who described the success that had been achieved by his country without the benefits of oil, minerals and other resources. The secret of success being “good friends with lots of money”!

This contrasted with the underlying message from President Mbeki who described the capacity challenges of the continent and posed the question – who will pay? Certainly not the World Bank if Obiageli K. Ezekwesili’s speech was anything to go by. Instead of providing solutions Ms Ezekwesili posed a long series of questions. One of these was how to get the private sector to come to the party and how to get business to recognise Africa was not one country. Cynthia Carroll, the new CEO at Anglo American, was left to answer on behalf of business and showed how hard it is for a business person to compete on a stage with politicians. She stressed the need for partnerships, best practices, good governance and flexibility of approach.

Tokyo Sexwale moderated the event with great charm, energy and humour. However it was clear his thoughts were on other things when instead of referring to the African continent he referred to the African National Congress.

Outside the plenary the tone of the meeting was very much one of quiet determination. Growth of 5-6% showed that Africa was doing the right things and that the right policy choices were being made. Governance was improving and individuals such as Mo Ibrahim vigorously enforced the point that Africa must achieve the same standards as the rest of the world in this respect. There was an attempt to tackle the difficult issues with a BBC debate on Zimbabwe which failed to really penetrate how the current problems could be resolved.

The conference followed the lead of Davos with sessions on climate change, thankfully without the hysteria that accompanied this topic in Switzerland and there was a particular focus on agriculture.

All in all while this year’s Africa WEF seemed to lack the energy and excitement of previous year (I’m sure there were less people in the bars at the Arabella Sheraton), it was more than replaced by a realism and steely determination to ensure that progress on the continent continues.

Monday, 11 June 2007

G8 Summit: a total farce?

For Oxfam it was a failure to deliver, and for Bob Geldof “a total farce”. But was last week’s G8 outcome for Africa really that bad? For sure, little of the money announced for Africa was new, and the restated resolve by G8 leaders to meet their 2005 commitments comes against a backdrop of painfully slow progress on delivery.

But the NGO reaction – by focusing on money - misses one of the most significant achievements of this G8. That is, to a far greater extent than previous G8 Summits, the world leaders have recognised that – as in every economy – it is growth and private enterprise that offers the best long-term opportunity for making poverty history.

The most striking finding of a World Bank survey of 60,000 poor people was that the vast majority see self-employment, starting a business or getting a job as offering the best prospects for escaping poverty. African’s, themselves, are sick of hearing their continent being talked about in the language of charity, poverty and despair, urging instead for the focus to be shifted towards creating the conditions for enterprise, trade and employment.

The business community made this point clearly in advance of the Summit (in a letter to Chancellor Merkel, at the Africa Business Forum 2007 and in the publication “A Path to a Prosperous Africa”). It is therefore refreshing, though clearly less headline-grabbing, that the G8 framed its discussion on Africa within the topic of “Growth and Responsibility”.

The emphasis, though lacking many detailed commitments, was on the elements needed to stimulate growth, enterprise and investment: good governance, with a clear statement that the Africa Peer Review Mechanism “can serve as an effective tool only if its results are recognized and implemented” (a swipe at South Africa’s recent rejection of APRM’s recommendations?); support for the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) and an extension of its transparency principles to other sectors “where appropriate”; a reaffirmation of support for the Infrastructure Consortium for Africa; support for African countries’ efforts to improve the business climate, including through initiatives such as the Investment Climate Facility; and activities to strengthen financial markets and enhance the effectiveness of remittances. Special mention is also made of agriculture, with the G8 urged to increase support for the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP). Interestingly, the statement also mentions that the G8 Presidency is “planning a business leaders' campaign, including an investment conference aimed at improving Africa's image as a ‘continent of opportunity’”.

The big outstanding issue is trade, and on this the G8 made some positive noises about their commitment to pushing for a deal by the end of the year, alongside a boost for Africa’s capacity to trade – which was as much as could be expected at this forum. But of course unless this is followed through, no amount of aid will be enough to offset the damage that a collapse in trade talks would cause.

Clearly, accelerating delivery on their Gleneagles aid promises is critical. But recognising that these aid commitments are only part of the story is as important – and it is one clear success that the G8 has recognised this fact.