Hopes for a development round in world trade -- opening up opportunities for developing countries to grow and reduce poverty -- now seem dashed. Though crocodile tears may be shed all around, the extent of disappointment needs to be calibrated: Pascal Lamy, the head of the WTO, had long worked to diminish expectations, so much so that it was clear that whatever emerged would bring, at most, limited benefits to poor countries.
The failure hardly comes as a surprise: the US and the EU had long ago reneged on the promises they made in 2001 at Doha to rectify the imbalances of the last round of trade negotiations -- a round so unfair that the world's poorest countries were actually made worse off. Once again, the US' lack of commitment to multi-lateralism, its obstinacy and its willingness to put political expediency above principles -- and even its own national interests -- has triumphed. With elections looming in November, US President George W. Bush could not "sacrifice" the 25,000 wealthy cotton farmers or the 10,000 prosperous rice farmers and their campaign contributions. Seldom have so many had to give up so much to protect the interests of so few.
The talks bogged down over agriculture, where subsidies and trade restrictions remain so much higher than in manufacturing. With 70 percent or so of people in developing countries depending directly or indirectly on agriculture, they are the losers under the current regime. But the focus on agriculture diverted attention from a far broader agenda that could have been pursued in ways that would have benefited both the northern and the southern hemispheres.
For example, so-called "escalating tariffs," which tax processed goods at a far higher rate than unprocessed products, mean that manufacturing tariffs discourage developing countries from undertaking the higher value-added activities that create jobs and boost incomes.
Perhaps the most outrageous example is the US$0.14 per liter import tariff on ethanol in the US, whereas there is no tariff on oil, and only a US$0.13 per liter tax on gasoline. This contrasts with the US$0.13 per liter subsidy that US companies (a huge portion of which goes to a single firm) receive on ethanol. Thus, foreign producers can't compete unless their costs are US$0.27 per liter lower than those of US producers.
The huge subsidies have meant that the US has become the largest producer of ethanol in the world. Yet, despite this huge advantage, some foreign firms can still make it in the US market.
Brazilian sugar-based ethanol costs far less to produce than US corn-based ethanol. Brazil's firms are far more efficient than the US' subsidized industry, which puts more energy into getting subsidies out of Congress than into improving efficiency. Some studies suggest that it requires more energy to produce ethanol in the US than is contained in the fuel. If the US eliminated these unfair trade barriers, it would buy more energy from Brazil and less from the Middle East. Evidently, the Bush administration would rather help Middle Eastern oil producers, whose interests so often seem at variance with those of the US, than Brazil. Of course, the administration never puts it that way -- with an energy policy forged by the oil companies, Archer Daniels Midland and other ethanol producers are just playing along in a corrupt system of campaign contributions for subsidies.