The World Trade Organization in March issued a final ruling declaring that cotton subsidies paid to farmers in the US are in violation of international trade rules and depress world prices. The ruling came after an appeal by the US last year to a preliminary WTO finding in a case filed by Brazil. This is the first successful WTO challenge of a wealthy nation’s domestic agricultural subsidies and it could force the US to lower the amounts of farm supports it pays for cotton and other crops. It could also influence a change in trade policies in other industrial nations, which currently pay an estimated $300 bn annually in agricultural subsidies.
Under the 1995 WTO Agreement on Agriculture, countries cannot increase their farm supports beyond amounts they paid in 1992. In its challenge, Brazil argued that the US violated this, costing the South American nation $600 mn in potential revenue. If the US fails to comply with the WTO ruling, Brazil may levy trade sanctions against it.
The ruling also marks a victory for African cotton-producing countries that have long blamed Northern subsidies for destroying the livelihoods of millions of farmers through unfair competition. Many developing countries have repeatedly called for the total elimination of agricultural subsidies at the ongoing “Doha round” of negotiations. Cotton producers Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mali welcomed the ruling and urged the US to implement the decision quickly. The ruling “confirms that these subsidies are not fair and must be phased out in a very, very short time,” said Mr. Samuel Amehou, Benin’s WTO ambassador. The UN, World Bank and other agencies have long argued that reducing subsidies would greatly benefit the economies of developing countries.
In a highly unusual step, the UN special envoys for HIV/AIDS in Africa and in Asia and the Pacific, Mr. Stephen Lewis and Ms. Nafis Sadik, wrote a joint letter urging the Indian government not to adopt legislation threatening the global availability of generic anti-AIDS medicines. The letter, addressed to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam, came shortly before the parliament adopted legislation bringing India into compliance with World Trade Organization (WTO) rules on intellectual property.
“India’s role in addressing the global AIDS pandemic has been critical,” the envoys wrote. Because the old legislation permitted Indian drug manufacturers to produce and export inexpensive copies of costly patented anti-retroviral medications, “the lives of HIV-positive people throughout the developing world are now being sustained by quality generic drugs.” As a result of India’s decision to adopt the more restrictive WTO trade rules on drugs, the two senior UN representatives warned, “those lives are now in jeopardy.”
The new legislation, adopted 23 March, exempts generic AIDS medicines now widely used in developing countries. The legislation could significantly raise prices for drugs currently under development, however, raising concerns about their availability to the poor. “Some people with HIV/AIDS will develop resistance to the first generation of AIDS drugs and will need newer treatments,” noted Médecins Sans Frontières spokesperson Ellen ‘t Hoen. “But without Indian generic medicines, where will they get affordable medicines from?”
A plan, proposed by Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade, to solicit donations to finance the development of information technology in poor nations was officially launched in March in Geneva, the first city to sign up to the plan. The Digital Solidarity Fund has so far received backing from Algeria, France, Nigeria and Senegal. It will raise money by collecting voluntary contributions of 1 per cent of public information communication technology (ICT) procurement contracts. In turn, donors will be able to use the label, “Digital Solidarity.”
The fund should be seen “as a concrete manifestation of our efforts to achieve the Millennium Development Goals,” said UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. “It can help harness the potential of ICTs to empower poor and marginalized people.” He said the initiative would contribute to fighting poverty and bridging the gap in technological development between rich and poor countries. “The use of information and communication technologies is shrinking distances, fostering new approaches to existing challenges and bringing dramatic changes in the economic, social and cultural realms,” Mr. Annan said.
International Telecommunication Union Secretary-General Yoshio Utsumi said the creation of the fund confounded the sceptics. “Without the strong political will of the African heads of state involved in the process, it would not have been possible.” Presidents Wade, Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria and Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria attended the launch.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has urged the Security Council to impose targeted sanctions on governments, armed groups and individuals using child soldiers. In his annual report on the issue to the council in February, Mr. Annan noted that 54 parties and countries are using more than 250,000 children as soldiers, thereby violating international law. Sanctions could include arms embargoes, travel bans on leaders and a “restriction on the flow of financial resources to the parties concerned,” Mr. Annan said. Countries where child soldiers are used include Burundi, Côte d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, Sudan, Colombia, Myanmar, Nepal, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Uganda.
The report, said UN Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict Olara Otunnu, marks a turning point by “transforming words into deeds.” It represents “the launch of a comprehensive compliance regime to ensure the protection of millions of children who have been brutalized in situations of conflict.” The world community now needs to ensure that standards on protecting children are enforced, he added.
Children are used as combatants, porters, spies and sex slaves, Mr. Otunnu explained. “Tens of thousands of girls are being subjected to rape and other forms of sexual violence, including as a deliberate tool of warfare,” he said. “Abductions are becoming widespread and brazen, as we have witnessed for example in northern Uganda, Nepal and Burundi.”
Mr. Otunnu, whose office prepared the report, also cited some good news: compared to previous years, the number of child soldiers has fallen. The countries where the overall situation of children has improved include Afghanistan, Angola, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and East Timor.
The world is on its way to meeting the goal of cutting the number of deaths from measles by half by the end of 2005, according to a report released in March by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF). The agencies reported that globally, the number of deaths from measles, a highly contagious viral disease, had dropped by 39 per cent between 1999 and 2003, from 873,000 to 530,000.
The biggest reduction, of 46 per cent, occurred in Africa, the continent most affected by the disease.
“Progress of this magnitude is remarkable,” said WHO Director General Lee Jong-wook. “I am certain that with increased commitment from governments and further support from the international community, even more can be accomplished.”
The report attributes progress to the willingness of governments to fully implement a WHO/UNICEF strategy to extend immunization to at least 90 per cent of all local districts. The strategy also focuses on ensuring that every child from nine months to 14 years of age receives a follow-up shot, designed to reach those who missed the first round of vaccinations and boost immunity for the 10–15 per cent of children who do not respond to the initial dose. As a result of these efforts, more than 350 million children across the world were immunized from 1999 to 2003.
“We now have the opportunity to replicate this successful method as we tackle other child killers, such as malaria,” said UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy. Only a decade ago, measles killed as many as one million children a year around the world. Many of the 30 million who survived were left blind or with complications such as brain damage and other disabilities.
African non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are urging donors to channel more of their assistance to the continent through indigenous groups, reports Nick Cater from Addis Ababa. Representatives of hundreds of African NGOs, meeting in the Ethiopian capital at the end of 2004, called for at least 25 per cent of humanitarian aid to Africa to be channelled through local NGOs.
According to a researcher for Development Initiatives, a UK-based institute, between a quarter and a half of bilateral and UN aid now goes to Northern NGOs working in Africa, while only “tiny amounts” are directed through indigenous groups. At current aid levels, he estimates, adoption of the 25 per cent target would make available almost $700 mn.
The African NGOs also recommended that at least 10 per cent of the grants they receive go to “overhead,” that is, personnel and other operating costs. Some donor agencies now allow only 5 per cent. NGO leaders warn that because of this restriction, grants often barely cover the cost of operational tasks in emergencies, leaving little for future investments or to meet essential organizational needs, from training to computing.
Dr. Dawit Zawde, president of Africa Humanitarian Action, which is active in more than a dozen countries and co-sponsored the meeting with the African Union, says that donors expect a lot from African NGOs, yet do not seem to trust them with sufficient resources. “Africa has long been depicted as a hopeless zone of conflict, famine and displacement that lacks capacity to respond adequately to crisis,” he notes. “This perception supports an aid paradigm that marginalizes and erodes local capacity, casting African actors as sub-contractors to their international counterparts.”
The African NGOs decided to launch a think-tank and research unit, the Centre for Humanitarian Action, to help groups improve their efficiency and find additional resources, including from aid, service fees and contributions from the African diaspora.
Part of the campaign’s inspiration has come from the recent capacity-building efforts of the African Union, New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) and UN Economic Commission for Africa, explains Dr. Dawit. “Strong indigenous organizations are essential for an effective humanitarian response in Africa. Empowerment of African NGOs is, therefore, a critical goal, especially given the new vision of Africa’s regeneration, in which Africa takes the lead in defining its problems and finding solutions.”