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As a matter of fact they do love free trade - if they can get it

Posted by Helen Tuesday, September 21, 2004

The egregious Christian Aid, that still claims to be a charity, though it has long ago become an NGO (though, naturally, with charitable status) has launched a new campaign against free trade.

They are, actually, speaking against some of their colleagues. Oxfam, for instance, for all its faults, has long ago adopted the slogan: Trade not Aid, recognizing that anyone who genuinely cares about the welfare of the poorer countries would like them to develop economically rather that subsist on hand-outs, that serve to prop up corrupt governments indefinitely. Logically enough, Oxfam has also been campaigning against CAP, that all-pervasive protectionist structure that causes a good deal of misery in the Third World.

Clearly, Christian Aid has not been able to think its way to a half-way rational position. A lot of NGOs are in the same boat. You cannot really blame them. If Third World countries traded with the developed ones freely and their economy grew, there would be far less for the various corporatist NGOs to do. Then again, they could go on having meetings and conferences in pleasant places at the taxpayer’s expense indefinitely.

So what is it Christian Aid does not like about free trade? Apparently, it is a mugger’s charter. Most of us would say that endless state control is a mugger’s charter, particularly in some of the more unsavoury political systems, where corrupt and oppressive rulers can prevent their people from having any kind of economic development (they might demand political rights then, and we cannot have that, can we) with the help of endless foreign aid.

I quote from the campaign leaflet:

It is the cruellest rip-off in history. Millions of farmers in poorer nations are being gradually ruined by free trade. Take the case of the onion farmers of Senegal. With Free Trade forced on them, they’re unable to sell their produce because their local markets are flooded with onions imported from Europe. The farmers are helpless to do anything but stand by and watch their crops rot and their livelihoods disappear.
I don’t know much about the onion farmers of Senegal, but I imagine their government forces a great many things on them. The only way they could stand up to their government is by making somewhat more than just a living. The only way they could make more than a living would be to sell their onions well beyond their local markets and they may be able to do so in other African countries. Christian Aid prefers to remain silent on the subject. They cannot sell those onions to European countries because there is no free trade in agricultural goods and European farmers are protected from competition.

In the same way, European onions appear on African markets at below the market price because those self-same farmers are heavily subsidized by the European taxpayer, who then subsidizes the Senegalese onion growers or, at least, the politicians in Senegal.

Now, the obvious answer to this is more free trade and less subsidy. But Christian Aid remains muddled in its thinking (if that is what they call it).

Having come up with that rather unimpressive and poorly argued sob story, it calls on all readers to write to Tony Blair to protest against free trade.

Those who write are encouraged to call for the UK government to do three things (as if the UK government could do anything about international trade, which has been EU competence since the Treaty of Amsterdam).

Firstly, Blair must

fight for policies that will allow poor countries to choose the best solutions to end poverty. These will not always be free trade policies.
Or, in other words, often they will be free trade policies; particularly if it is genuine free trade the countries are offered. Of course, the governments of those countries might not choose them but that ought not to be Christian Aid’s concern.

Then comes the killer point:

Stop the flood of cheap, subsidised exports to developing countries.
Ahem. I thought it was free trade they were against. Cheap, subsidised exports are the very antithesis of free trade. Is Christian Aid than in favour of free trade? Do they know what they are talking about?

The third point is even dafter:

“Make laws to stop big business profiting at the expense of people and the environment.
Sigh. How do these people think big business profits? Mostly by producing goods that people want to buy. What do they think big business does with profits? Among other things, employs people, builds houses and factories for people to live and work in, invests money that will help economic development.

Ah but will those people want Christian Aid, if their economy develops? We come back to the same question. Is this simply economic illiteracy, outmoded socialist thinking or something more sinister?