Saturday, December 10, 2005

Zambia and the WTO for poor countries

I think this FT magazine article by Alan Beattie today is a well-written one on the reality of an African country's bureaucracy and economy, and of the World Trade Organization for poor countries.

Some interesting excerpts:

"God," Patel [- trade minister from the impoverished southern African state of Zambia -] says... "The FT has more capacity to do trade policy than we do."

Being a minister in a desperately poor country throws up unimaginable challenges. One of Patel's first jobs under Chiluba [the former Zambian president] was as minister of sport. On his second day in office, the entire Zambian national football team died in a plane crash in Gabon, an event that stunned the footballing world. "I had never even been to a bloody football match," he says. But he pushed and cajoled and eventually got the Danish government to agree to train Zambia's new team at the national football centre outside Copenhagen. "Then the next year we got to the finals of the African Cup."

In late June this year trade ministers from the LDCs [short for least developed countries] meet in Livingstone, Zambia ... There is a short debate about including commas around the expression "inter alia". Because of the francophone African countries present, the communique is translated into French and there is a discussion about whether the correct interpretation of "market access" is "acces sur le marche" or "acces au marche". ... The first day of the conference ends early because the interpreters are only paid to work until late afternoon. Finally, towards the end of the second day, Patel takes the conference chair himself and charges through the rest of the agenda in about half an hour, cajoling and demanding, flattering the delegates by calling them "brothers and sisters", and then bulldozing the communique into coherence. A Cambodian delegate, evidently impressed by this unusual display of executive decisiveness, suggests leaving all the negotiations to Patel. He reads out Patel's personal e-mail address to the conference and implores all present to send their ideas to him and let him decide. ... Later that night in the bar his frustration is evident. "We have no analysis, no data. That is why we spend our time changing commas and arguing about translations."

[Zambia's trade minister Patel] picks me up from the hotel five minutes early, waiting impatiently in the car while I get ready. "I caught you early, huh?" He drives himself to the office, railing against the lack of a Lusaka bypass when he is held up in traffic for two minutes.

The ministry has just moved to an impressive new tower block. The building was funded by an aid package from the Chinese government, which, Patel says, offered countries in southern Africa either a new party headquarters or a football stadium. "Most countries chose the stadium."

[A] more pressing matter this morning is the need to boot out the human resources people who have taken up residence in offices down the corridor, offices [Patel's] staff are supposed to move into.

[Patel] cites a computer simulation showing that EU demands for cuts in Zambian tariffs will lose the government $15m in precious tax revenue. But Zambia's ability to do such research is limited. It has access to an online computer model developed by the World Bank, which allows it to do simulations. "But I don't have the bandwidth, so I often get cut off," Patel says.

Often, he relies on briefing notes prepared by NGOs based in rich countries, such as Oxfam. "We get criticised for allowing NGOs to dictate our policy. But if we don't have the capacity to do our own research, what can we do?"

In October, in a drab, strip-lit room in the WTO's unglamorous Geneva headquarters, 21 officials from a variety of countries - Yemen, Afghanistan, Uganda, the tiny Pacific nation of Kiribati - sit in rows taking instruction on the agreements that underlie the organisation. Twice a year - once in English, once in French - the WTO offers three- week training courses to officials from LDCs. The class is taken by Claude Trolliet, an earnest shirt-sleeved WTO employee who has been with the organisation for 10 years. ... To me, Trolliet says: "Providing assistance to developing countries was not one of the functions of the WTO when it was set up. We have had to change ourselves."

This summer British Airways cancelled its weekly freight flight from Lusaka [- the capital city of Zambia -], citing the rising cost of airline fuel as global oil prices soared. Zambia's growers, left with tonnes of rotting produce, had to scrabble around to find space on other flights or truck their goods out through South Africa.

One afternoon Ronnie Parbhoo, an old schoolfriend of Patel's, shows me round his milk-packaging plant in Livingstone. Parbhoo is one of the few remaining members of Livingstone's formerly thriving business community - as in much of southern and east Africa, this is largely ethnic Indian. ... He once owned one of Livingstone's 40 factories in a flourishing textile industry. But output collapsed under east Asian competition, aided by president Chiluba's decision, egged on by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, to slash protective tariffs rapidly in the early 1990s. So quick was the resulting implosion that most of the factory owners, disillusioned, left the country altogether. Of the 2,000 or so Indians formerly in Livingstone, about 150 are left. "The rest went to the US or Canada," Parbhoo says. "Or they are running corner shops in London." ... The industrial zone of Livingstone - now largely abandoned and overgrown, an African version of a midwestern American steel town - used to employ 10,000 workers. It now employs about 300, a third of whom work for Parbhoo.

Parbhoo sells his milk mainly to Zambians, limiting the size of his market. In theory, he could export his milk to Zimbabwe, but they don't have the hard currency to pay for it. Exporting it to Zambia's other southern African neighbours often runs foul of their hygiene rules - frequently used as a form of protectionism - and the country no longer has the government-backed testing facilities to make its own checks. It is, moreover, a long way across terrible roads to neighbouring countries, and the railway through Livingstone that crosses Zambia has been abandoned.

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