Politics of Poverty

Has the US Trade Rep gone rogue in Bali?

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The President’s trade envoy is opposing India’s effort to reduce hunger.

Here’s what’s happened:

(1) President Obama said …when I took office, we took a look at new ways that we could provide assistance and partner with countries, and we decided to make food security a priority.” He launched a “Feed the Future” initiative with a mandate “to improve the effectiveness of our contributions to global food security, the United States must improve coordination within our own government…to coordinate and align USG activities in Washington and in the field.”

(2) India hosts about 1/4 of the world’s hungry. In September 2013, India enacts an historic food security law that will spend 2% of national income to overcome hunger. Inspired by India’s example, other countries like Indonesia are keen on food security laws.

Birjha Bai (right), collects a ration of subsidized wheat (10kg) and rice (25kg) from the Public Distribution System (PDS) in Gor Kamh. She and her husband work as manual laborers and their income can be irregular. The family has relied on PDS grain for the past 20 years. Photo: Tom Pietrasik / Oxfam.

(3) India, with others, asks the WTO for protection of the law against challenge by other countries. This is in the form of a new proposed Doha agreement on food security.

(4) The President’s trade envoy, Michael Punke, says Frankly, the very essence of this proposal is confusing and concerning.” And the US announces it opposes India’s effort to protect its new food security law.

What gives? Rather than working with India and other countries to promote solutions to hunger, the US Trade Representative (USTR) has positioned itself as a naysayer and skeptic. That’s a sad place and pretty distant from what President Obama has said. One might call it hypocrisy.

In other trade negotiations, the USTR has also displayed roguish behavior, arm-twisting partners to make trade commitments which could undermine public health and access to medicines in developing countries. The USTR has also been promoting special interests over public interests (and maybe American interests).

Pointing out these problems, US NGOs have tried to urge the USTR to change course. But with trade officials meeting in Bali today, it seems likely the US will play the spoiler for an effort to align international trade policy with food security.

And that would be a shame because, as President Obama said:

“As the wealthiest nation on Earth, I believe the United States has a moral obligation to lead the fight against hunger and malnutrition, and to partner with others.”

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