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In the last 70 years world trade has multiplied by a factor of 290 whilst world output rose 20 fold. In this period trading in goods and services has helped bring ever rising living standards to people living in north America, western Europe and east Asia where the bulk of trade takes place.

In 2019, before Covid-19 struck, in terms of US dollars, the total value of goods traded in the world was US$18.9 trillion (£15.2 trillion). The world's top exporters of goods are China 13.2%, US 8.7%, Germany 7.9%, Netherlands 3.8%, Japan 3.7%, France 3%, South Korea 2.9%, Hong Kong 2.8%, Italy 2.8%, UK* 2.5%. The top importers of goods are US 13.4%, China 10.8%, Germany 6.4%, Japan 3.7%, UK* 3.6%, France 3.4%, Netherlands 3.3%, Hong Kong 3.0%, South Korea 2.6%, India 2.5%. (*Ships still carry 92% of Britain's exports/imports)

Africa, with 15% of the population of the planet, has only a tiny 2.75% share of world trade and of this total sub-Saharan Africa accounts for 2.0%. However, even this 2.75% of world trade generates ten times the amount received by the continent in overseas aid. Therefore expanding trade is vital for Africa where an 1% increase in the share of world trade would generate an extra US$180bn (£146bn). The top African exporting nations are South Africa, Nigeria, Algeria, Angola, Morocco, Egypt and Tunisia. Africa's exports consist mainly of oil, minerals (gold, diamonds, cobalt etc.) timber, coffee, cocoa, cotton products and primary agricultural products. (Tiny Singapore with a population of 4.3m people still accounts for more in exports than all of the 49 countries of sub-Saharan Africa put together with a population of 900m people.)

The above figures relate to internationally traded merchandise or visible goods. But commercial services, banking, insurance, intellectual property, classed as invisibles, are also bought and sold throughout the world and these have grown 60% faster than trade in goods over the past decade. The total value of services traded amounted to US$6.03 trillion (£4.86 trillion). The top ten exporters of services in 2019 were:- US 13.7%, UK 6.8%, Germany 5.5%, China 4.7%, France 4.6%, Netherlands 4.3%, Ireland 3.9%, India 3.5%, Singapore 3.4%, Japan 3.3%. The top ten importers were:- US 9.9%, China 8.6%, Germany 6.3%, Ireland 5.6%, UK 4.8%, France 4.5%, Netherlands 4.3%, Japan 3.5%, Singapore 3.5%, India 3.1%.

Embracing international trade offers countries the chance to grow their economies rapidly which creates more jobs and leads to higher incomes which through taxation means more money is available to invest in healthcare, new schools, infrastructure, modern technology, greater food choices, clean water and improved sanitation. And, in recent times, no other international process has done more to generate prosperity for hundreds of millions of people throughout the globe.

Singapore is an excellent example of a nation which has embraced international trade in order to promote economic advancement. With no natural resources, in the 1960's, the government of prime minister Lee Kuan Yew (1959-90) encouraged international companies to come and set up in Singapore. At the same time his government set about providing the educational system and investment climate needed to attract foreign enterprises. And so far has Singapore come in the last 55 years that it is now not only a successful trading nation but one of the wealthiest countries in the world with Gross National Income (GNI) per capita rising from $400 (£300) in 1959 to $59,590 (£44,840) in 2019.

China, too, has played a strong hand in international trade in the last 20 years with exports growing by a factor of 30 helping the country to generate economic growth of 9% per annum over that period lifting an estimated 360m people out of poverty.

Conversely those countries which shunned trade and contact with the outside world failed to even keep up with their neighbours. South and North Korea both started from the same base in 1950 but today the outward looking South Koreans enjoy per capita incomes 22 times greater than their cousins living in the hermit kingdom in the north where emergency food aid often has to be delivered. Similarly, incomes in export-oriented West Germany were also many times greater than in the inward-looking Communist state of East Germany when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989.

And now even Africa is looking to advance trade. The African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCTA), which all members of the African Union bar Eritrea intend to sign up to, commenced on 1 January 2021. It is the most ambitious trade zone project in the world opening up a market of 1.2bn people with a combined GDP of US$3 trillion. No other region has tried to fuse 55 countries into a single market and eventually a full customs union. To date 34 out of 55 member states have ratified the agreement.

Under this trade deal, tariffs on 90% of goods will be phased out within 10 years. This will be done in stages and could take up until 2035. Currently intra-African trade stands at 7% of total trade compared to 59% across Asia and 68% across Europe. Impeding progress here though is also transport costs and pot-holed roads.

Though international trade has expanded rapidly in the last 70 years after the banking crisis of 2008, world merchandise trade slumped by 12% in 2009 followed by a record-breaking 14% surge in 2010. Then in 2011 world trade volume increased by 5%, in 2012 by 2.5%, in 2013 by 3%, by 2.5% in 2014, by 2.3% in 2015, by 1.6% in 2016, by 4.6% in 2017 and by 3% in 2018. In 2019 it fell by 0.1% due to slowing world economies and trade tensions between the US and China. But with the coronavirus now rampant across the globe there is little doubt there will be a contraction in 2020. At one time WTO predicted the fall could be as high as 30% but recent estimates suggest more like 4.3%.

International trade is a vital tool in advancing economic prosperity and many developing countries are keen to expand export opportunities. However, even with the reduction in trade rules and regulations which have taken place over the last 65 years, there are still too many restrictions in place today. And worryingly the situation seems to be regressing as the use of protectionist measures is increasing, particularly in the US. The reason for this is that governments feel it necessary to appease internal pressure groups in order to protect domestic industries, particularly agriculture, from international competition. As a result, in developing countries where the bulk of the population still work on the land, these measures severely dent the opportunity for people there to trade their way out of poverty. It is estimated that developing countries could benefit by as much as $200bn(£150bn) annually if rich countries removed all trade barriers.

International trade then is an emotive issue which seems to provoke endless debate amongst governments, multilateral organisations and development agencies with bandwagons often being mounted and often rational thinking sidelined. Below then just1WORLD attempts to clear the air and by analysing the three main ways in which rich countries play the restrictive trade card.

TARIFFS are taxes placed on imports which have the dual purpose of raising revenue for a country whilst at the same time protecting its domestic industries. By levying tariffs it leads to a situation where it is cheaper to produce goods in the home country even though the same goods are cheaper to import because tariffs make them more expensive.

On average tariffs on agricultural products in the EU are today around 22% whereas on manufactured goods they have dropped from an average of 40% to around 4%. In manufactured goods the EU member countries set tariff barriers against each other but those set against the developing world are 4 times greater. And in another show of solidarity against poor countries, tariff escalation means that rich countries maintain higher tariffs on imports of processed commodities than on raw materials thus depriving poor countries of revenue and preventing them from adding value to their exports e.g. it is easier for poor countries to sell cocoa beans to Europe rather than in the finished product of chocolate.

NON TARIFF MEASURES include safeguards, anti-dumping measures etc. but mainly take the form of quotas. Quotas are a quantitative restriction on the amount of goods of any one kind that are allowed to be imported. Here a ‘barrier’ will descend as soon as the numbers imported are reached. In January 2005 a major breakthrough occurred in this field when the Multifibre Arrangement (MFA) on quota limits on textiles from the developing world was abolished allowing open access everywhere. However, such was the increased volume of cheap imports, particularly from China, that domestic producers in EU countries immediately complained and regrettably, even after 10 years to prepare for the abolition of textile quotas, the EU sought to appease their clothes manufacturers by re-introducing limits. This, however, in turn provoked EU retailers to complain that they would be penalised for orders which had not yet been delivered whilst, at the same time, customers would be faced with higher prices. And so a compromise was agreed with China agreeing to 'limit' exports.

Other areas that still need to be tackled in regard to quotas include Japan being allowed to reserve 93% of its rice market for domestic farmers whilst rice farmers in poor countries like Haiti lose their livelihoods through cheap subsidised imports as the World Bank pushes them to open up their markets.


PRODUCER SUBSIDIES come in the shape of support prices which subvert the workings of the international trading system. There is no better example of this than the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Established in 1962, this keeps food prices in Europe high above world levels and operates throughout the EU to boost farming productivity, guarantee food supplies and ensure a 'fair' standard of living for farmers. For example it is estimated that every cow in the EU is subsidised to the extent of $2(£1.50) per day - the same amount as almost half the world's population lives on. As a result those heavily subsidised cows go on producing record amounts of milk. Also, in 2018 the average UK farm made just £2,100 from agricultural activity but this increased to £27,200 with subsidies added. (Currently UK farmers produce 63% of what the country consumes.)

One of the most contemptible examples of producer subsidies being used to appease a domestic pressure group was in the US in 2002 when President Bush caved in to the 25,000 cotton farmers there and granted them support totalling $3bn(£2.3bn) per annum in order to compete in price with cotton farmers in Burkina Faso, the country seventh from bottom in the 2019 UNDP Human Development Index, where cotton grows naturally. This action by the most powerful economy in the world is surely one of the most pernicious and reprehensible pieces of protectionism ever passed on Capitol Hill and the US government should hold its head in shame. In Burkina Faso cotton represents over 50% of the country's exports and 2 million people depend on it for their livelihood. A pound of cotton can be produced in Burkina Faso for $0.21(£0.16) compared to $0.74(£0.56) in the US but now thanks to American insularity, living standards for cotton farmers in Burkina Faso have plummeted. Thankfully, however, in a case brought by Brazil, the WTO has recently accepted that US support for cotton violates global trade rules and this subsidy was unwound.

EXPORT SUBSIDIES are the final guarantee that farmers in rich countries do not make a loss even when they overproduce. In the case of surplus milk production this is made into dried milk powder and dumped on the world market forcing prices down and throwing thousands of poor farmers in countries like the Dominican Republic out of business and into the cities.

According to the Food and Land Use Coalition in 2019, government support for farmers across the world was put at $619bn (£448bn), well up from $350bn (£253bn) in 2003. Main culprits here are China, US, Japan and the EU whilst New Zealand, Australia and Chile hardly subsidise their farmers at all.

All in all support in rich countries adds an extra £15 to the weekly shopping basket of a family of four in the EU, increases taxation, provides no guarantee of food quality and produces surpluses which are regularly dumped on world markets putting farmers in poor countries out of business. Furthermore, 70% of support for farmers goes to the largest 25% of the farms and to cap it all the whole system is so bureaucratic that EU auditors recently discovered that only 40% of farm support actually reached its destination.


In recent years some tentative progress has been made by the richest countries in opening up their markets to the poorest nations:-

the US African Growth and Opportunities Act (AGOA) signed in October 2000 offers tariff and quota free access to the US for a range of goods, mainly oil, textiles and manufactures, from sub-Saharan Africa. Qualifying countries currently number 39. Leading exporters here are South Africa, Chad, Angola, Nigeria. Although oil is still the main ingredient here this pact has also allowed other exports from other African countries to the US grow quite rapidly e.g. Lesotho where the textile industry has flourished and now exports US$400m worth of garments to the US annually.

the EU through the Lome Convention offers some of the same to a list of poor countries. Here in an 'Everything But Arms' policy all imports are allowed in free of all tariffs and non-tariffs from these mainly African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries.

in the EU farmers are now encouraged to concentrate on quality; grow less popular crops; look after the countryside e.g. maintaining hedgerows, leaving strips at the sides of fields uncultivated for wildlife; diversify into tourism, country crafts etc.

the North American Free Trade Area (NAFTA) which comprises Canada, US and Mexico was expected to result in a mass of jobs being exported over the Rio Grande to Mexico. The Mexican economy has boomed since NAFTA was set up in 1994 but the US has also created 11m new jobs in that period. Under Mr Trump, however, this agreement was renegotiated.

numerous bilateral trade agreements have been signed and encouraged by countries like US, Morocco, New Zealand, Singapore and Chile.

at a WTO meeting in Nairobi in December 2015 it was agreed that export subsidies in developed countries would be reduced by half by the end of 2017 and eliminated altogether by 2020.

All of the above agreements certainly help to increase export opportunities but in a world context they represent only a trickle in the river of trade. And so it is important that a new round of world trade talks under the auspices of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) should be set-up reach a successful conclusion.

This was last attempted in 2001 when the WTO launched the Doha Development Round of trade talks with a target date for completion of December 2005 which, ridiculously, was later extended to 2015. But this round never really got off the ground as China pleaded to retain its developing country status, the US caved in to its farm lobby which demanded increased market access abroad in return for subsidy cuts at home whilst India and Brazil refused to reduce their high tariff rates on imports. An opportunity wasted due to petty nationalism!

But change needs to happen as trade, as we have seen, is vital in challenging and defeating poverty so the WTO should attempt to launch another trade round. And, this time, if it ends in deadlock just1WORLD offers this constructive solution to break the logjam - ALL rich countries would have to reduce all subsidies/ tariffs/ non-tariffs but only by 5% per annum. This would have a double beneficial effect - it would give producers in rich countries time to adjust and it would mean that all trade support by rich countries would be eliminated in 20 years. Developing countries would be expected to do the same.

The above may be a rational way forward but you can just imagine the furore - US farmers would scream about losing their traditional livelihoods, President Macron would - certainement - not be too happy at the thought of French farmers having now to compete to sell their produce on world markets as the CAP came to an end and the Japanese government would protest that Chinese rice imports would overwhelm domestic producers. However, the important outcome would be that world trade in general, and developing countries in particular, would be given a tremendous boost. At the same time in rich countries taxpayers would benefit from the elimination of subsidies, consumers would have more money to spend thanks to cheaper food and EU auditors might finally get to grips with the EU accounts!

In the coming months then hopefully common sense will prevail and there will be a new round of trade talks involving every nation on the planet. However, even the most positive of outcomes is unlikely to help the least developed countries mainly to be found in sub-Saharan Africa for the following reasons:-

in most of sub-Saharan Africa over 70% of the people living there are subsistence farmers working with basic tools on tiny plots consisting of barren soil. Agricultural production in Africa has stagnated in the last 20 years

countries in most of Africa have neither the expertise nor the capital to take immediate advantage of more open trade opportunities.

the costs of transport by air and sea, bad roads and railways, poor communications, convoluted customs procedures and delays, refrigeration for meat products and insurance all add to the cost of sending imports abroad. For example, the World Bank has calculated that it can take up to 25 days for a container of car parts to pass customs officials into the Democratic Republic of Congo. At the same time these problems preclude intra-African trade which represents only 9% of overall African exports.

minimum standards, health legislation and quality controls will all have to be met before consumers in rich countries make their choices.

The poorest countries then, most of which are in Africa, will initially suffer and governments there will need outside help both with finance and expertise in order to be able to start to take advantage of a more open trading environment. Thankfully rich countries are already aware of this and more of their overseas aid budgets are being directed towards helping poor countries increase crop yields and improve infrastructure.

But we as consumers can also help farmers in the developing world by buying fairly traded goods.

Fairtrade is an independent consumer organisation set up by a group of charities in 1992 in order to offer fair terms of trade to farmers and workers in the developing world. In return for meeting certain standards in production Fairtrade currently pays more than 1,700,000 farmers/workers in 73 poor countries above market prices for their produce thus enabling them to improve quality and to provide for all the needs of their families. Fairtrade goods currently are sold in 125 countries. The Fairtrade mark appears on over 6,000 different products including tea, coffee, bananas, sugar, fruit juice, chocolate, flowers, nuts, rice, yoghurts, wines, beer and footballs many of which are available in most supermarkets. Although Fairtrade products cost that little bit extra more and more consumers seem willing to pay this premium. Sales in 2018 in the UK - the world's largest market carrying the Fairtrade mark representing 33% of the total - reached £1.60bn. In the UK, Fairtrade now accounts for 45% of the bagged sugar market, 40% of all bananas sold, 10% of all tea, 27% of all ground coffee and 12% of all chocolate confectionery. Large brand manufacturers committing to Fairtrade sugar include Cadbury's, Kit Kat, Maltesers, and Ben and Jerry's ice cream. In 2019, 20.8 million litres of Fairtrade wine were also sold. And to cap it all Fairtrade now sells Fairmined gold!

By the end of 2019 there were a total of 600 Fairtrade Towns, 1,178 Fairtrade Schools and 150,000 supporters. see

According to Tony Blair's Commission for Africa Report in 2005 'trade barriers are politically antiquated, economically illiterate, environmentally destructive and ethically indefensible.' We agree. And the sooner all trade restrictions are lifted the better for the following reasons:-

1. to bring an end to the scandalous waste, overproduction, inefficiency, bureaucracy, corruption and expense they bring just to placate pampered pressure groups like farmers that governments, for the most part, are too frightened to stand up to.

2. because they hinder farmers and their families in the developing world in their fight against poverty, rampant disease and lack of education.

3. in order to encourage these same farmers, exasperated by low prices and a lack of trading opportunities, from potentially moving into growing proscribed crops like coca and heroin

4. because poverty makes people desperate and spawns the conditions for conflict and terrorism which all too often end with carnage and major refugee problems which the whole world has to deal with.

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