I’ve argued before that doing away with trade restrictions (especially in the agricultural sector) – such as subsidies (like the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy), import duties and other protectionist measures – would be a boost to the global struggle against poverty. Free and unsubsidized trade reduces poverty in at least three ways:
- It brings down prices because of increased specialization, competition and comparative advantage. Although the removal of subsidies (only one element of trade liberalization) would initially raise prices and hence also poverty levels in importing countries, over time this would be compensated by the downward pressure created by specialization, increased competition and comparative advantage. However, these importing countries wouldn’t be the poorest ones: “three-quarters of the world’s poor live in rural areas, with the majority of them depending directly or indirectly on agriculture for their livelihoods” (source). The poorest countries would benefit from initial price rises caused by the removal of subsidies. (That doesn’t mean that everyone in the poorest countries would benefit: non-farm workers may suffer).
- It opens up foreign markets for poor producers.
- It eliminates distortions of competition between local producers and foreign, subsidized products, distortions which often force local producers out of business.
All this has a positive effect on the income of the poor. There’s a new paper here arguing that the net effect of trade liberalization is a reduction of the number of poor people worldwide by 3%:
the winners from trade reform would include poorer countries and the poorest individuals within countries. Nevertheless, it is also clear that even among the extreme poor, some would lose.
Of course, and again: beware of the silver-bullet fallacy. Domestic anti-poverty policies continue to be important as well.
After the United States and before Turkey, the world’s second largest producer of tomato concentrate is the EU. Its tomato farmers are paid a minimum price higher than the world market price, which stimulates production. The processors, in turn, are paid a subsidy to cover the difference between domestic and world prices.
Some of the effects of these subsidies on West African LDCs in the 1990s have been documented. The subsidy is reported to have reached about $300 million in 1997. The processors, then, need to find markets, and about 20 per cent of exports at that time went to West Africa. In the mid-1990s, about 80 per cent of demand in this region was covered by tomato products from the EU, which were cheaper than local supplies.
Stiff competition from EU industries led to the closure of tomato-processing plants in several West African countries. In Senegal, for instance, tomato cultivation was introduced in the 1970s, and progressively acquired an important position for farmers, for whom tomato production was synonymous with a key opportunity to diversify their farming systems and stabilize incomes. In 1990-1991, production of tomato concentrate was 73,000 tons, and Senegal exported concentrate to its neighbours. Over the past seven years, total production has fallen to less than 20,000 tons.
One of the main reasons for this dramatic fall was the liberalization of tomato concentrate imports in 1994. Despite the positive impetus provided by the devaluation of the CFA franc, the tomato-processing industry could not compete with EU exporters. Imports of concentrates jumped from 62 tons in 1994 (value: $0.1 million) to 5,130 tons in 1995 (value: $4.8 million) and 5,348 tons in 1996 (value: $3.8 million). SOCAS, the one Senegalese processing firm that has survived, buys imported triple concentrate and processes it into double concentrate.
Other West African LDCs – Burkina Faso and Mali – have had similar experience of enormous increases in imports of EU tomato concentrate. (source)
More on free trade and protectionism.