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A joke on the poor

It is an unbelievably cruel joke the industrialized world has played on the developing world.

Look, the rich nations said, free trade is the answer for you folks - only while the poor nations then scurried to reduce their trade barriers, the rich nations were increasing subsidies and tariffs. And what do we have now? The inevitable. Millions of Third World farmers are no longer farming, and people are starving.

As representatives at a U.N. forum at the Inter-American Development Bank said earlier this month, this is no minor matter. This is a human catastrophe, the measure of it in Latin America being 54 million malnourished people. That's just for starters, according to an Associated Press account. In Africa, more than 14 million people face death from not enough to eat.

The protectionist measures in rich countries aren't the only reason for the disaster, but they constitute a major one, and here is one way it works.

As it did this past year, Congress passes a farm subsidy bill providing welfare to rich, corporate agribusinesses mostly in the Midwest. The purpose is to win votes in the midterm election. Because of their subsidies, these agribusinesses overproduce and inundate world markets with products that are cheaper than what it cost to produce them. The Third World farmers cannot compete and go out of business. And the people in those countries do not then have food on their tables.

The United States has a lot to answer for, but as usual, not nearly as much as the socialist-minded states of Europe. According to published reports, the European Union spends $31 billion on farm subsidies a year, accounting for 35 percent of the income of the EU's farmers. The United States spends $19 billion, accounting for 21 percent of farm income. (Japan, it is reported, gives its farmers $31 billion a year.)

Many on the left keep insisting, contrary to evidence, that steeply increased foreign aid is the way of rescue for poor nations. While some aid clearly matters, the real answer is what the industrialized nations have been advocating: free trade. It will work better than anything else if - but only if - the rich nations will practice what they preach. No more jokes, please. These are human lives we are talking about.

Bimingham Post-Herald

Nov. 29,2002