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U.S. aid offer to West Africa cotton growers said lacking

Cotton producers in the “C4” West African countries were not exactly overwhelmed by the U.S. government's initial offer of funding for the West Africa Cotton Improvement Program.

U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman and Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns pledged funding of $7 million during a stopover in Burkina Faso for a meeting with agriculture ministers from the C4 — Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mali.

They also said Burkina Faso had been selected as a member of the Millennium Challenge Corp., which eventually could provide $750 million to the region. But producer organizations said the U.S. pledge fell short of what was needed to help make a difference in the countries' economies.

Some called the funding a “slap in the face,” and questioned the timing of a conference to put the final touches on the Cotton Improvement Program shortly after the WTO Ministerial Conference scheduled for Hong Kong in mid-December.

Unhappiness with the U.S. position on the West African cotton-producing countries helped lead to the collapse of the last WTO Ministerial in Cancun in 2003, and some African leaders were predicting a similar fate for the Hong Kong meeting.

“We are at our limit,” said Francois Traore, president of the union of Burkinabe cotton producers. “We cannot accept Hong Kong if there's no real advance on cotton, and it will be the fault of the developed countries.”

The funding also was something of a slap at the National Cotton Council, which has put considerable time and effort into trying to improve the knowledge levels of producers and technical specialists in those countries.

NCC Chairman Woods Eastland tried to put the program in a good light, but others wondered why the offer of $7 million — about what Portman and Johanns may be spending on jet fuel for their current trip — was so meager.

“It's outrageous,” said Oxfam's Romain Bennicchio. “Cotton producers in these countries are losing $250 million a year because of U.S. subsidies. We had hoped for something better, something specific and additional on trade.”

Oxfam's figures may be suspect, but the offer gave the charity group another opening to exploit the resentment of U.S. economic policies.

The U.S. officials' trip, which included stops in New Delhi, Beijing and Seoul, did not begin well. Portman and Johanns had just left a meeting on the Doha Round in Geneva when they spoke to reporters on a conference call.

“We had constructive conversations, but I am sorry to report we've not made the progress we had hoped to put together a program for the Hong Kong meeting that would enable us to complete the negotiations more rapidly,” Portman said.

Johanns said market access remains the primary obstacle in the Doha Round and in improving world trade. Tying the Doha Round to Africa's cotton problems, he said, “I can sum up the situation best by quoting a West African official that told me in July that what they need is not more aid, but more trade.”

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