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DAWN - Opinion; 06 May, 2004

May 06, 2004


Intricacies of cotton politics

By Shahid Javed Burki

World cotton politics matters for Pakistan. Cotton, in terms of world prices, is the country's largest cash crop, bringing in terms of value over $2.5 billion to the country's economy. This is equivalent to 3.5 per cent of the gross domestic product.

The crop is very important for Pakistan's countryside. About 2.8 million hectares of cultivated land - or one-sixth of the total - is committed to the cultivation of this important crop.

Its share in total value added in good years is more than that of wheat. In the year 2000-2001, it contributed 30.2 per cent of the total value of all crops, compared to wheat's share of 30 per cent.

It is a labour intensive crop to care for and to harvest; as such an expansion in its area and an increase in productivity of the land producing it has important implication for alleviating rural poverty.

Cotton also sustains the textile industry which employs more people working in the large-scale manufacturing sector than any other sub-sector of the urban economy. Raw cotton exports and exports of cotton fibre, cotton fabrics and cotton finish products account for three-fifths of the country's export earnings. For all these reasons Pakistan should be watching very carefully the way international politics are shaping up.

Not only should Islamabad be watching; it should be a keen player in the negotiations that are currently underway in Brussels, Geneva, Washington and other capitals of the world where the politics of cotton are taken seriously.

After all, Pakistan is among the five countries in the world that produce more than a million tons of the crop. Total world output of lint cotton is about 21 million tons.

China, with a production in 2003 of 4.9 million tons, was the largest producer with the United States at 3.7 million tons coming in at the second place. India had the third largest output with 2.3 million tons.

Pakistan in 2003 produced 1.7 million tons, while Uzbekistan's output was just over a million tons. Pakistan has the same share in global output of cotton and global area devoted to the crop - about nine per cent.

Among the world's five largest producers of cotton, two - China and India - are net importers while the other three - the United States, Pakistan and Uzbekistan - are net exporters.

Given the way cotton production is spread around the globe and the demand for cotton is growing across the world, Pakistan could - in fact, should - adopt two different strategies in improving its own position.

Pakistan is the only large exporter of cotton that sits right next to the two countries that, on account of their size and the rapid increase in the purchasing power of their large populations, are seeing significant increases in their domestic demand for cotton and cotton products.

Distance matters for the export of a bulky item such as cotton. Pakistan's proximity to both China and India should help it enormously to exploit its geographical advantage.

If the current thawing of relations with India results in increasing trade between the two countries, cotton will figure in an important way in this expansion. To fully take advantage of the large and rapidly expanding markets in India, Pakistan should seriously examine ways to develop its physical infrastructure - roads, railways and ports - in order to become a major supplier to India.

Pakistan's cotton belt that stretches from central Punjab to northern Sindh is not very far from the main textile centres of India in the states of Gujarat and Maharashtra.

The second strategy for Pakistan is to improve the returns available to cotton growers. This is where world cotton politics enter the picture. With the exception of China, Turkey and Egypt, none of the major developing country producers of cotton provide government assistance to their growers.

According to the International Cotton Advisory Committee that watches over the various aspects of production and trade of cotton, the United States provides by far the largest amount of subsidy to the growers.

In 2003, the country's farmers received $2 billion worth of government subsidy, or $534 for every ton produced, not much less than one-half the price at which lint cotton is generally traded in international markets.

In the European Union most cotton is grown in Greece and Spain but subsidy is provided on the basis of formulas worked out in Brussels. The European farmers received $2,015 a ton in terms of government assistance, almost four times that of the farmers in the United States and almost twice the traded price of the commodity.

China, that provides an estimated $750 million of government assistance to its cotton producers, does much less well in terms of the average. Its farmers receive only $153 of subsidy for every ton of output.

Turkey provides even less - $93 per ton - and Egypt, at $114, a bit more than Turkey. India, Pakistan and Uzbekistan do not provide any government assistance to their cotton producers.

Subsidies by rich countries to their cotton farmers have the effect of lowering international prices by wide margins. According to data compiled by Oxfam, US cotton subsidies cost African nations some $300 million a year in lost export earnings and far outweigh the amount of foreign aid that the US provides poor nations such as Mali and Chad.

But the US is not the only country causing distortion in the international trade in cotton that end up hurting the poor. France, in spite of having given up political control of West Africa decades ago, continues to dominate the region's economy.

Much of the cotton produced by West Africa's poor cotton farmers is sold to French middlemen who then supply it to its textile producers at a price much higher than that paid to the poor farmers.

All this hurts the poor growers, particularly those in Africa and Asia. This was one reason why in September 2003, four African nations turned the question of subsidies into a cause celebre at the Cancun meetings of the WTO.

These countries maintained that the reluctance of rich nations to cut government handouts to their farmers was an evidence that they were not serious about using trade to alleviate poverty.

A lot of pressure was put on the African nations by the big players in the international trading system to change their stance.

The Africans stood their ground and contributed to the collapse of the Doha round of talks at Cancun. "If you want to lift the quality of life in poor countries, you have to lift these subsidies," said Chebet Maikut, president of the Ugandan National Farmers Federation in Kampala. "Even with our low production costs, we can't compete with those subsidies."

What Maikut said about the economies of cotton production in Uganda applies with equal force to Pakistan. Any lowering of subsidies by rich countries would help Pakistan's cotton growers and should contribute significantly to the country's efforts to alleviate poverty.

Any favourable adjustment in the economics of cotton will have a profound impact on poverty in Pakistan. It is one economic activity in which women, as pickers, have a large presence.

An increase in the price of cotton should help them. As suggested in my March 20 article, Pakistan must seriously address the problem posed by the prevalence of poverty among the country's women.

Given the pressure some developing country cotton growers have exerted on Europe, some relief may be on its way. European Union agricultural ministers have been discussing for a year a new programme of assistance to its own cotton producers that would overhaul the handouts they pay to cotton farmers.

The main element in this programme is to de-link subsidies from production - 60 per cent of government support would no longer be linked to cotton output. While the farmers would still get the same amount of money, it would not be based on how much they produce.

The remaining 40 per cent of the European Union's aid to cotton farmers would be given on the basis of the acreage they plant, not on output.

The International Cotton Advisory Committee estimates that if this plan is adopted and fully implemented by the EU, European cotton production would decline by some 10 to 20 per cent.

A 20 per cent decline is equivalent to about one million tons of foregone production, the entire output of Uzbekistan. While the United States already has the proposed European style subsidy plan in place, the large amount of subsidy it provides its cotton producers influences international prices.

This subsidy is received by only 25,000 farmers who control more than 40 per cent of global cotton exports. This is the basis of a landmark case brought by Brazil against the United States at the World Trade Organization.

There was much speculation in the international cotton markets as to how the WTO would rule. Developing countries took comfort in the fact that countries bringing cases to the WTO historically have won more than 90 per cent of the time.

It was not a surprise, therefore, when on April 26, the WTO ruled in favour of Brazil and against the United States. Pakistan was one of the several cotton producing countries that had formally supported the Brazilian reference to WTO.

Cotton subsidies by rich countries amount to just over $3 billion a year - only one percent of the $300 billion that is provided in aid of the small number of farmers who are still engaged in agriculture in these parts of the world.

That notwithstanding support provided to rich cotton farmers has taken on huge significance in global track talks. Poor countries have argued with great passion that these subsidies have driven down global cotton prices and leave their generally poor growers non-competitive in an industry that could provide a major source of income to them.

Even developed countries don't dispute this argument but they point to the political difficulties they face in making radical changes in their farm support programmes.

In most markets - particularly in commodity markets - marginal changes in supply have a huge impact on prices. A 10 to 20 per cent decline in the American and European output should result in a significant increase in the long-term price of cotton, by perhaps as much as a third.

This would be of enormous help to a major producer and exporter of cotton such as Pakistan. A 30 per cent increase in the price of traded lint cotton could add one per cent to Pakistan's GDP, improve average agricultural incomes, particularly for those engaged in caring for the crop and harvesting it.

My rough guess is that if the US and Europe give up subsidizing their farmer, some two million peasants in Pakistan could climb out of poverty. A large number of them would be women.

Cotton is one crop where the oft-repeated slogan advanced by many practitioners of development that trade is better than aid makes a great deal of sense. Pakistan stands to gain enormously if this slogan is turned into public policy and if the politics of cotton finally begins to work in its favour.

The ugly face of occupation

By Iffat Idris

One of the biggest challenges facing any columnist week in week out is, quite simply, what to write about? You want to be topical and relevant, but you also want variety - to address different issues. For a columnist, there are few things worse than playing the same record week after week. There are times, however, when you have no choice.

The photos released last week of Iraqi prisoners being tortured and abused by their American captors fall in this category. They show Iraqis in humiliating poses; being mocked by US soldiers; beaten; with guns pointed at their heads; and - the most unforgettable - an Iraqi perched on a wooden box, dressed in a Ku Klux Klan gown with a noose around his neck and electric wires attached to his hands.

Even though the "Bush-American policy-Iraq" issue has featured frequently in this column (especially in recent weeks), such shocking images could not be ignored. Not to write about them would be unforgivable.

What does one write? "Shock" seems too light a word to describe the reaction to those images. Yes, everyone knew American forces and personnel in Iraq were guilty of human rights abuses, in particular of failing to prevent or even show concern for Iraqi civilian losses.

Example one: the CPA (Coalition Provisional Authority) keeps no records of Iraqi civilian deaths. Example two: hundreds of civilians have been killed in Fallujah in recent weeks, but all the CPA talks of is finding the killers of four American contractors.

But even against this bloody backdrop the photos of Iraqi prisoners come as a shock. For they reveal not just a lack of concern for Iraqis but a truly hateful and sick mentality on the part of the Americans: one that sees the Iraqis very much as the enemy, to be crushed and destroyed.

The pictures show a new face of the US occupation of Iraq - infinitely uglier than anything seen before.

The apologists for war are already coming out with defence arguments like: "These are isolated incidents" and "Much worse happened under Saddam". The mother of the female soldier shown in the pictures responded to journalists' questions with her own: "What about what they do to us?" One Guardian columnist told his readers: "Whatever the rights and wrongs of the invasion of Iraq, this much is certain: had it not been for this 'basic mistake' (a reference to a statement by former British Foreign Secretary David Hurd), far worse things would have been happening to Iraqis in Abu Ghraib every single day. Unphotographed."

Is it alright, then, that as long as what the Americans do in Abu Ghraib is not as bad as what Saddam's jailers did, and as long they take photographs, we have nothing to complain about? And as long as Iraqis take foreigners hostage and parade them before the cameras with guns held to their heads, is it alright for the Americans to take humiliating pictures of Iraqi prisoners?

The whole premise of the US occupation of Iraq is that it has - or it will, for there is little sign of these things at the moment - bring freedom, justice and democracy to the long-suffering Iraqi people.

Given this mandate, it is not enough for coalition rule to be marginally (or even significantly) less cruel and oppressive than that of Saddam. Mere "improvements" do not win the moral high ground.

Washington has to be the complete opposite of the Baathist regime: nothing that it was, and everything that it wasn't. Looking at the Abu Ghraib photos, one would be hard pressed to tell the difference between them.

With these pictures the sole remaining justification for the war on Iraq is thrown out of the window. The link between Saddam Hussein and terrorism was proved unfounded even before the war; reports of weapons of mass destruction ready to be deployed "within 45 minutes of a command to do so" were proven mythical by the war.

But as a last resort there was always the human rights excuse: ridding the Iraqi people of the torture and cruelty of the Saddam Hussein regime had to mean the war on Iraq was a good thing. Can the US honestly claim that now?

As for the "isolated incidents" plea, that is a poor cop-out. Firstly, it is not true. The number of abuse stories coming out - from soldiers, private contractors, prisoners, human rights organizations - point to a problem that extends far wider than a few rotten apples in Abu Ghraib.

The New Yorker magazine has just published details of a 53-page US army report, that tells of detainees being subjected to "sadistic, blatant and wanton criminal abuses".

There are also the pictures of British soldiers abusing prisoners in their custody. True, there are questions over the authenticity of the pictures, but it is also true that there is "no smoke without fire".

Secondly, rot on the ground stems from rot at the top that seeps downwards. In this case, the cruelty and abuse by US troops and contractors on the frontline in US "detention centres", stems from their superiors turning a blind eye - or worse, condoning and sanctioning (in the interests of getting information out of prisoners) - their behaviour.

Their attitude, in turn, stems from a military command that failed to put in place the systems and processes needed to ensure the humane treatment of prisoners. One year into occupation, there is no excuse for the US not to have the capacity to handle prisoners.

The military command's failure ultimately stems from a political leadership in Washington that has always placed its own interests and its own military success, conquest and control of Iraq before the interests and human rights of the Iraqi people.

At every point where the US faced a choice between doing what was best for its own agenda or what was best for the Iraqis, it opted for the former. In doing so, it generated the peculiar environment in which atrocities such as those shown in the CBS pictures became acceptable, even normal. Bottom line: the buck for what has happened in Abu Ghraib stops with George W. Bush.

The photos have highlighted another disturbing aspect of the US occupation of Iraq, one initially exposed by the brutal murder of four US contractors in Fallujah.

It is the increasing "privatization" - even commercialization - of war. Thousands of individuals and firms are making a fortune in Iraq, carrying out tasks that the coalition is too under-manned to do itself.

Yes, these tasks include what you would expect from the private sector: acting as private security guards for civilian workers; filling in on supply, administration and other non-military duties for active soldiers, thereby freeing them for military duties.

But they also include tasks like guarding prisoners and interrogating them. The contracting out of duties as sensitive and skill-requiring as interrogation to private firms is truly stunning.

Its importance cannot be overstated. For while on the one hand, it points to the unpreparedness of the US military machine to run Iraq, it also points to a regime operating outside any rule of law.

US soldiers are subject to military law and discipline. Civilian contractors are not. Iraqis could be subject to Iraqi law and justice - imperfect as it is. Non-Iraqi contractors are not. US personnel operating on US soil would be subject to US law. US personnel operating on Iraqi soil are not.

In short, there is no check or accountability mechanism for US civilian contractors in Iraq. Bottom line: they can do what they want in Iraq - they are doing what they want. Again, it is the Pentagon and the White House that are directly to blame for this state of affairs.

The irony - the tragedy - is that the administration and the country that should be the most disturbed by the prisoner pictures, is in fact among the least bothered. President Bush's pathetic "I don't like it one bit" words of condemnation would be more suited to the result of a football game, than to the images flooding our television screens and newspapers.

Note: "our" televisions and papers, but not those of the US. For, other than CBS, the American media has yet again demonstrated its capacity to ignore fundamental truths when reporting the Iraq war: no one is covering the story with anything like the attention it should get. (It also comes as no surprise that the Pentagon put great pressure on CBS not to show the pictures).

For all those who thought the US had done its worst in Iraq, the pictures of Iraqi prisoners were an eye-opener. Now, one can only hope that they really are the nadir - that there is not worse to come.

Are Iraqis subhuman?

By Omar Kureishi

WERE there any warnings or signals that were ignored that might have foreseen something as horrendous as 9/11? A bi-partisan commission is looking into this though its findings will not be available till after the elections. Will the findings allow the United States to be better prepared or more alert?

Not just the United States but most of the world is more alive to the threat of terrorism. It is a global problem. Why hasn't the United Nations, for instance, not constituted a commission to look into the nature of the threat and its causes? Why have the best minds of the world not got together to devise some common strategy against terrorism? This would be a commonsense approach but international politics is governed by national interests and this is what makes the world complicated and unsafe.

At the time of 9/11, there was worldwide condemnation and our hearts went out to the American people and we shared in their grief. Why is there now an upsurge of anti-American sentiments? This is not just confined to the Arab or Muslim world. To suggest that this anti-Americanism is caused by envy or jealously is moonshine. George Soros in his book The Bubble Of American Supremacy tries to provide some answers.

While his wrath is directed at the Bush administration, it is applicable more generally at the way the United States looks at the world: "The supremacist ideology of the Bush administration is in contradiction with the principles of an open society because it claims possession of an ultimate truth. It postulates that because we are stronger than others, we must know better and we must have right on our side," he writes.

It is this supremacist ideology that provides the moral justification of the right to pre-emptive action. According to George Soros this leads to the notion of two classes of sovereignty; the sovereignty of the United States, which takes precedence over international treaties and obligations, and the sovereignty of all other states. "This is reminiscent of George Orwell's Animal Farm: All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others."

Those who have lived in the United States for any length of time find it hard to reconcile the arrogance of its foreign policy with the kind, generous, easygoing people with whom they interacted. The years that I spent at the University of Southern California were amongst the happiest of my life. I allow for the fact that this was a long time ago and the world has moved on but when I worked for the PIA, I went back and forth for short trips, I found that I could relate to the people and felt far more comfortable than I did in other countries. I did not entirely buy into liberty and democracy and free enterprise, there were flaws and contradictions but by and large the American way of life was a pretty decent way of life.

I haven't been back since 9/11. Can a single event change the fundamental character of a people? I have heard from some Pakistanis who tell me that life is not so rosy for them and they are looked at suspiciously, some victims of stereotyping that leads to institutional bigotry, that is to say, socially approved. The onus is on them to prove that they are not now or ever been members of groups that have terrorist links. Shades of McCarthyism. It was pretty bad immediately after 9/11. But the fear that gripped the country has lessened so too the antagonism but there is still the eerie feeling that Big Brother is watching.

As a Pakistani, naturally, I am concerned. But the Pakistanis are having it rough not because of their nationality but their religion. Terrorism is seen almost exclusively as Islamic fundamentalism or militancy and we are witness to a systematic slander of our faith. This is not just confined to the United States but has become the conventional wisdom of most of the world.

Let me go back to 9/11. Those who hi-jacked commercial airliners and flew them into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon were Saudis. From this single fact was constructed a worldwide conspiracy, the declaration of war by the Muslim world against what Bush and Blair continue to call "the civilized world." No distinction was made between the terrorists and the overwhelming majority of Muslims who are not only peace-loving but who practise a faith that brought light to the dark ages and which honours the dignity and equality of all humankind. This was and is the most vicious kind of stereotyping.

But stereotyping can be a double-edged sword. The disclosure of "sadistic, blatant and wanton" abuses by US soldiers of Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad has not only come as a shock but makes nonsense of "the civilized world" on whose behalf Bush and Blair are waging a war on terror. What is interesting in condemning these brutal atrocities, the Americans and the British have been quick to point that these were acts by individuals and do not reflect any complicity on the part of the military. In other words, we should not stereotype the US or British armed forces. Why does this logic not extend to the Muslim world?

I do not think that we have heard the last of this brutal behaviour. Torture of prisoners is no different to the third-degree method adopted by police all over the world, including in the United States and Britain. The simple truth is that the atavism of cruelty is far too deeply ingrained in the human race for even saints to be entrusted with uncontrolled power over the lives of others.

The first casualty of war is not truth but our sense of humanity. A count of sorts is kept of American and British lives lost in Iraq but not of Iraqi lives who number in the thousands. Is this because "the civilized world" sees them as a subhuman species or lesser forms?