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Africans Have Different Priorities: Ebere Akobundu Op-Ed in the International Herald Tribune

Op-Eds and Articles

Published in the International Herald Tribune

Published in the International Herald Tribune

November 26, 1999


Priorities need to shift if trade agreements are to become an agent for positive change inthe countries of sub-Saharan Africa. The economic conditions there define “positive change” as an improvement in the human condition. Increases in wealth will first provide families with basic necessities, and only later with the disposable income to demand improvements in environmental quality. Consideration of environmental issues in WTO trade talks threatens to restrain trade and progress in the 48 sub-Saharan countries. Detractors of free trade point to environmental degradation as a consequence of trade and want this to be a priority issue in trade negotiations. They would condition trade with countries of the region on environmental policies. Such linkage would make an acceptable set of environmental policies precede increased access to the markets of developed countries. But in a region in which the basic necessities of life are luxuries, that is at best unrealistic and at worst inhumane. The poverty, disease and despair of too many families in developing countries can find a lasting solution only through wealth creation. Environmental benefits do not hold much sway with an African mother trying to feed five children despite lack of clean water, electricity and transportation. This attitude is not a result of ignorance, indifference to the environment or shortsightedness. The harsh realities of everyday life impose such priorities on individuals in the region. The benefits that people seek are those afforded by open markets and free trade. The best way to ensure adequate provision of basic necessities is to increase wealth, and trade has been found to contribute to economic growth and wealth creation. Sebastian Edwards, a professor of economics at the University of California in Los Angeles, has found that countries with a more open trading system have faster productivity growth than countries with a closed trading system. As economic development occurs, individuals’ priorities shift to embrace concerns beyond basic needs. Families that worry less about the source of the next meal or access to medical and energy services have the ability and inclination to address environmental concerns. A study by John M. Antle and G. Heidebrink is of special relevance to the resource-rich countries of sub-Saharan Africa. It shows that increases in wealth are positively correlated with increases in forested lands, starting from a per capita income level of $3,000 (in 1998 dollars). All but four of the region’s countries are below that level. Trade requires structural changes if per capita income is to show a sustained increase. For example, declining soil quality reduces agricultural output. Ramon Lopez, a professor of resource economics at the University of Maryland, has found that establishment of ownership rights is a necessary condition for trade and economic growth to result in improved environmental conditions. With establishment of property rights, individuals become direct claimants to net revenue from their investments, and are therefore motivated to protect the long-term value of these. Because environmental degradation is costly, individuals with secure property rights have incentives to protect their land. On the road that leads to economic and environmental health, it is important to keep moving forward. Conditioning trade on environmental quality puts the cart before the horse. Environmental concerns are as important as wealth creation on this journey, but one must come before the other. The writer, an environmental policy analyst at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.