COMMONWEALTH: 'Get Rid of Your Agricultural Subsidies' - McKinnon

KAMPALA - The political crisis in Pakistan and global trade negotiations are amongst issues set to dominate the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) that starts Friday in the Ugandan capital, Kampala.

The Nov. 23-25 event is expected to bring together leaders from the 53 member states of the Commonwealth. This organisation mainly includes former British colonies, and promotes good governance and economic development among other objectives. CHOGM takes place every two years, and was last held in Malta.Trade has also featured in sideline discussions ahead of CHOGM, along with concerns about climate change and progress towards the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Eight goals were agreed on by global leaders in 2000 in a bid to raise living standards around the world by 2015.

Outgoing Commonwealth Secretary-General Don McKinnon called on the United States, Europe and Japan to remove agricultural subsidies that have taken a particular toll on the developing world.

"If you are really worried about poverty in Africa, get rid of your agricultural subsidies. If Africa could produce agricultural goods and send them to Europe free of barriers, it would fight poverty," he said Wednesday while addressing a workshop for African and Caribbean journalists in Kampala. "The idea is to have everyone free of subsidies. There should be a level playing field."

Calls for the removal of subsidies -- long a thorny issue in world trade talks -- have widespread support.

"European Union (EU) agricultural subsidies are destroying livelihoods in developing countries. By encouraging overproduction and export dumping, these subsidies are driving down world prices of key commodities such as sugar, dairy and cereals," says a campaign document from international development agency Oxfam.

Titled 'Stop the Dumping: How EU agricultural subsidies are damaging livelihoods in the developing world', the document notes that a review of subsidies which enrich Europe's farmers while victimising small-scale agriculturalists in developing nations is central to fair trade.

Civil society groups also point out that fair trade is important to helping developing countries achieve the MDGs, and that many nations, particularly in Africa, are behind in realising the goals.

"There has been some progress, but this is not enough. Many men, women and children are still dying from HIV/AIDS -- they have no access to anti-retroviral treatment," said Kumi Naidoo, secretary general of CIVICUS, an international alliance of civil society organisations.

The 'AIDS Epidemic Update', released this week, indicates that 5,700 people die of AIDS related diseases daily, while 6,800 people are newly infected with HIV. The report -- published by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS and the World Health Organisation -- further notes that most of the 33.2 million people living with HIV/AIDS are in sub-Saharan Africa.

In addition to the pandemic, lack of access to water and sanitation facilities is causing concern. MDG seven, which focuses on ensuring environmental sustainability, requires countries to halve the number of people without sustainable access to potable water and basic sanitation facilities.

Anna Tibaijuka, U.N. under-secretary-general and the executive director of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT), noted that water and sanitation are jointly considered the entry point to achieving other MDGs.

"Lack of access to water is the key contributing factor as to why adolescent girls drop out of school," she said, adding that girls in Kibera -- a slum in Kenya's capital, Nairobi -- spend up to four hours a day fetching water. Kibera is reportedly Africa's largest informal settlement, housing over 700,000 people.

According to the U.N., 327 million people living in slums in Commonwealth countries have no access to basic services such as clean water and sanitation provision.

Lack of financing for development needs -- including in the field of reproductive health -- has also received attention during sideline discussions.

In CHOGM host Uganda, the under-equipped reproductive health sector has seen many women die from complications linked to pregnancy, some as they walked long distances to health centres to give birth.

Latest figures from the United Nations Development Programme indicate that the East African country has a maternal mortality rate of 880 deaths per 100,000 live births (this figure is adjusted to account for problems such as underreporting of deaths). This compares dismally to figures in the developed world: Sweden, for instance, has two deaths for every 100,000 live births, and Canada six.

Ezra Suruma, Uganda's finance minister, said improving health centres in the rural areas where 87 percent of Ugandans lived posed a serious challenge to government.

"They are not well equipped; even when a woman in labour arrives at the health centre, there are not enough qualified doctors," he said, blaming a shortage of funds for this situation.

Such explanations aside, questions are being raised about the level of commitment of governments as concerns development.

"There is a declining level of trust in government and the policy leadership to meet MDGs. If governments fail to realise them, this trust will be further eroded," said Naidoo.

Critics further question why certain governments claim not to have funds to meet social needs, even as they lose substantial amounts to corruption.

CHOGM will be officially opened by Queen Elizabeth the Second, who last visited Uganda in 1954.

Once underway, the meeting will doubtless focus extensively on Pakistan, where a state of emergency was declared earlier this month. Rights activists, opposition supporters, lawyers and journalists have been detained in the Asian country -- and judges dismissed.

President Pervez Musharraf also suspended the country's constitution, claiming this was necessitated in part by threats from Islamic extremists. However, observers claim he was more concerned with intervening in the judiciary, notably concerning legal challenges to his re-election in October.

On Thursday, a court staffed with judges sympathetic to Musharraf confirmed the re-election, after throwing out the final challenge to his continued rule.

Pakistan risks being suspended from the Commonwealth a second time if Musharraf fails to repeal emergency rule, restore the constitution and judicial independence, release detainees, ensure media freedom and give up his military position. The Pakistani leader is expected to step down as head of the army in the wake of Thursday's ruling.

The Commonwealth has also demanded that Pakistan move quickly towards creating the conditions under which free and fair polls can be held. Musharraf has said that parliamentary elections will take place in his country in January 2008.

The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, which comprises foreign affairs ministers from nine member states, met in Kampala Thursday to decide whether to suspend Pakistan or not.

Musharraf has reportedly asked the Commonwealth to delay punitive action, and give him more time to comply with the demands of the grouping. Pakistan was first suspended in 1999 after a coup by Musharraf. The suspension lasted for five years.

While Zimbabwe no longer forms part of the Commonwealth, it may also come under discussion in Kampala. The Southern African country left the organisation in 2003; this was amidst concerns about the deteriorating political and economic conditions in Zimbabwe. (END/2007)

Copyright (c) 2007 IPS-Inter Press Service.

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