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The comfortable rich are being protected from the desperate poor.  Johann Hari. Wednesday, June 4, 2003.

We are constantly being told that the problems of Africa are monstrously complex and - it is hinted - insoluble. But there is at least one area where they are not. There is a simple, positive step that we in the developed world can take that many experts believe would almost end abject poverty in Africa in a matter of years. (In case that sounds a little dry, bear in mind that we are talking about one billion people living on less than 60p a day, 50 million people hungry right now, and 40,000 children at risk of starvation.)

This one act would, according to Oxfam, have an impact seven times larger than that of the combined aid budget of the entire world - and it would not cost us a penny. On the contrary: it would save us money. It would put cash back in your wallet (or at least take it off your tax bill). What is this magic bullet, this life-saving but costless political act? It's easy: we could end the subsidies we dole out to farmers in the rich world. Our agricultural subsidies are crippling Africa. The United States, for example, will pay out $182.8bn (£112.25bn) to American farmers in the next decade, while African nations can hardly afford to pay anything to theirs. Yet Africa's agricultural products compete in their home market against those from the US - so they enter that market $182.8bn behind US goods.

Farm products from the poor world can never catch up; they cannot add the $182.2bn of value needed just to get to the same starting place as the US products that flood the world. And it's not just Africans who suffer: in Mexico, for example, unsubsidised corn farmers have been bankrupted because American corn is sold at 20 per cent below the market rate. Remove the subsidy, and they will compete fairly. Mexican corn will sell; Mexicans will get richer. Nor is this a knee-jerk anti-US point - the European Union's Common Agricultural Policy is even worse, lavishing more than $40bn (£ 24.56bn) on its farmers each year.

And, unbelievably, that isn't the only kicking we give to fledgling economies. Not only do we prevent farmers in developing countries from expanding into their own domestic markets by flooding their countries with our subsidised goods, we also prevent them from selling their goods to us at a fair rate. The EU, for example, imposes quotas on the amount of non-European sugar that can be brought into Europe. This costs Mozambique $100m (£61.4m) a year in lost exports - money which would go a long way in a poor country.

Africans are now as hobbled by our agricultural policies as troublesome slaves were by their white masters. Clare Short was quite right when, as International Development Secretary, she said the current, mad system was "like a conspiracy to keep Africa poor." Africans could be self-determining farmers, not starving beggars, if only we stopped fiddling with the market processes that we otherwise merrily ram down the throats of the world's poor. The old adage about capitalism for the poor and socialism for the rich has never rung more true, nor smelt so bad.

For a brief moment, it seemed that the developed countries might have realised the harm they were doing. After the 1999 World Trade Organisation trade round in Seattle was brought down by anti-globalisation protests, it was promised that the next trade round at Doha, in Qatar, would concentrate on the needs of the world's poor. And then - a miracle - Doha, at least in rhetoric, seemed actually to deliver: the developed nations promised to find a framework to hack down agricultural subsidies substantially in the next few years. This is all supposed to be put into writing in Cancun, in Mexico, in September. So why am I so pessimistic?

The timetables put in place at Doha for finding ways to dismantle our sordid subsidies have been allowed to fall apart. The G8 meeting in Evian which ended yesterday made no progress on trade issues at all. Development agencies are dismayed that the French President Jacques Chirac's assurances that Monday would be dedicated to discussing Africa came to nothing. Trade barely featured on the agenda of the rich world's leaders, so - as Barry Coates, the director of the World Development Movement, explains - "Africa remains a scar on the conscience of Tony Blair," and, he might have added, to all of us.

To be fair, the French did try to take a positive step earlier this year. Mr Chirac astonished the leaders of poor countries when he reversed a long-standing French position and offered to ditch export guarantees. This apparently dull piece of accounting-speak in fact refers to a small but significant part of the problem. Europeans and Americans actually pay export guarantees to their farmers as an extra fee to help them push their products on other countries, where they can barge the products of non-subsidised nations out of the way. The Americans refused point- blank to even consider this move.

So we are left with nothing. Nobody seems to know where to go from here. Kevin Watkins, the head of research at Oxfam UK, says the Doha agenda is now "on a life support machine. Unless there is a very dramatic turn- around, there is not going to be any meaningful agreement at Cancun."

The governments of developed countries are not doing this out of malice: they are giving in to well-organised farming lobby groups. But the current climate of subsidy - as even some of the more honest Tories, such as John Redwood, admit - is not good for our farmers either. Look at the misery of our expensively subsidised farming sector - listen to the endless bleating self-pity of Britain's farmers for just a moment - and ask: is it worth crushing Africa for this?

Look at New Zealand. It has, since the 1980s, shifted from a heavily subsidised agricultural sector, similar to ours, to one which pays for itself. Their farming sector has, as a result, never been stronger, because it is finally standing on its own. American and European farmers would be better off (and have a clearer conscience) if they imitated their New Zealand cousins and became a proper, professional industry, rather than the bloated, subsidy-begging beast we see today.

Our Labour Government is one of the few good guys on the world stage when it comes to this issue. Justin Forsyth, the policy director at Oxfam explains: "When you speak to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, they really understand these issues. They are easily some of the best leaders when it comes to talking about development and dismantling subsidy, and they are making the right arguments time and again. Mr Blair even put this issue at the centre of his New Year's message in 2003. The big question is: how much time and energy are they dedicating to this? Is it receiving as much energy as, say, Iraq?"

Give Africans access to their own markets and ours, and they will begin to feed themselves. Welcome though aid is, it can never be as constructive nor as dignified as trade. The Jubilee 2000 movement was amazingly successful at putting the disgrace of Third World debt at the top of the international agenda. We need another, equivalent mass campaign to highlight the monstrosity of our farm subsidies and tariffs. The clock is ticking: Cancun is now only 100 days away.