The Washington Post Column

Live 8 Meets Big 2

For reasons that don’t merit elaboration, I spent several hours over the past weekend stuck in European airports. That unexpected chunk of downtime — a little gift from the airline industry — gave me the equally unexpected opportunity to read all of the British and French newspapers, or at least all of the ones they sell at Charles de Gaulle Airport. Two stories dominated the news. One was Live 8, the series of concerts held around the world on Saturday to dramatize the plight of poor Africans. The other — let’s call it “Big 2” — was the supposedly bitter argument between Tony Blair, the British prime minister, and Jacques Chirac, the French president, over the future economic structure of the European Union, and in particular its massive agricultural subsidies.

Needless to say, the Live 8 stories made for better reading. True, there were a few snarky echoes of the British columnist Peter Hitchens, who recently wrote of how the hungry children of Africa were once again pooling their efforts to “rescue the sagging reputations of that needy and deprived group of balding, clapped-out rock stars who still long for the crowds that once listened to them.” But most others breathily quoted the pop stars describing the concerts as “the greatest thing that’s ever been organized probably in the history of the world,” or anyway “le plus grand show politico-humanitaire jamais organise, ” which amounts to more or less the same thing. There were accounts of the beautiful people in the front rows (Boris Becker, Brad Pitt, Kofi Annan), quotes from well-known poverty authorities such as Madonna (“Are you ready, London? Are you ready to start a revolution?”), human interest stories about impoverished Africans, and a bit of rhapsodizing about the first Pink Floyd performance in 20 years (“they played for 20 sublime minutes”). Everyone writing about the concerts, and everyone attending, clearly felt very good about themselves indeed.

By contrast, the articles about Blair, Chirac and the future of Europe were dull and convoluted, perhaps because the nature of their disagreement itself was murky. Last week Blair had appeared to demand sharp reductions in the $55 billion annual subsidy that European taxpayers spend on European farmers. Then he made a speech to the European Parliament claiming that he didn’t want reductions immediately, but sometime in the future. Then Chirac — speaking for much of Europe — let everyone know that he wasn’t taking the demand seriously in any case: The only contribution that the British had ever made to European agriculture, the French president quipped, was mad cow disease.

Nobody, of course, made any particular connection between the Live 8 concerts and the convoluted Big 2 debate. But, among those who work seriously on Africa, it has long been clear that what Africans need isn’t only cash, which can be stolen or wasted, but the opportunity to trade their way out of poverty, just as Asians did over the past several decades. Yet the current regime of agricultural tariffs, quotas and export subsidies, whether for American cotton or European sugar, so reduces the price of African agricultural products that African farmers cannot compete. Each European cow costs taxpayers $2.20 a day, while half the world’s population lives on less than $2 a day. Withdraw the subsidies for the cows, and Africans might even be able to make competitive cheese.

To their credit, both President Bush and the British government have tried over the past couple of days to make precisely this point. Bush told a British television interviewer that the United States was willing to give up its agricultural subsidies if Europe would. Gordon Brown, the British chancellor, declared a similar position: “Let us make these unacceptable trade subsidies history . . . let us make developed country protectionism history.” But there were few echoes of their calls in France, where politicians still consider the European Union’s agricultural subsidies among their greatest political accomplishments, or in most of the rest of Europe, either. Instead there were a number of sniffy comments about how this week’s Group of Eight summit would surely prove too stingy to “meet the challenge” of African poverty.

And maybe this isn’t surprising. For while the need to open up agriculture to trade is so obvious to development economists that it hardly bears repeating, the message seems not to have reached the Live 8 crowds. On the contrary, most of the concertgoers’ somewhat inchoate demands revolved around the much more appealing and, frankly, much simpler idea that the rich should give more money to the poor. Getting millions of people across Europe and the United States to support political leaders who will actually take steps to end the massive farm subsidies — temporarily or even permanently reducing the incomes of European and American farmers — is really very difficult. Or, anyway, it’s a lot harder than getting them to cheer when millionaire rapper Snoop Dogg shouts that “there’s a lot of rich people in the world and a lot of them are just selfish!”