Ambassador Wayne Neill: We are deeply honored to have among us the Minister of State of Planning, the Minister of Commerce and Industry, and of course the Trade Representative of the U.S., in charge of multilateral negotiations, Monsieur Robert Zoellick.
Monsieur Robert Zoellick took office as U.S. Trade Representative on February 7, 2001. He is the 13th USTR. He is also a member of the cabinet of President George W. Bush. He has had a distinguished career in the government and also in the private sector. M. Zoellick served at the White House, and the Treasury, and in the Department of State, where he was a counselor and after that he was a senior executive in the mortgage business. Now, as I said before, he is a member of our cabinet with responsibilities for World Trade Organization issues. Now, I would like to invite the others to speak. We will start with the Minister of State (the minister cedes the priority); oh, rather, we will rather start with the U.S. Trade Representative.
USTR Zoellick: First I want to thank you all for joining us today. I have had the opportunity to visit because the Minister of Commerce, Monsieur Akplogan, invited me to come visit when we were working together in Geneva this summer. So, I promised to come and I wanted to keep my pledge. And one of the primary purposes of my visit was to listen and to learn about the situation for economic development, especially with cotton, in Benin. The President was very gracious last night and we had a long meeting to discuss these topics. And I was very appreciative that the Minister of State and the Ministers of Commerce and Agriculture could spend so much time with me this morning as well.
But in addition to meeting with the ministers, I will be meeting some members of the parliament next, and then some cotton farmers and small business people. Because the purpose is to try to deepen our dialogue about development, particularly related to cotton. We also had a good discussion about the follow up from our meeting with the World Trade Organization in July and how to try to move ahead the Doha Development Agenda negotiations.
We have created a special sub-committee in those negotiations on cotton and we discussed ways to move that progress forward to try to achieve substantial reduction of subsidies as well as tariffs. But we also discussed with the Minister of Agriculture some opportunities to broaden and diversify the development in agriculture in Benin. And finally, we discussed the Millennium Challenge Account and AGOA. We are very proud that Benin is one of the first countries to qualify for the new aid program under the Millennium Challenge Account. This aid initiative is designed to try to help countries that have scored very well in investing in their people, in good governance practices, and economic reform policies. It is designed to provide money directly to try to help countries reduce and overcome impediments to growth.
The President of the Millennium Challenge Corporation, Mr. Applegarth, was recently in Benin. And as I discussed with the Minister of State, I as the Trade Representative serve on the board of that corporation and will indeed be attending a board meeting right after I return to Washington. And this visit will enable me to bring back the direct contact that I’ve had with those in Benin who are trying to develop the proposals. And finally, AGOA, the African Growth and Opportunity Act, eliminates tariffs for over 90% of sub-Saharan African countries products. But we haven’t yet been as successful in getting Benin’s exports as an active part of that trade program. So we talked about ways to try to overcome that problem. So I will conclude by just thanking the Minister of State and the two Ministers for being such gracious hosts and for the opportunity to work with them.
Minister Of State Ammousou: Ladies and Gentlemen, I would like to confirm the two main issues: the point just made about the meetings we just had and to place this meeting within a context of periodic consultations, which the governments of United States of America and of Benin hold to assess points of mutual cooperation.
The visit of the USTR allows us to make progress in our mutual understanding. This is what makes this morning’s meeting so important. As you know, Benin and the United States have been long-time partners. The purpose of our meeting this morning was to focus on the resolution of a specific problem, that is the difficulties which are encountered in the cotton sector in general, and specifically in our sub-region including Benin.
The second important issue we discussed today relates to two new initiatives that the government of the United States is offering, in addition to our normal cooperation issues. One of the new initiatives is the AGOA, which is meant to open the U.S. market to African products. This is a new approach that comes in addition to traditional cooperation that exists between our two countries. It is also another opportunity given to us in order to help speed up the growth of our economies.
The second initiative is the Millennium Challenge Account, which is in addition to the regular programs of cooperation; that is in addition to the financial resources put at our disposition, that is through USAID or other sources, offers a new opportunity of technical financial cooperation to support us in our efforts towards the eradication of poverty and our efforts to speed up economic growth. Both items being intimately related. That is why in the meetings which we just had we addressed the three issues: the cotton issue in detail, the AGOA initiative and the Millennium Challenge Account, because as a matter of fact, all three issues have the same objective: reduce poverty; offer new economic development opportunities to enable the most vulnerable people to gain hope and stabilize the economies of our country. This is the benefit of our meeting and we’ve been very happy to see that the U.S. government is very committed to supporting us and I would like us to be proud of the efforts we’ve been able to achieve in order to qualify for both AGOA and the Millennium Challenge Corporation.
As has just been mentioned, Benin’s qualification is based on certain criteria. The fact that we’ve been able to meet these requirements is something very important, and the fact that the American government is committed to assisting us is an encouragement for us; now that we know that we are qualified, we must persevere, to improve on our achievements. What we need to do at this point is to put in place some strategies with a view to improving and be among the best, because our qualification is not permanent; it is a qualification, which needs to be updated based on the efforts made and the results achieved. This means that if we want to remain in the pipeline for long and benefit from this assistance, we must pursue our efforts. This is what I wanted to add.
Question: (Reporter’s name: Anorin Karin from "FRATERNITE") Mr. Zoellick just said that Benin is not benefiting from AGOA. I would like to know what the United States is planning to do to speed up the process so that Benin can start benefiting from AGOA.
Zoellick: First, Benin fully qualifies for AGOA. So, the issue is how to take advantage of the open market. So one of the topics that we discussed was the possibility of diversifying and expanding Benin’s export profile. This can include other agricultural products; it can include textiles and other items. For some other agricultural items we have to make sure that Benin’s products meet various health and safety standards working with our ministry of agriculture. But as I mentioned, this morning I ate some very excellent fresh pineapples and mangoes. And I’d like to be able to eat them in the United States as well as here. But we also discussed that for fresh products, such as fruits and vegetables, Benin and its neighbors need to work on air transport capabilities to the United States. So there are a number of steps that could be taken. But the key point is that AGOA has helped other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa boost their export by 30 to 50 percent. So we want to help Benin to do that too.
Question: (Maurice Tossou from "LA NOUVELLE TRIBUNE") Most observers of trade issues comment that the solution to the cotton issue is the cancellation of subsidies to the U.S. farmers. What is the U.S. government ready to do about this?
Second part of my question: Today, it is obvious that some initiatives are being taken to reduce poverty or to assist some countries to develop. But the paradox is that the United States, which is the only superpower, which can take every decision unilaterally -- I cannot understand why the United States is not taking decisions that lead to the development of the poor countries.
Zoellick: First, I see from your anchor (referring to a necklace reporter was wearing) that we also need to work on the fishing industry in Benin. [Laughter.] I was just in Senegal and they have a very good fishing industry. But let’s turn to cotton. The issue for cotton is a question both of subsidies but also tariffs and other obstacles to market access, to the ability to sell into markets. And we discussed both of those. Because one of the items I discussed with the President last night is that with the end of the fifty-year old system of apparel quotas, there will be a smaller number of countries producing cotton apparel. And a number of those countries such as China, India, Pakistan have very high taxes, tariffs, that affect the ability of Benin or the U.S. and other countries to sell cotton. The reason I mention this is because we will be more effective in reducing subsidies if we can open markets at the same time. Because it’s obvious that any farmer that gets a subsidy doesn’t want to give it up, whether they are in the U.S., Europe, or China. But we are committed to substantial reductions in our cotton subsidies if we can reduce overall subsidies and open markets.
And it’s because of the work of the Minister of Commerce and his colleagues from West Africa that we have formed a special group to focus on the cotton issue. And we’ve started that sub-committee’s work just last month. And we talked about making sure that it stays on a quick track. But I also discussed with the Minister of State and the other Ministers about ways our cotton industries can work together. If you look at the production statistics for the "cotton four" countries you see the production has gone up, but the yield from land has not gone up. So our ministry of agriculture and our private National Cotton Council have been working with their colleagues in Benin, and they will be returning in January to see ways that we could also help increase productivity here. This can include use of biotechnology; it can include other agricultural extension programs that relay knowledge about how to increase productivity. And as the Minister of State mentioned, it should also involve the Millennium Challenge Account to increase the infrastructure to bring products to market.
But perhaps the best way to summarize: as I said to my colleagues, one reason I wanted to accept their invitation to visit and to talk to cotton farmers, as well as government officials was to see with my own eyes and listen with my own ears, so that I can give this the priority it deserves. It is very clear that cotton is very important for the development and success of Benin. It is good to try to diversify, but we have to deal with the fact that they exist today too. Thank you very much.