Office of the United States Trade Representative


Trade, health and Africa's future
Journal of Commerce

By Robert B. Zoellick 

No region of the world has a greater need to seize the opportunities of global trade liberalization than Africa. And no region faces a more devastating challenge from the scourge of infectious disease, particularly HIV/AIDS. Any effective strategy to strengthen trade with Africa must overcome a disease that can destroy lives as well as economies.

Trade is proving a powerful engine for hope and economic opportunity across the developing world. From San Salvador to Santiago and from Casablanca to Cape Town, open markets are empowering entrepreneurs and bringing new growth and commercial dynamism.

Nowhere is this more true than in sub-Saharan Africa, where America's African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) has delivered hundreds of millions of dollars in new investment and thousands of jobs by opening U.S. markets to Africa's exports. As a result of AGOA, more than 92 percent of African trade from eligible countries now enters the U.S. duty-free. The value of U.S. imports of non-fuel AGOA goods grew by nearly 16 percent in the first seven months of 2002, despite a drop in total U.S. imports from the region.

To build on the success of AGOA, the U.S. and member countries of the Southern African Customs Union (SACU) have launched free-trade agreement negotiations. The customs union's five countries - Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, South Africa and Swaziland - have achieved the most open and dynamic markets on the continent. South Africa exported AGOA goods worth more than $1 billion last year, supporting over 35,000 jobs. Tiny Lesotho has tapped AGOA's trade incentives to become sub-Saharan Africa's largest supplier of apparel to the U.S. market. Together, we are tearing down the old barriers that separate us and forging a united future.

Yet the HIV/AIDS epidemic threatens to undercut sub-Saharan Africa's economic progress just as the region is poised to break the cycle of poverty and take its rightful place in the global economy. Nearly 30 million Africans have the AIDS virus, including 3 million children under the age of 15. In Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland, more than a third of the adult population is HIV-positive.

HIV/AIDS has ravaged African societies, striking down wage earners, teachers and professionals in all sectors and leaving behind an estimated 11 million AIDS orphans. If not countered, it will devastate the African work force and undermine hard-fought economic gains.

We believe the power of trade can be a key tool in the struggle against HIV/AIDS. Trade attracts resources, jobs, greater innovation and improved health care - and can spur creative partnerships between nations and corporations. Trade and economic growth can help to build the physical and economic infrastructure required for a sustained effort to counter disease.

There is new hope and action in Africa's fight against HIV/AIDS. President Bush's recent commitment to nearly triple U.S. funding for HIV/AIDS treatment - including additional support for the Global Fund for AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria - is a significant step. New business networks, fostered by trade agreements, can help forge partnerships that will model best public and private-sector practices and help to overcome the high hurdles of inadequate health-care infrastructures.

We can employ free-trade negotiations as a catalyst for broader development strategies, including the replication and emulation of health-care success stories. For example, the Botswana government, Merck & Co. and The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have worked together to help create a comprehensive program for HIV/AIDS prevention, education, care and treatment. The Global Business Coalition on HIV/AIDS, an alliance of international businesses as diverse as Coca-Cola, DaimlerChrysler, Shell and AOL Time Warner, is applying the business sector's skills and ex-pertise to fighting HIV/AIDS. The U.S.-SACU free-trade accord may be able to incorporate a "best-practices" HIV/AIDS project, so that workers' prospects and productivity improve, brightening the outlook for investors, too.

The link between economic growth and public health could not be clearer. Improvements in public health are not only a consequence of economic growth, they also lay the foundation for it. As AGOA demonstrates, trade can drive economic growth, openness and opportunity, so as to improve people's lives and ameliorate poverty. As incomes grow, families and societies have the means to improve health.

Robert B. Zoellick is United States Trade Representative. He may be reached at 1-888-473-USTR (8787), or via e-mail at This article was co-authored by Jacob Nkate, Botswana's minister of trade and industry; and Raymond Gilmarti, chief executive of Merck & Co.

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