WASHINGTON, Dec. 10 (UPI) -- U.S. import preferences for African clothing manufacturers came under scrutiny Tuesday as the dispute between developed and developing nations on market access within the World Trade Organization continues.
Currently, 38 African nations enjoy duty-free and quota-free access to the U.S. apparel and footwear markets through 2008, under the African Growth and Opportunities Act (AGOA) of May 2000. These countries rank among the world's poorest, and their fledgling industries will soon face fierce competition from Asian manufacturers unless Congress agrees to extend AGOA through at least 2015 - the basis of two legislative bills introduced in November by Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN) and Representative Jim McDermott (D-WA.)
"There is no doubt that AGOA has been a watershed" in U.S.-African economic relations, said Mauritius Trade Minister Jaya Cuttaree, speaking at a private-sector session of the 2003 AGOA Forum in Washington. In the three years of AGOA's implementation, products imported under its provisions have come to account for half of all U.S. imports from Africa.
"We can speak of pre-AGOA and post-AGOA" periods, Cuttaree said, with reference not only to economic growth but also to African political reform and increased attention to African affairs in Washington. "The world is taking Africa seriously," he concluded.
Commerce Secretary Donald Evans, speaking to the forum, praised the growth of African businesses under the act but referred disapprovingly to the recent collapse of WTO talks in Cancun.
"There are some countries resisting trade negotiations," Evans said, "and this short-term thinking is what we must overcome. The developing world has much to gain from WTO talks."
Evans's speech marks a change in the administration's emphasis from President Bush's remarks to the last AGOA Forum, held January 15 in Mauritius. During a video address to that conference, the President called for prompt extension of AGOA, raising hopes that foreign investment would be spurred by long-term guarantees of trade preference.
When a coalition of developing countries walked out on WTO talks on Sept. 14 in Cancun, however, "senior U.S. Administration and Congressional officials came away from Cancun with the perception that Africa had played a negative role," according to the African Coalition for Trade's U.S.-Africa Trade Report. The report concludes that an AGOA extension bill "was suddenly moved far down on the list of priorities of both the Bush administration and Congress."
For proponents of the so-called "AGOA III" extension bills in the House and Senate, two upcoming deadlines stand out. The first is Sept. 30, 2004, the expiration date for a provision that allows the least-developed nations to import inexpensive fabric from non-African nations for use in clothing manufacture. AGOA III would extend this provision for at least another four years; without it, the expense of using African-made fabrics could severely damage the industries of the poorest nations.
The second key date is Jan. 1, 2005, when all import quotas on apparel will be eliminated under the Uruguay Round Agreement on Textiles and Clothing. Chinese clothing manufacturers, Africa's main competitors, will still face duties on their exports to the U.S. but will nonetheless benefit from a lifting of current quotas.
Advocates for AGOA III, including the African Coalition for Trade and the AGOA III action committee, remain confident that some form of the bill will pass before the Sept. 30 deadline - though it may be pared down to essentials.
Their thoughts, however, also turn to the WTO disputes. Rosa Whitaker, former Assistant U.S. Trade Representative for Africa and co-chairman of the AGOA III action committee, wrote in the Corporate Council on Africa's Africa Journal that "whatever gets done to enhance AGOA, and as popular as the initiative is in Africa, the real prize for the region is the successful conclusion to the WTO's Doha negotiating round. The gains Africa stands to reap from the scaling back of rich country agriculture subsidies...dwarf any conceivable yield from AGOA preferences."