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Islamic Group Pushes Plan for West African Cotton

  • Joe Bavier

West African financial, agricultural, and government representatives are in Burkina Faso to meet with a leading international Islamic group about how to tackle the problem of the region's troubled cotton sector. West African cotton growers have struggled in recent years to compete with heavily subsidized foreign producers.

The forum in the capital, Ouagadougou, was organized by the Organization of the Islamic Conference, a political and economic group of nearly 60 countries, including regional cotton producers Mali, Benin, Chad, and Burkina Faso.

The OIC's primary activities are aid and development, says one of its representatives at the conference, Nabika Diallo. He says the goal of the meeting is to find ways OIC member countries can assist one another in promoting the cotton trade.

"The objective is to put together the cotton produced by Africa, the expertise coming from other member states like Turkey, like Egypt, like Morocco, like Malaysia, together with the financing from the Islamic Development Bank," he said. "This is the objective of this meeting."

Mr. Diallo says he hopes that, with help from his organization, West Africa's four-biggest producers will be able to turn their cotton-dependent economies around. But he says, he first needs to find people willing to create new partnerships, people like Malian cotton-gin businessman Moussa Diarra. Gins are processing plants that turn cotton into refined fibers.

"I would like to use Malian cotton as raw material to produce ginned material in Mali for U.S. export and international market export," he said. "I am trying to find here technical partners, financial partners, and commercial partners."

Profits from West African cotton exports have plummeted in recent years.

Cotton growers blame subsidized agriculture in countries like China and the world's top cotton exporter, the United States, for making it impossible for them to compete on the world market.

Earlier this year, the World Trade Organization ruled that more than $3 billion in U.S. subsidies constituted an unfair trade practice. The British group Oxfam says these subsidies cost African cotton producers $1 billion per year.

An analyst on West Africa economics, Olly Owen, says though investment in the sector is needed, it is hard to accomplish while profits continue to fall. He says he thinks help from groups like the Organization of the Islamic Conference could help.

"Generally speaking, that is a really kind of encouraging sign in that there is a lot more of this South-South cooperation going on in a more market-oriented and hard-headed realistic way than it was before," he said. "While I think now a lot of those emerging economies are themselves seeing the advantages of having relationships with producers of raw materials. And African countries are seeing that they can really have a more profitable relationship with end users than they have had with former colonial powers."

Mr. Owen says this latest initiative may succeed where previous efforts have failed.

"The thing with the Organization of the Islamic Conference is it obviously includes many of their Gulf and Middle Eastern oil states," he said. "So they do kind of have some resources to play with in that way. And it could potentially be a very productive development."

The United States government has said it will roll back its subsidies to cotton growers, but has not begun to do so. It has also said West African growers should do more to invest in new technology to process their cotton into exportable goods.

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