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US-Africa Trade Conference Opens

Kevin Boyd, center, an American representative looks on at the fourth forum on African Growth and Opportunity Act taking place in the city of Dakar
American and African economic experts are meeting in Senegal's capital, Dakar, to discuss a trade deal with African countries. But some critics say not enough real progress is being made to alleviate poverty on the continent.

The trade deal, set up under the Clinton administration and known as the African Growth and Opportunity Act or AGOA, is meant to facilitate trade between the United States and Africa, while encouraging economic reforms.

In line with former President Clinton's policy of trade not aid, 37 African nations are eligible for trade benefits. Governments also have access to U.S. technical and financial assistance in order to implement new economic and commercial policies.

Senegalese journalist Oumar Gaye says many hope the trade program, which was created nearly five years ago, will end up benefiting Africa's poorest countries. "Their expectation is to make things easier for them. Because its hard to find a visa or to take your goods into the United States of America," said Oumar Gaye. "They don't have some facilities for exporting their goods to the United States."

The three-day meeting opened Monday. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is expected to attend the conference as part of her first trip to West Africa since being appointed to the job earlier this year. Civil society activist, Alouine Tine, says the presence of America's foreign affairs chief at the AGOA meeting is an encouraging sign. "It gives great credibility to the meeting," said Mr. Tine. "And it means the U.S. is really engaged to help the development of Africa. To help the free market of Africa."

But, he says, AGOA does not yet deal seriously with what has become one of the major roots of economic insecurity.

"The only problem is the problem of agriculture. You know they're producing many things here but they have, in their markets, products from America, from Europe and very good prices," he added. "They cannot sell their own products."

Some African economic experts blame American export subsidies for artificially lowering market prices, making it impossible for them to compete. The United States has made promises to reduce certain agricultural subsidies. But on the opening day,

Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said any decision would have to wait until a World Trade Organization meeting later this year.

West Africa regional coordinator for Oxfam's free trade campaign, Mouhamet Lamine Ndiaye, says both the U.S. and Europe need to do more.

"What we heard sounds like wishful thinking. They are asking first Europe to do the same. And Europe is asking the U.S. to do the same," he said. "So, its like a Ping-Pong game where each of them is asking the other to first make a move."

Mr. Ndiaye, who is at the talks, says, though the AGOA program is a good first step, it has done little to quell Africa's growing trade deficit.

"So far then, the major benefit has been for the U.S., but not for the sub-Saharan African countries," he said. Agriculture Secretary Johanns, speaking to the conference Monday, pointed out the U.S. promise to end export subsidies on cotton as proof of America's commitment to Africa.

The heavily subsidized U.S. cotton sector has been blamed by many fair trade advocates for stifling West Africa's own cotton industry.

The AGOA meeting is due to end Wednesday.