A conference on trade between the United States and sub-Saharan African countries has begun in Mauritius. The top U.S. trade official opened the summit on a controversial note.
U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick opened the meeting by re-stating the Bush administration's belief that free trade is the main tool for building a prosperous future. He urged African trade ministers to open their markets and, in particular, to reduce or even eliminate agricultural subsidies.
That is likely to be a controversial issue at the forum, since many African nations say the United States maintains high agricultural subsidies of its own, preventing African farm products from competing effectively in the U.S. market.
Ugandan officials were among the first to respond to Mr. Zoellick's statement, expressing surprise that he would urge African states to drop their subsidies without first lowering U.S. farm subsidies.
The point of the meeting in Mauritius is to discuss trade between Africa and the United States under the African Growth and Opportunity Act. The Act, known as AGOA, is an American law enacted in 2000 that that allows some African countries to export certain products to the United States without paying customs duties or tariffs.
Some agricultural products are included, but African officials and farmers say their products still can not compete against the subsidized American agricultural produce.
AGOA is credited with helping create thousands of new jobs in Africa, and attracting billions of dollars in foreign investment to the continent.
But critics say many of the new jobs are low-paying and exploitative. Analysts say oil continues to be the single biggest industry to benefit from AGOA, accounting for more than 60 percent of Africa's exports to the United States.
In his opening remarks, Mr. Zoellick emphasized the successes of AGOA, rather than its shortcomings. "South African auto exports, for example, have increased 16-fold over the course of the past two years," he said. "In Lesotho, 11 new factories have opened and eight have expanded, resulting in the creation of about 15,000 new jobs. I believe there is a new activism in Africa, and it is being boosted by AGOA."
Mr. Zoellick said AGOA is off to what he called "an excellent start," but he acknowledged that there is "much more" work to do before reaching the Act's full potential.
So far, 38 countries have been declared eligible for AGOA benefits, and the United States is now the world's biggest importer of African goods.
The Mauritius meeting also includes a parallel trade exhibition for merchants and a forum for non-government groups concerned with development and trade issues.