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Fair trade is not for wimps

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THE Financial Times called the Archbishop of Canterbury’s sermon for the 60th anniversary of Christian Aid (News, 29 April) a “comic cliché”. His crime, apparently, was not to have been enthusiastic enough about the benefits of free trade and liberal economic theory. Instead, he did what “leftish” clerics are wont to do: “wringing his hands about social problems”.

What total rubbish. What I heard in that sermon was Dr Williams accepting the basic principle that trade is the engine of wealth creation, and arguing that “universal trade liberalisation may offer fresh markets and promise overall increases of wealth”.

Notwithstanding the qualification “may”, even the Globalization Institute, whose attack on fair trade was the point of departure for Dr Williams’s consideration of trade justice, welcomed the sermon. “I’m delighted that the Church of England is starting to recognise that the debate is more complex than first imagined, and this sermon is an encouraging step,” said its president, Alex Singleton.

What Dr Williams rightly complained about was that many in the West talk about free trade, but are unprepared to deal with its real consequences, even in their own businesses. “The rich protect their markets while talking about the virtues of free trade,” he said.

Only last week, the World Trade Organisation (WTO) confirmed that EU sugar exports were illegal. After complaints by a number of poorer sugar-producing countries, the WTO has found that Europe has been dumping millions of tonnes of subsidised sugar on the global market, thus depressing the world price. No wonder poorer countries are unable to compete. If there is a moral responsibility for our new Government, it is surely that we must increase market access for poorer countries.

Even so, Dr Williams was recognising that freeing trade comes at a cost. After the WTO ruling, the sugar producers Tate & Lyle saw their share price fall by 15.5p. That’s a measure of the cost for the West — a cost we continue to try to avoid paying. For a developing country, and specifically for individuals and families with no state social security to fall back on, the cost is often devastating — as it can be for the environment, too.

Despite its capacity for overall wealth creation, when the lives of many vulnerable people are at stake, the unquestioning adherence to free trade is a dangerous extremism. To suggest that an acknowledgement of this social cost is limp-wristed Anglicanism is a cheap shot, unworthy of the FT.

The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Team Rector of Putney.
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