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The world's other crisis

July 26, 2006

WHILE HEZBOLLAH MISSILES and Israeli airstrikes crossed in the night, militias rampaged in Somalia and Darfur and death squads made their ghoulish rounds in the streets of Baghdad, a quieter disaster -- but one with arguably larger long-term implications -- took place in placid Geneva.

World Trade Organization talks hardly make for compelling television, gripping front-page photos or sexy headlines, yet their effect is often of greater consequence than the latest suicide bombing or military atrocity that commands the 24-hour news cycle. The Israeli-Hezbollah conflict has killed fewer than 450 people so far; global poverty has killed several million this year, while contributing to the instability and despair that will spawn tomorrow's wars, terrorism and other more telegenic tragedies. The Doha round of talks that collapsed Monday in Geneva, launched in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks, could have put a genuine dent in that poverty while boosting standards of living in wealthy nations. The World Bank estimates that a successful outcome would add nearly $300 billion to the world economy.

Just last week, world leaders proclaimed at the Group of 8 summit that they were committed to saving the Doha round, which is aimed primarily at reducing agricultural tariffs and subsidies that make it harder for poor countries to sell their crops to rich countries at a fair price. Their words were, as expected, completely empty. None of them gave their trade ministers any new proposals to introduce during last-ditch efforts over the weekend to resolve the 5-year-old talks, which ended up being suspended indefinitely by WTO Director Pascal Lamy.

The United States and the European Union each accuse the other of intransigence, but in truth, neither side was ready to make anything but cosmetic cuts in farm supports. The reason is connected to the lack of headlines on the collapse of the Doha talks: There is no strong political constituency on behalf of free trade or international development. Though every American taxpayer and consumer is harmed by farm subsidies, the powerful agribusiness lobby and members of Congress from farm states still prevail.

Doha is dead for now, but it doesn't have a stake in its heart. Other trade rounds have been revived years after their apparent demise. That could happen with Doha if business interests and politicians who know the benefits of free trade and appreciate the strategic value of lifting global living standards are willing to get the message across.

President Bush has been addressing the crisis in Iraq this week, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has been dealing with Lebanon. In a decade, their efforts may well be historical footnotes. It was U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab -- ever heard of her? -- who was left to deal with what could turn out to be the more lasting tragedy. Poverty, unless more is done to combat it now, will in coming decades still be the scourge of humanity, engendering more wars and famines, giving rise to new diseases and worsening overpopulation. It's worth a lot more attention than it's getting.

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