- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 14, 2003

The United States' top trade official this week is urging African nations to embrace free trade as a step toward economic development.
U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick was in South Africa yesterday and today is continuing on to Mauritius, an island nation in the Indian Ocean, to discuss ways to expand trade and investment on the world's poorest continent.
Mr. Zoellick and trade ministers from southern Africa yesterday mapped out a schedule for talks on a free-trade agreement. The Bush administration plans to start talks with five nations in the Southern Africa Customs Union Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, South Africa and Swaziland in February and hopes to finish them next year.
"The [agreement] between the United States and the five countries of southern Africa will provide new opportunities for the peoples of all our countries, and will particularly provide a boost to regional growth, development and prosperity," Mr. Zoellick said in a statement.
The trip to Africa comes at a time when U.S. policy is widely blamed for blocking progress at worldwide trade and development talks. The United States last month was the lone holdout on a deal meant to allow poor countries to import generic versions of patented medicines. The measure is specifically aimed at treating epidemics, like malaria and AIDS, that are devastating African populations.
The United States' position on generic drugs emphasized a divide between economically developing and developed countries and has angered some African governments.
But the trade issues whether the dispute over generic drugs or the potential agreement are not now central to Africa's development, said George Ayittey, an economist teaching at American University.
"For economic growth the key is investment, and you are not going to have investment until the business environment has improved," Mr. Ayittey said. The business environment won't improve until there is political stability, he added.
"There are so many crises that need to be resolved," Mr. Ayittey said.
But the trade agenda remains central to Bush administration efforts in the region.
Mr. Zoellick will be in Mauritius today to lead talks on economic development at the Africa Trade and Economic Cooperation Forum, which runs through Friday.
The annual forum resulted from a U.S. law signed in 2000 that authorized a new trade and investment policy toward Africa, including duty-free access to the U.S. market for goods. The law, which focuses on sub-Saharan African nations, saw the United States unilaterally open its market to specific goods, like textiles, in a bid to boost African economies.
The free-trade agreement with southern Africa nations would involve a detailed plan for goods, services, intellectual property protection and investment protections.
The free-trade talks with southern Africa countries are part of the Bush administration's efforts to push its trade agenda in bilateral, regional and worldwide initiatives.

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