BURKINA FASO: A regional approach to achieve fair trade in cotton
Thomas Cromwell

Burkina Faso is a country that rarely makes international headlines. With a population of 13 million on a landlocked piece of Africa about the size of Colorado, Burkina's economy is largely agriculture-based, with cotton its major crop. Other resources are gold, manganese, bauxite and shea butter, used in cosmetics and food products.

Ambassador to Washington Tertius Zongo is a dynamic advocate of his country's issues, but he recognizes the limits of what he can expect to accomplish by himself in Washington, and strongly supports efforts to get West African states to work together as a regional grouping that has largely common issues and concerns.

"Washington is very important to us," he says of bilateral relations, but he believes diplomatic relations are not made primarily by governments, but rather by people. However, there are only a few thousand compatriots living in America (and only some 300 in the Washington area; 1300 in New York) so that few Americans can make a human association with Burkina Faso.

However, he points out that his was one of the first African countries evangelized by American missionaries, and both former missionaries and Peace Corps workers have been perhaps the best bridges between his country and America.

But this is changing. He says most young people in Burkina are much more interested in America than in former colonial power France, and there are currently some 1500 Burkina students in the United States working on college degrees. And he takes the long view on relationship-building. "It is not a short-term job," he says.

One of the most pressing issues for Burkina Faso is getting access to American markets for its cotton exports. The ambassador hopes that by West African nations banding together on this issue, they will be able to exert some positive influence over Washington to reduce subsidies for the US cotton industry, and allow in more from their producers. He points out that for his country and others in the region, cotton is literally the lifeblood of much of the population, with the great majority working the land.

"We have made a lot of effort to improve our cotton sector," he says, noting: "We are the lowest-cost cotton producer in the world." But because of US subsidies, "market prices are sometimes lower than our cost of production."  

He is not obviously angry at Washington, though. "We want to discuss with America how to reduce the subsidies," he says. "We don't want to deal with this in a polemical way. We want discussions with the US and European Union." He points out that the US and EU know the importance of cotton to his country, and therefore can appreciate the need for negotiations on a fair solution. He says simply that the greatest problem his country faces is poverty and hunger and starvation that come with it, especially in rural areas depressed by farmers' inability to sell their crops.

He outlines a three-part program his country is following to improve the situation:

1. "I think we can find a way with the US and EU to reduce subsidies gradually."
2. "We would like to see how the trade barriers in the US and EU can be reduced."
3. "We would like to get US farmers to invest in Burkina Faso."

Speaking of the importance of working closely with neighboring countries on this and other issues, he says, "We cannot have a significant development of our country without a regional effort." To this end, he meets with a group of Washington ambassadors from the region with similar interests, so that they can coordinate efforts in Washington. These include Chad, Benin, Togo, Mali and Ivory Coast.

Ambassador Zongo is hopeful that a June meeting in Burkina's capital Ouagadougou that will bring representatives of the US Federal Agricultural Administration, the State Department and some US universities together with representatives of West African governments will move the current discussions forward to a substantive program of action.

The ambassador says one of his country's assets is a good road network connecting it to Ivory Coast, Mali, Togo and Ghana. However the civil war in Ivory Coast seriously disrupted usual freight routes, underlining the need for regional cooperation to tackle shared challenges.

For all former African colonies of France it is an uphill battle getting Washington to look with full seriousness at their issues. Traditionally, the United States has deferred to France on matters related to its interests in Africa, but the African countries themselves would like Washington to get much more involved. "We are trying to convince Washington through diplomatic circles that it is a global world and that some issues cannot be left to France," the ambassador explains.

As an example, he mentions the security concerns of America. "This is a regional issue that cannot be dealt with solely on the basis of ex-colonial alignments." He continues: "We have to end the thinking that this is an ex-French or ex-British colony." Bringing the issue to a personal level, he adds: "My son would never want to study in France."

He says the countries of West Africa have to act together, irrespective of their colonial ties. "We have to remove the barriers of language," he stresses. And "the US should think in the same way."

Ambassador Zongo says Washington is both a difficult and easy place to work in for him. On the one hand, everyone is open and willing to listen to you, he says. "It is easy because it is open and there is no protocol… you can meet anyone." But for an embassy with only a handful of staff, it is difficult to know how to make an impact. "You don't know exactly where to go. Power is spread out. You don't know who holds the decisions."

The other problem he cites is that officials at the State Department prefer to get information about a country from the US embassy there, rather than from that country's ambassador in Washington, he says. So the envoys can feel overlooked.

But Ambassador Zongo is not the type to waste time griping. He is busy working to get his country and people known in America and in forging regional alliances to give his economy's products a fair chance of competing on world markets, and his people a chance to live a decent life.