A couple of years ago, when the Free Trade Agreement between the US and Peru was still being negotiated, a friend who had worked in the Peruvian Ministry of Trade and had been involved in the negotiations told me that studies about the effects of the agreement on poverty had been commissioned but not been made public. Why? Because they could have been used against them by civil society groups opposing the FTA, he said.
This, possibly exaggerated confession, typified the negotiation process. Each group carried and used out research as it best suited its objectives. Most of the decisions of the government were made in private, away from the general public and by experts or influential actors in the trade and related sectors. The objective to sign the FTA had been set and it seemed that evidence was used only when it supported it. The dialogue did not go beyond the comfort zone of the pro-trade groups –which included researchers and that experts aware of the costs that the FTA would entail; but whose important contributions, however, were not aired in the public domain.
Knowledge was constrained and its impact was limited.
Another friend, who at the time of the negotiations had worked for an organisation promoting free trade, provides an example of what can happen when evidence is given the opportunity to shape the policy debate –rather than the other way around. She is now advising a Peruvian politician focusing on the MDGs and addressing issues such as child poverty and inequality. Her new role made her the target of the very same CSOs she had had little time for before and who are now her constant supplier of research based evidence on these issues. This new knowledge had changed her views on many policy debates and how she now analyses the benefits and costs of trade and trade policies.
Evidence has contributed to inform the advice she offers to the political debate in the Peruvian Congress.
COPLA (Comercio y Pobreza en Latinoamérica) is a programme designed to do precisely that – at the national and regional level. COPLA is a 2-year programme funded by DFID’s Latin America Department. Its main objective is to use research based evidence to strengthen and promote an improved dialogue between policymakers, researchers and those institutions that represent the poor to incorporate new issues into the policy debate.
To achieve this, research, dialogue and capacity building carried out by our partners in Peru, Bolivia and Nicaragua will focus on the links between trade, poverty and social exclusion (gender, indigenous peoples, lagging regions), as well as ways in which small and medium enterprises can better take advantage of new market opportunities.
However, this project goes beyond research. We hope to improve our understanding of the relationship between research based evidence, policy making processes and practice; and sharing this new knowledge is a central part of our approach.
We recognise that producing new evidence is not enough; it has to be used. Hence, we are allocating a significant share of our resources to strategies that aim to do precisely that. Most importantly, we will draw lessons on the experiences of the consortium partners and share them with others in the region.
Lessons from the new evidence and the experiences of engaging with different policy contexts will be systematised and shared with other organisations through regional networks, events and more targeted and strategic partnerships.
But why trade policies and poverty in Latin America?
Latin America is a region with significant levels of persistent poverty and high inequality. Around 57 million people continue to suffer extreme poverty and some 130 million have incomes below US$2 per day. Larger trade flows offer the opportunity to increase the rate of poverty reduction directly, through increased job opportunities and reduced cost of consumption, and indirectly, by accelerating growth. However, in Latin America, increased international trade flows, brought about by liberalisation, have yet to contribute significantly to faster growth and poverty reduction.
Experts increasingly recognise that for the poor to benefit from trade liberalisation, complementary social and economic policies linked to trade are needed to help the poor take advantage of new opportunities, and to protect and help the most vulnerable. But although there is a wealth of information on trade and poverty, it is spread around many organisations and people. COPLA aims to work towards bridging this knowledge. And through our research and dialogue we hope to incorporate the interests of poor into the decision making processes that dictate trade and trade related policies.
Our website will provide a gateway for the knowledge generated by our intervention and by others. Please visit us at www.cop-la.net and join the debate.