Don’t Let Disaster Capitalism Dictate the US-Kenya Trade Agreement

Trade policies written in the shadows while the public is distracted always have terrible consequences for working people and the planet.

Find more of our Covid-19 coverage.

While the world struggles to stop the Covid-19 pandemic, corporate lobby groups representing Big Pharma, Big Oil, and Wall Street are pushing the Trump administration to secure a new, standard-setting free trade agreement that’s poised to become a template for trade deals throughout Africa.

photo a Kenyan farming family sitting under a tree
Small-scale farming is the principal source of livelihood for many in Kenya. If the past is any guide, the corporate wishlist for the US-Kenya Trade deal will include things like agricultural land grabs. Photo by Esther Havens/USAID

Donald Trump and Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta had announced their intent to negotiate a bilateral free trade agreement in February, and in March, Trump formally notified Congress of its intention to move forward with negotiations.

Industry groups like the Corporate Council on Africa — made up of executives from Pfizer, Proctor & Gamble, Exxon Mobil, Chevron, Citibank, and other giant corporations — have talked excitedly about the potential for a new US-Kenya Trade Agreement to “deepen trade and investment ties in key sectors from energy to banking, construction, ICT/digital trade, health, manufacturing and services.”

Like any new pact, the potential exists for a trade deal with Kenya to promote a more just and sustainable global economy, but such a deal will require a significant change in direction from past trade agreements, and that will never happen as long as corporate lobbyists are calling all the shots.

Economists, industry watchers, civil society groups are already describing the proposed US-Kenya deal as a “toehold” agreement for sub-Saharan Africa and beyond. And if the past is any guide, the corporate wishlist for the pact will include things like longer medicine patents; rip-and-ship fossil fuel extraction; agricultural land grabs; a handcuffing of public interest policymaking on everything from climate change to product safety to digital rights; and a continued race to the bottom in wages and working conditions.

On top of these traditional so-called “free trade” attacks, Kenya faces particular struggles with persistent child labor abuses and threats from climate change. Helping rectify both of these ongoing problems should be among the highest priorities in a US-Kenya agreement. But these problems aren’t even mentioned in the current iteration of the agreement.

In late March, the Trump administration initiated a required public comment period on negotiating objectives for a US-Kenya Trade Agreement. The public’s opportunity to weigh-in ends on April 15. In other words, this is all happening in the midst of a public health emergency, when civil society groups and the public are struggling with immediate health and economic survival issues.

Trade policies that are written in the shadows while the public is distracted always have disastrous consequences for working people and the planet. Fortunately, some are organizing to prevent this “disaster capitalism”/ “shock doctrine” moment.

Among the items that labor, environmental, family farm, consumer, faith, and community groups, including Earth Island’s California Trade Justice Coalition and our national partners are demanding if a US-Kenya deal moves forward are:

- Strong labor standards with swift and certain enforcement. Both countries should be required to adopt, implement and enforce International Labor Organization Conventions protecting the right to organize and prohibiting forced and child labor.

- Joint action against climate change. Any deal must also include binding climate measures with swift and certain enforcement, and should explicitly recognize the primacy of domestic and international climate policies over commercial rights.

- Expanded access to medicine. The deal cannot extend the lengthy patents of drug company monopolies either directly or indirectly, and must not limit countries’ ability to bargain for lower medicine prices and provide public health services.

- Respect for digital rights. Provisions that undermine the regulation of digital technology and the protection of consumer privacy must be excluded.

- Rejection of investor-state dispute settlement. Allowing private rights of enforcement for transnational corporations would be a threat to democratic policymaking.

- Transparent negotiations. The American and Kenya public deserve the right to know what their governments are proposing in their name. Draft negotiating texts should be published online for public scrutiny.

Other steps should also be taken to respect local public procurement decision-making; establish floors, rather than ceilings, for financial service regulation; create strong rules of origin; combat currency manipulation; halt trade in endangered species; and respect the US and Kenyan governments’ ongoing right to enact stronger consumer, environmental, labor and other public interest safeguards than currently exist.

The Trump administration has not yet made the case that a US-Kenya Trade Agreement is preferable to a simple extension of current access to the US market for Kenyan goods that meet labor, environmental, and consumer standards.

Insofar as negotiations do move forward, however, the points above are among the minimum steps needed to create a trade agreement that prioritizes the needs of the American and Kenyan people over corporate profits. A deal that fails to meet these most basic of standards is not worth doing.

Let us not allow corporate interest groups use the current health and economic crisis to secure long-term policy changes that put public health, good-paying jobs, human rights, and the environment in jeopardy.

Take action: Send in your comments on what should and shouldn’t be included in a US-Kenya Trade Agreement here.

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