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Trade Liberalisation and Poverty: What are the Links?

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  • L. Alan Winters

Abstract

This paper asks whether a developing country's own trade liberalisation could translate into increased poverty, and what information would be required to identify whether it will do so. It plots the channels through which such effects might operate, identifying the static effects via four broad groups of institutions - households, distribution channels, factor markets and government - and the dynamic issues of volatility, long-term economic growth, and short-term adjustment stresses. An increase in the price of something a household sells (labour, good, service) increases its welfare. Thus, the paper first explores the likely effects of trade liberalisation on the prices of goods and services, taking into account the distribution sector. Also critical is whether trade reform creates or destroys markets. Trade reform is also likely to affects factor prices - of which the wages of the unskilled is the most important for poverty purposes. If reform boosts the demand for labour-intensive products, it boosts the demand for labour and wages and/or employment will increase. However, not all developing countries are relatively abundant in unskilled labour and trade can boost demand for semi-skilled rather than unskilled, labour. Hence poverty alleviation is not guaranteed. Trade reform can affect tariff revenue, but much less frequently and adversely than is popularly imagined. Even if it does, it is a political decision, not a law of nature, that the poor should suffer the resulting new taxes or cuts in government expenditure. Opening up the economy can reduce risk and variability because world markets are usually more stable than domestic ones. But sometimes it will increase them because stabilisation schemes are undermined or because residents switch to riskier activities. The non-poor can generally tide themselves over adjustment shocks from a liberalisation, so public policy should focus on whether the initially poor and near temporary, setbacks. The key to sustained poverty alleviation is economic growth. There is little reason to fear that growth will not boost the incomes of the poor. Similarly, while the argument that openness stimulates long-run growth has still not been completely proven, there is every presumption that it will. Copyright Blackwell Publishers Ltd 2002.

Suggested Citation

  • L. Alan Winters, 2002. "Trade Liberalisation and Poverty: What are the Links?," The World Economy, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 25(9), pages 1339-1367, September.
  • Handle: RePEc:bla:worlde:v:25:y:2002:i:9:p:1339-1367
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