It’s no secret the U.S. cotton program has been the target of criticism generated by the OxFam charity organization based in the United Kingdom and European Union officials on behalf of the West African countries of Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mali.

But USDA and National Cotton Council leaders say a program aimed at helping improve the competitive positions of the four countries actually had its origins before a Wall Street Journal article accused U.S. cotton producers of impoverishing African farmers.

“This program is part of our ongoing effort to help developing countries build their capacity to trade in the international marketplace,” the NCC and USDA said in a statement. “It is the most recent activity in a series that began in 2001 at the WTO Ministerial Conference in Doha, Qatar.”

A two-week visit to the United States by cotton classing officials from Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mali is the first of three events aimed at helping the cotton sectors of the four African countries, according to the statement.

“Both the private and public sectors and the governments of Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mali agreed that programs such as this one would be beneficial for their cotton industries. This program provides the participants training to help them improve their agricultural systems.”

While OxFam and European Union officials have tried to lay the low prices received by West African farmers at the feet of U.S. producers, U.S. cotton industry leaders have said the problems are more complicated than that.

Because of the highly integrated nature of the West African cotton industry — the same entities provide planting seed and sell growers’ cotton — strengthening the classing systems in the four countries could force the merchandising arms in each country to recognize the true value of the cotton rather than dumping the fiber on the market at fire sale prices.

“Our objective is to get to know American methods but also to take those back and improve our own methods,” said Mansour Nouradine, operator of High-Volume Instrument Systems for Coton Tchad, a government-affiliated organization that handles cotton for Chad.

The cotton classing orientation is the first of three training programs being conducted this summer for the countries’ cotton officials. In July, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the NCC will host a two-week session on integrated pest management for entomology leaders for the countries.

Later, the Cotton Council, USDA and USAID plan to offer a cotton ginning school in West Africa, patterned after the U.S. Cotton Ginning schools held at the cotton ginning laboratories by UDSA and the National Cotton Ginners Association.

e-mail: flaws@primediabusiness.com