WASHINGTON, April 22 (Reuters) - The U.S. government should overhaul trade benefits programs that allow duty-free imports of goods from developing countries to make the programs simpler and more effective, a coalition of aid and business groups said on Wednesday.
The global economic recession has slashed trade, and exporters in poor countries have few resources to cushion the blow, the groups said in letters to U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk and key lawmakers in Congress.
"Swift and ambitious action on renewal and reform (of the trade programs) can at least help shield them from a crisis they did not cause," said the letters, signed by about 30 groups.
The coalition includes clothing and textile importers, groups that represent exporters from Africa, Brazil and India, aid groups like Oxfam America, World Vision and Bread for the World, and business associations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Foreign Trade Council and National Retail Federation.
U.S. imports from sub-Saharan Africa have dropped to $3 billion per month from $8 billion per month, and Cambodian garment makers have been hard hit by the downturn, the groups said.
The U.S. government should quickly renew the programs before funding lapses at the end of the year, and then embark on a review of the programs and reform, the group said.
The United States has several trade benefits programs, including the Generalized System of Preferences that allows more than 4,650 products from 144 countries and territories, and others targeted to specific regions.
The United States imported $30.8 billion worth of goods under the GSP program in 2007.
Congress passed tougher eligibility criteria for the GSP program in December 2006 in part because of frustration with India and Brazil refusing to grant U.S. exporters more market access in the Doha round of world trade talks.
The coalition wants the programs to be replaced with a single program that extends benefits to all developing countries that meet eligibility criteria, "including advanced developing countries," it said.
Eligibility criteria for countries and products should be consistent and predictable, the group said.
There should be no duties or quotas on goods from the least-developed countries, sub-Saharan Africa, and some low middle-income countries, the group said.
(Reporting by Roberta Rampton; editing by Will Dunham)