Analysis by Jacques N. Couvas
ANTALYA | Turkey (IDN) - Commitment to continue the effort by the United Nations and the developed economies to help least developed countries (LDCs) overcome poverty and hunger was the main conclusion of the Mid-Term Review (MTR) conference for the Istanbul Programme of Action for the Least Developed Countries (IPoA), held in Antalya, Turkey, from May 27 to 29.
The purpose of the meeting was to assess whether and how the targets set by the IPoA in 2011 were being met. The results were mixed.
In six plenary sessions, four thematic round tables and 26 side events, officials from 75 countries and international organisations reviewed the progress made by the LDCs towards stimulating growth and improving living conditions in their respective jurisdictions.
UNIn his closing remarks to the delegates, Gyan Chandra Acharya, UN Under-Secretary General and head of the Office of the High Representative for the Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries and the Small Island Developing States (UNOHRLLS) expressed his satisfaction for “the unprecedented global consensus” among the representatives of participating states on the objectives and actions agreed during the MTR.
According to Acharya, the conference was “very successful” for three main reasons: “very high participation” at the event, discussion of the challenges and opportunities faced by the individual LDCs and of the approaches proposed to address these in the future, and the “realistic and focused manner for finding ways to act in synergy with the other main goals of the UN”, namely disaster reduction and protection of the environment.
In spite of optimistic declarations, the prevailing feeling among the delegates was that too little has been accomplished in the past five years, particularly in Africa.
LDCs form the poorest and weakest segment of the international community. They comprise 932 million people, or 12.8 % of the world’s population, and their number is expected to reach 1.9 billion by 2050. However, their economies represent 1.1 % of world Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and about one percent of the goods traded around the globe only. One-third of their population lives in cities. This is less than half of the urbanisation rate in developed countries.
World GDP in 2015 was 77.96 trillion US dollars, according to the World Bank. It is estimated to reach 91.37 trillion by 2020.
But the gap between reach and poor countries is significant: the United States controls almost one dollar out of four in the global economy, with GDP of 17.42 trillion US dollars. The Eurozone and China follow, with 13.4 and 10.34 trillion respectively. In comparison, the GDP of Syria in 2014 24.6 billion US dollars, and Tuvalu’s 38 million. Peace at home and size do matter.
The term 'LDC' was coined in 1971 by the General Assembly of the United Nations (UNGA) and this classification was aimed at attracting special international support for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged countries of the world. A new entity, UN-OHRLLS, was formed in 2002, following the adoption of Resolution 56/227 by the December 2001 UNGA to proactively address the root causes of underdevelopment in the member states concerned.
There are currently 48 states qualifying as LDCs. Among these, 34 are in Africa, 13 in the Asia-Pacific region, and one in Latin America. These countries struggle to overcome extreme poverty, malnutrition, hunger and lack of access by local populations to basic resources, as well as to transportation, telecommunications and new technologies.
The UN has periodically launched initiatives to assist least developed economies to grow, with limited success. A major step forward was taken at the beginning of the decade, with the Fourth UN Conference on Least Developed Countries (LDC-IV), held in Istanbul in May 2011.
LDC-IV approved a ten-year programme (2011-2020) setting specific development objectives for the LDCs. By the end of this period, successful states should have ‘graduated’ and joined the list of developing countries.
Major weaknesses in the Istanbul resolutions of 2011 were the unrealistic expectations from the programme, the vagueness of the objectives set and the lack of measurable targets, except for an aggressive GDP.
“In the past five years we have tried to align our effort for assisting development of LDCs with global growth trends,” said Acharya on the second day of the MTR. “There was a very big ambition in our objectives: having a growth of 7% [of GDP], reducing poverty, reforming the structure of the [LDCs] economies, and building more resilience than before,” he continued.
“Although we had successes, we also know that there is no progress in some countries in certain areas. So, the idea behind this MTR is to accelerate the process and find out what we can do if we don’t meet these objectives.”
One of the criteria for LDCs to graduate is reaching a per capita Gross National Income (GNI) of 1,035 US dollars. One country only graduated in the 2011-2016 period: Samoa, in 2014. Three other countries had earlier passed this cap since 1971: Botswana in 1994, Cape Verde in 2007, and the Maldives in 2011.
Individual LDC progress depends on the ability of national leaders to implement the targets set in 2011, according to Acharya. But strong national leadership alone is not enough, he added, considering the initial handicaps of their respective economies.
“There is mutual accountability in the process of development of LDCs: on behalf of the countries concerned, on the one hand, and from the governments of developed countries and by the international organisations, on the other hand,” he said.
Acharya also called for increased participation in the LDC emancipation process by the broader international community, including civil society, academia, the media, national parliaments and the business community.
The MTR approved the draft Political Agenda that had been submitted prior to the conference to the IPoA participating member states. The objectives of the agenda remain vague, in terms of measurable actions and outcomes.
Emphasis is, however, given to enhancing the productive capacity of LDCs through foreign direct investment (FDI), by the UN and developed nations, access of the LDCs to the World Trade Organisation system, ethical and democratic governance, and empowerment of women in agriculture and business.
The Political Agenda also reiterates the call on developed economies to fulfil their commitment to allocate 0.7% of their GNI to Official Development Assistance (ODA), with at least 0.15 to 0.20 % of their GNI dedicated to helping the growth of the LDCs by 2030.
The Fifth UN Conference on the Least Developed Countries, contemplated for 2021, subject to UNGA approval, will test whether compliance with the promises is forthcoming.
The lack of tangible progress by many LDCs to reach their next level of development is often blamed on the strong gender inequalities observed in these countries.
Women are generally excluded from the workforce, face higher unemployment than men whenever they have a job, and are deprived of contraceptives, primary education and protection against violence, according to a report published by the UN Population Fund (UNPFA) just ahead of the MTR.
“There needs to be a revolution that allows women to join the formal workforce,” thundered Rachel Snow, Chief of UNFPA's Population and Development Branch.
However, the revolution may not be necessary in all LDCs. Acharya told the final meeting with journalists that ten countries are at present fulfilling the criteria for graduation, subject to final review.
He warned that progressing away from LDC status,does not automatically mean prosperity. The newly graduating states would have to be further supported and monitored by the international organisations.
“We aspire at this process to be a one-way street towards development, with no come-back to the least-developed level,” Acharya concluded, while admitting, however, that one-quarter of LDCs are victims of ongoing national or regional conflicts, which can only be resolved by political will and holistic view of the problems in the cooperation among world’s leaders, because war, low development, natural and man-made disasters, and diseases are interrelated. (IDN-InDepthNews – 31 May 2016)
IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.
Photo courtesy UNOHRILLS