A new goal to halve the number of least-developed countries by 2022 has been endorsed by delegates at a United Nations conference.
The event, which took place this month in Istanbul, under the theme "Partnership against Poverty," set out the ambitious plan as part of the newly-adopted Istanbul Political Declaration and Programme of Action for the LDCs.
The number of "least-developed countries" (LDC) has doubled since 1971, when the first official list of countries in this category was compiled by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. There are currently 48 least-developed countries, and just three countries have ever "graduated" out of this status (Botswana in 1994, Cape Verde in 2007 and the Maldives in 2010).
The Fourth Conference of the LDCs summit (LDC-IV) was particularly relevant to current debates around the need for a paradigmatic shift in the global development agenda. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon noted in advance that "Istanbul will determine the development paradigm for years to come."
During the conference, Craig Mokhiber, an official with the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, warned that "development - real development - is about freedom from fear and freedom from want, for all people, without discrimination. Any more narrow analysis, focused entirely on economic growth, or private investment, or governmental structures is destined to fail."
The urge to look beyond economic growth is bolstered by the fact that rising GDP in the least-developed countries has often not translated into the kind of improvements in human development outcomes and poverty reduction needed to accomplish the MDGs by 2015. This has been pointed out by the UN's own Office of the High Representative for the Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing Countries (UN-OHRLLS), as well as NGOs present at the LDC-IV Civil Society Forum. Roberto Bissio of Social Watch said these slow improvements in social indicators despite economic growth was largely because "growth has only benefitted small elites and foreign investors, mainly extractive industries."
LDC countries have experienced economic growth at a faster rate since 2001, and in 2004, LDCs underwent the fastest annual growth rate in four decades. The average rate of people living in extreme poverty in these countries, meanwhile, dropped only slightly, from 57.6 percent in 1990 to 52.8 percent in 2007, according to a May 2011 report by UNCTAD (extreme poverty is less than $1.25 a day). One of the LDCs earmarked for "graduation," for example, is Equatorial Guinea, a country whose economy has expanded exponentially to become one of the wealthiest in sub-Saharan Africa since the discovery of oil and gas reserves over a decade ago. Despite having a GDP per capita (PPP) comparable to Belgium and Denmark, Equatorial Guinea ranks 117 out of 169 countries in the Human Development Index and is failing to devote its full resources to fulfilling the economic and social rights of its people, as CESR has previously reported.
LDCs are highly vulnerable to volatile booms and busts in international markets. This calls into question the true impact of changes in economic growth rates. The knock-on effects that the economic crisis had on the LDCs, adversely felt in food prices, remittances, trade and donor aid commitments, have been a further catalyst for civil society demands for a paradigm shift in development strategy. Such a shift is needed to strengthen the LDCs' resilience to external shocks and ensure that the world's most vulnerable peoples do not become further impoverished by the global economic system.
Civil society organizations participating in the LDC-IV gathering put forward a series of key proposals and issues for further debate and action. Contained in The LDC Civil Society Forum Istanbul Declaration, they call for reforming the governance and mandate of international financial institutions. Some proposals advocate greater regulation of the financial and banking sector, as well as a global transactions tax as a source of funding. Others discuss the need to level the playing field and overhaul unfair in the current international trading system.
Cancellation of onerous debt and the removal of conditionalities have also been promoted by civil society from both the North and South. According to the head of LDC Watch Arjan Karaki, "many LDCs spend more money on debt servicing than providing essential services like health care, drinking water and energy." Civil society also called on donor countries to provide more and better ODA and to channel their funding to improve human well-being and capacity, such as education, gender equality or health. Although emerging economies are increasingly seen as possible new aid providers through "south-south cooperation," there are concerns this might social protection. This acts both as a means for the equitable redistribution of wealth to the poor during times of expansion and a safety net during times of crisis and fiscal contraction. Such an approach has been advocated by Magdalena Sepulveda Carmona, the UN Independent Expert on Human Rights and Extreme Poverty, who has called for a human rights component to economic growth. It is also echoed by the International Labor Organization, which held a side event at LDC-IV on social protection and employment.
This broader development agenda was also echoed by civil society organizations at the LDCs who called for moving away from market-driven policies to people-centered development. As a result, the focus on private sector solutions and partnerships at the conference was met with significant disappointment, leading many critics to deride the Program of Action as a repackaging of Washington-Consensus approaches to development-grounded in economic neoliberalism, lack of government accountability and further exploitation of the LDCs.
Any new international development architecture for LDCs must place emphasis on not only economic growth for "graduation," but on rights-based sustainable and equitable growth. Economic growth is necessary, but it is an insufficient condition to accelerating progress on the MDGs in the LDCs. Just four LDCs have met their drinking water targets, for example.
The international community should build on the lessons learned from the failure of solely focusing on economic growth in light of the lack of substantial progress made on reducing the number of LDCs. It should also learn from the disproportionate human impacts of the economic crisis on these countries, particularly on the most vulnerable and marginalized. A people-centered approach to development can only prove successful if it is grounded within a genuine framework of human rights recognized by both donor countries and LDC governments. Unfortunately the Istanbul Consensus falls short of forging this vital foundation.
The 48 least-developed countries
Africa: 33 countries.
Angola, Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Central African Republic, Chad, Comoros, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Lesotho, Liberia, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Mauretania, Mozambique, Niger, Rwanda, São Tomé and Príncipe, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, Togo, Uganda, Tanzania, and Zambia.
Asia and the Pacific: 14 countries
Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burma, Cambodia, Kiribati, Lao Peoples Democratic Republic, Nepal, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Timor-Leste, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, and Yemen.
Latin America and the Caribbean: 1 country
Characteristics of LDCs
Average income of less than $475 (£288) a person a year. Weak human resources as measured by nutrition, infant mortality, secondary school environment and adult literacy. High economic vulnerability as measured by factors such as population size, remoteness, share of agriculture, and homelessness due to natural disasters. A country "graduates" from LDC status if the figure hits $900.
Main challenges facing LDCs
High levels of poverty: more than half the 800 million people in the LDCs live on less than a dollar a day. Women in LDCs have a one in 16 chance of dying in childbirth, compared to one in 3,500 in North America.
Food insecurity: More than 300 million Africans are food insecure.
Economic vulnerability: LDCs are highly dependent on external sources of funding, including official development assistance, workers' remittances and foreign direct investment. This overly exposes them to external shocks such as the global financial crisis.
Environmental vulnerability: While they contribute least to climate change, LDCs are among the groups of countries most affected by it. Many LDCs are also small islands whose very survival is threatened by rising sea levels.