5 April 2000


Press Release
SG/SM/7351



SECRETARY-GENERAL SAYS EXTREME POVERTY ‘AFFRONT TO OUR COMMON HUMANITY’ IN ADDRESS TO ITALIAN PARLIAMENT

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Following is the address of Secretary-General Kofi Annan delivered to both houses of the Italian Parliament in Rome on 5 April:

Thank you for those most generous words of welcome. It is a great honour for me to be asked to address the representatives of the Italian people, which has played such an extraordinary part in the story of human achievement. I was reminded of that once again today when I visited Domus Aurea in Rome. There I saw the unique harmony of art and history, and of past and present, which is the special Italian gift.

Today, looking back on your historical and cultural heritage, I remember vividly the amazing courage, creativity and resilience demonstrated by the Italian people over millennia. In some parts of the world the idea that we are celebrating the millennium this year can seem a little artificial, because the history that people are aware of, and whose traces they see around them, goes back only a few hundred years. But here in Rome, the idea of measuring time in millennia seems quite natural. Rome can look back over two millennia knowing that, even when they began, it was already the centre of a great empire.

It can look back knowing that, throughout those two millennia, it has never ceased to be a centre of power, of faith and of culture. There is probably not a single year in all the 2,000 that has not left its visible mark somewhere among the beautiful buildings of this city. Here more than anywhere, perhaps, the Millennium -- the Jubilee Year -- is more than an accident of the calendar. You have a sense of historical continuity, of time measured but not finished, of the need to look forward as well as back. Here, therefore, more than anywhere, I am confident that my attempt to seize the Millennium as a chance for humanity to take stock, and to prepare itself for the tasks ahead, will be understood.

As you may have heard, two days ago in New York I published my Millennium Report, which seeks to do precisely that. It is an attempt to take stock of where the human family stands, at this special moment in time; to identify the challenges we face; and to sketch out an action plan for dealing with them. That may seem absurdly ambitious, but if the United Nations does not try to chart a course for the world's peoples, in the first decades of the new century, who will?

The world's political leaders have agreed to meet at the United Nations, in September, in the largest gathering at such a high level there has ever been. Before that, the presiding officers of all the world's parliaments will meet; and


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before that, in May, there will be a great meeting of international civil society, the Millennium Forum.

By the time of the Summit in September a considerable expectation will have built up. I think we would all be gravely disappointed if the political leaders simply came to New York, made speeches and went away again. We all hope that they will agree on the most urgent tasks we face together, and that they will adopt a strategy for carrying them out.

Only they can decide, but they need a set of proposals to decide on. That is what, in my Millennium Report, I have tried to give them. I will not attempt now to summarize the whole of that Report. Your newspapers have already done that, and I hope many of you will find time to read the Report itself. Let me dwell this evening on just one of the themes -- the need to free human beings from want.

In material things, humanity has made remarkable strides in the past half century. Since the 1960s, life expectancy in developing countries has gone up from 46 to 64 years. Infant mortality rates have halved. The proportion of children in primary school has risen by more than 80 per cent. And twice as many people have access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation.

And yet, while more of us enjoy better living standards than ever before, many others remain desperately poor. Some 1.2 billion people struggle to survive on less than $1 a day. People in Africa south of the Sahara are almost as poor today as they were 20 years ago. With that kind of deprivation come pain, powerlessness, despair and lack of fundamental freedom -- all of which, in turn, perpetuate poverty.

We must break this cycle of misery. Such extreme poverty is an affront to our common humanity. I have no doubt that we can do it, and that the target of halving the proportion of people living in extreme poverty by 2015, which I am asking world leaders to adopt, is a realistic one.

Much of the remedy lies in the hands of developing countries and their governments. There are dazzling success stories in Asia, and there are beginning to be some in Latin America. Even Africa is not without its points of light. The ingredients of success are becoming clear. They include policies that encourage investment; that allow women to join the labour force; that guarantee equality before the law and a transparent, accountable public administration.

To achieve broad-based growth and defeat poverty, a country needs to ensure that all groups in the population have the chance to better themselves, and a say in decisions that affect their lives. It needs basic education for all -- girls and boys alike -- and equal access to education at all levels. Above all, in the new century it needs to ensure that its people can benefit from the information revolution.

The new information technology is far less capital-intensive than old industrial technology. It does not need vast amounts of hardware or financial capital. What it needs more than anything is brains -- the one commodity that is fairly distributed among the world's peoples. So for a relatively small investment -- especially in basic education -- we can bring all kinds of knowledge within reach of poor people, and enable poor countries to "leapfrog" some of the long and painful stages of development that others have had to go through.

But many of them are not going to be able to achieve this on their own. They need help from those who are more fortunate or more advanced. Some of that help can take the form of development assistance. Often in the past this has been wasted, but experience shows it can make a real difference when directed to countries that are genuinely using their resources to attack poverty.

A much more important form of assistance for many countries is one that, so far from costing rich countries money, will actually bring them a net gain. According to one recent study, for instance, you here in the European Union are currently spending between six and seven per cent of your gross domestic product on various kinds of trade protection measures.

No doubt some groups of Europeans are benefiting from this, but surely there must be a cheaper way for their fellow citizens to help them. What is certain is that by removing these measures, and allowing free access without duties or quotas to the products of poor countries, you could enable those countries to increase their exports by far more than they now receive in aid. For millions and millions of poor people this could make the difference between their present misery and a decent life.

But many poor countries, as you know, are crippled by a crushing burden of debt, which prevents them from making adequate investments in education and health care, and from responding effectively to natural disasters and other emergencies.

I am glad to note that Italy is taking a lead on this issue among the industrialized countries. You played an active role last year in getting your G7 colleagues to agree on an expansion of the so-called Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) Debt Initiative programme, and then in getting the international financial institutions to endorse it. I understand that you are now considering going further, and offering full debt cancellation for countries currently outside the HIPC programme.

I hope you will go ahead with that, and that you will consider favourably the new approach proposed in my Report. Among the components of this would be: immediate cancellation of debts owed by countries that have suffered major conflicts or natural disasters; pegging debt repayments at a maximum percentage of foreign exchange earnings; establishing a debt arbitration process, to balance the interests of creditors and sovereign debtors and introduce greater discipline into their relations; and expanding the number of countries in the HIPC scheme by allowing them to qualify on grounds of poverty alone.

It seems desperately wrong, for instance, that Nigeria, under its new democratic government should now be struggling to service all the debts contracted under military dictatorships in the 1980s and 1990s, and that it should be expected to devote a much larger share of its gross national product to this than to health, education or poverty reduction. Here is surely a case where debt relief would be a form of conflict prevention.

In general, we should be clear that, without a convincing programme of debt relief to start the new millennium, our objective of halving world poverty by 2015 will be only a pipe dream. Debt relief for poor countries must be an integral part of any international strategy to promote development.

I believe that Italians have understood this, and I thank you for it. I look to you to play a leading role on this issue when the G7 meet again in Okinawa in July, and at the Millennium Summit itself.

If we succeed in this, then indeed we shall be able to celebrate the year 2000 as a Jubilee and a new beginning for the world's poorest people. I am sure that, together, we can do it.

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