28/06/2004
Press Release
ECOSOC/6118
PI/1595


World’s 50 poorest countries main battleground where


global anti-poverty Goals will be won or lost


NEW YORK, 28 June -- The United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) takes up the cause of the 50 countries with the world’s most vulnerable economies at a high-level session opening today, and addressed by President Mathieu Kerekou of Benin.


Although some large developing economies such as India and China are making broad strides toward the poverty-cutting objectives of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, the least developed countries (LDCs), with a combined population of 700 million, are in danger of being left behind.  The United Nations will assess progress on the Millennium Development Goals at a high-level meeting of the General Assembly in September 2005.


Some progress has been recorded, nevertheless, since the development of an international action plan on LDC’s in Brussels in 2001:


-- Most critically, many LDCs have addressed governance, transparency and an enabling financial environment, paving the way for improved economic growth.  Even in the difficult economic years of 2000-2002, LDC growth averaged 4.9 per cent, according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).  New data from the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs shows that 21 of the 50 LDCs achieved growth of 5 per cent or better in 2003.


-- Official development assistance to LDCs expanded from $13.8 billion in 2001 to $17.5 billion in 2002, the most recent year in which national figures are available from the Development Assistance Committee of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and overall official development assistance (ODA) has continued to rise every year since.  The rise in ODA to LDCs was roughly 25 per cent in 2001-02, and 40 per cent over 2000-2002.


-- The Everything But Arms trade initiative announced by the European Union in the context of the Brussels meeting, the African Growth and Opportunity Act of the United States and similar bilateral initiatives by Australia, Canada and Japan are allowing wider access for LDC products to rich country markets.  In addition, the World Trade Organization has ruled favourably to LDCs as regards two commodities of interest to them, cotton and sugar.


-- Some of the civil conflicts that have bedevilled the poorest countries are subsiding, including in Angola, Burundi, Eritrea, Guinea-Bissau, Haiti and Somalia.  (The United Nations Economic and Social Council has established special post-conflict advisory groups to link cessation of hostilities in Burundi and Guinea-Bissau with economic and social progress.)


But even the cessation of armed conflict is posing a new challenge for LDCs.  The return of hundreds of thousands of refugees to many countries emerging from conflict, according to statistics issued last week by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, will place additional burdens on already strained social service systems.  In Afghanistan, more than half a million refugees returned in 2003, with 2.1 million still looking for refuge in foreign countries, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees .


In the meantime, heightened conflicts have broken out in other LDCs, including the Sudan, where United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan will be attending talks this week.


Progress on economic growth and aid, moreover, continues to fall short of international targets.  It was estimated in Brussels in 2001 that an across-the-board average of 7 per cent growth per year was required to halve the rate of extreme poverty in the LDCs by 2015, and estimates prepared for the 2002 International Conference on Financing for Development projected the need to double official development assistance in short order if the Millennium Development Goals are to be achieved.


In the case of trade, President Kerekou said at today’s meeting that preferences given to LDCs remain underutilized, due to obstacles such as complex paperwork imposed by developed countries and LDC lack of productive capacity to move beyond sin.


“In spite of their laudable efforts and multiple sacrifices, LDCs continue to bend under a crushing debt burden, leading to weakened social protection, greater vulnerability among the poor population, an exacerbation of conflicts and the lasting devastation of the HIV/AIDS pandemic”, he said.


The Economic and Social Council has impacted policy at the international and national levels in recent years in areas such as information technology and rural development, and will apply the tools of debate, discussion and policy coordination to the issue of mobilizing resources in the LDCs, ECOSOC President Marjatta Rasi (Finland) said in today’s opening address.  An example of practical assistance is the investment forum for LDCs, taking place in the afternoon of the opening day of the three-day high-level segment of ECOSOC, she said.


Also speaking at the opening day, in addition to the President of Benin, are:  United Nations Deputy Secretary-General Louise Fréchette; United Nations Conference on Trade and Development Secretary-General Rubens Ricupero; International Labour Organization Director-General Juan Somavia; United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs José Antonio Ocampo; and Under-Secretary-General Anwarul Chowdhury, the High Representative for the Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing States.


For more information, contact Tim Wall of the Development Section of the UN Department of Public Information, tel.:  1 212 963 5851, e-mail:  wallt@un.org.


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