The UN’s Conference on Less Developed Countries

On Friday, the United Nations (UN) Conference on Less Developed Countries
(LDCs) came to a close in Istanbul, and with it came a plan that took me by surprise. I should have learned by now that the big boys tend to come up with plans that are questionable, to say the least – but the content of this one has brought up old failures and controversial reforms. These controversial reforms will be addressed in my next blog, but for now I’ll provide an overview of the new big plan; cutting the number of LDCs in half, from 48 to 24.

Undeniably, reducing the number of the world’s poorest countries is something to aspire to, but the since the number of LDCs started at 51 in 1970, only three of these countries have graduated out of this status since then. With an average of one country per decade rising from LDC status, all of the positive aims and recommendations around this new plan come across as somewhat vacant, and I can’t help but feel a little like the plan is not just unnecessary but simply unachievable.

Despite the incredibly sluggish progress in LDC’s upward economic movement over the last few decades, Diarra, the UN undersecretary general and high representative for the LDCs, suggests that five or six countries are already in line to ‘graduate’ from LDC status in the next two years. If this is true, I think it comes across as a bit of a scam to introduce an aim with the prospect that it will already be 25% complete within two years.

I can’t help but see this particular flaw as a reflection of the MDGs; while they cannot be criticised for content, they could arguably be improved by being country specific. This is illustrated through the rapid industrialisation that has occurred in India and China in recent years, whose joint poverty reduction results look set to achieve the overall MDG 1 of halving poverty, while countries such as those in Sub-Saharan Africa are lagging substantially behind, with no hope of achieving any of the MDGs. The result? Once again, those at the bottom are stuck there, only to be ignored by the apparent overall success of the MDGs.

The plan on raising countries from LDC status is said to arrive through a significant rise in aid, favourable market access and building up their productive capacity. I welcome each of these plans, albeit sceptically, with the hope that the so called ‘aid’ does not come with too many strings attached in the form of conditionality that would in fact hinder economic reform and poverty reduction, as seen in the past. I also look forward to seeing the barriers of trade reduced for LDCs, who have long since faced very high tariffs on agriculture impeding export-led growth. As the UK’s international development minister stated in a speech to the conference:

‘Rich nations must now turn their commitments into action, not least by dropping duties and quotas on goods and services from poor countries, which stand in the way of free and open trade.’

Market access is vital for the progress of LDCs, but it is not a standalone tool. That’s why the joint aim of boosting production capacity is also warmly greeted, even if it does come a decade after the Doha Development Agenda (DDA), which recognised that the integration of LDCs into the multilateral trading system requires: meaningful market access, support for the diversification of their production and export base, and trade-related technical assistance and capacity building.

Another point I would make is that each of the countries involved need to be taken into account – Not just the fact that they’re struggling economically or ridden with poverty, but other such things such as being landlocked, suffering from bad governance, facing civil wars and the exploitation and conflict over natural resources; all traps faced by most countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. It is because of these traps that many of the worlds’ poorest countries simply cannot alleviate their population out of poverty or boost their economies above the LDC level.

On top of the development traps, countries now have to face up to the impact of the recent financial crisis, ongoing escalating fuel prices and climate change, issues that face every country in the world, but are worst felt by LDCs. I feel that this new commitment to progress should be embraced cautiously, and only time will tell of the plan’s success.

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