I would like to start by extending my appreciation for giving me this opportunity to discuss with you the preparations to date for the Third UN Conference on the Least Developed Countries to be held here in Brussels in May 2001. I cannot emphasize enough the significance of holding this important conference here in Brussels, the seat of the European Commission. It symbolizes the historical link and the solidarity and commitment of the people of Europe with the most impoverished segment of the international community. It was no coincidence that the First UN Conference on the Least Developed Countries was held in Paris, France with the active support of other European countries. Its primary objective was to bring to the attention of the international community the special problems of the LDCs and to formulate a ten-year Programme of Action aimed at accelerating economic development in these countries and narrowing the gap between them and the rest of the developing world. A second UN Conference on the LDCs was also held in Paris in September 1990 in which the international community committed itself to urgent and effective action to arrest and reverse the deterioration in the socio-economic situation in the LDCs and to revitalize their growth and development. The commitments, set out in a Programme of Action for the 1990s, were wide-ranging, but at their heart there was an implicit partnership between, on the one hand, the LDCs who undertook to deepen the process of economic reform, and on the other, development partners who undertook to increase external support.
Assessments of the progress made in the last two decades do not, unfortunately, give reason for joy or optimism. Contrary to earlier expectations, many LDCs have experienced regression in their economic development, in some cases losing even the small progress achieved in the immediate post-independence period. The number of countries in the LDC group has, in fact, increased rather than decreased, as once hoped. Only one country, Botswana, has been able to graduate from LDC status. This dismal record has disheartened many LDCs, and the danger of these countries losing total confidence in the international economic system is now a reality.
As we prepare for the Third UN Conference on the LDCs, therefore, one of the greatest challenges facing the international community is how to deal with the credibility gap and the growing frustration on the part of the world´s poorest countries. They may justifiably ask: "What is the point of discussing a new Global Programme of Action with new time frame, new targets and commitments if the means and conditions needed to act upon them are not given?" Some may even be tempted to say "déjà vu".
As I reminded the LDC representatives who recently gathered in New York for the First Meeting of the Intergovernmental Preparatory Committee for the 2001 Conference, drastic new approaches are needed this time around in order to rebuild confidence and trust in the partnership forged a decade ago and to attain results that go beyond a general agreement on, yet again, another Global Programme of Action. This, in effect, means avoiding the feeling of "conference fatigue" and undertaking a number of interrelated and complementary measures and activities in preparation for the Brussels event next year.
First, the intergovernmental process, in particular the preparations of the Global Programme of Action for the next decade should be based on concrete poverty eradication strategies identified by LDCs themselves. To that end, we have initiated a process whereby member countries prepare national strategy papers as inputs towards the preparation of the Global Programme of Action. Ownership of this process by countries themselves is crucial. However, equally important is the need to promote a multi-stakeholder approach and to avoid duplications since there are similar ongoing initiatives within the UN system that can be used to complement the national strategy papers. In this respect, the role of UNDP country offices in ensuring synergy, especially with the Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs) that many LDCs are preparing as part of policy reform initiatives by the Bretton Woods institutions, is vital.
Second, as I have already indicated, the Conference should aim at result-based outcomes by formulating a set of concrete, action-oriented and implementable commitments that can result in tangible benefits in each of the LDCs. Achieving this will require courage and innovations in both substance and process. It will also mean that all stakeholders in the development process have to play their part both in the preparations for the Conference and the implementation of its outcome. In this connection, we attach special importance to the role that the European Union can play in mobilizing the political support necessary for a result-oriented and successful Conference.
Third, and in departure from past practice, the Conference will have to be organized in a manner conducive to the attainment of practical results. The First Preparatory Committee Meeting held in New York has decided that in addition to the traditional parliamentary intergovernmental process, several well-focused fora aimed at promoting specific programmes and initiatives in such areas as trade, human resource development, enhancing supply capacity, governance, finance for growth and development, food security and health (HIV/AIDS) should be organized. For each of these fora, a facilitator, in the form of a senior government official from development partners, will be identified to coordinate, in collaboration with UNCTAD and other relevant UN agencies, the interactive debate on these issues and the concrete initiatives, programmes and projects to be delivered. The concept of "early harvest" - that is, gathering the support needed and soliciting specific commitments from development partners well in advance will be crucial.
Fourth, in order to take into account the views and concerns of all stakeholders in the development process parallel fora should also be organized for parliamentarians and the representatives of non-governmental groups such as the business community, women and youth. Recent experiences have shown that the active participation of such groups in multilateral discussions is an important prerequisite for forging a stronger partnership.
Of course, forging a stronger partnership is not something new to the European Union. The new ACP-EC Partnership Agreement of Cotonou, which builds on the success of 25 years of cooperation under successive Lomé Conventions, is testimony to that. Its perspective on development that combines politics, trade and financial assistance, and its comprehensive and integrated approach to capacity building and poverty alleviation makes it a unique model of North-South relations with concrete commitments and partnerships. The forthcoming LDC Conference, the first major multilateral conference of this century to be hosted by the European Union, presents another challenge for European countries to use the experience gained through ACP-EU partnership in designing a new form of partnership aimed specifically at the LDCs. The LDCs themselves must also take up the challenge. Ultimately, the success of international support measures will depend on conducive domestic policies and the determination on the part of the recipients to bring about the necessary change.
However, some of the recent trends and developments in the external environment for LDCs have given reason for concern. In real terms, Official Development Assistance (ODA) disbursements are now at the lowest levels in 20 years. Furthermore, there is a real concern that support for humanitarian emergencies will be made at the expense of finance for development. In 1998, for example, nearly 25 per cent of total grant commitments were for emergency assistance or debt relief. Similarly, aid effectiveness has been undermined by the short-leash debt relief strategy and is inadequately supported by complementary changes in the international trading system. In designing a new programme for LDCs with concrete and credible solutions, the question of what are appropriate national and international policies to reduce poverty and enhance the integration of these countries into the global economic system must be given special attention. For LDCs, there can be no such thing as a good poverty reduction strategy in an unfriendly international economic environment.
The evidence emerging from these countries suggest that poverty reduction strategies must take into account the following two important factors.
- Their limited supply capacity, poor infrastructure and low level of skills. The challenge is how to enhance their supply capacity and ensure that their export bases not only grow and diversify to include higher value products, but also achieve sustainable development. Attaining these results will require specific international support measures including the granting of bound duty-free and quota-free access for all LDCs exports. More generally, an enormous effort of capacity building has to be initiated to provide LDCs with the institutional and educational tools needed to evaluate the impact of trade policies and to put into place the corresponding measures to attend social demands.
- Low rates of domestic saving and lack of capital. Availability of external resources through reversal of the declining trend in ODA and effective measures for debt relief is imperative. Most LDCs are dependent on a narrow range of commodity exports for their income, which, unfortunately, makes them vulnerable to external shocks emanating from either natural causes or fluctuations of world economy.
An important lesson emerging from assessments of the outcome of the first two conferences is that agreeing on specific targets and commitments is one thing but implementation is another. The record on implementation has been, to say the least, dismal. Another challenge for the Brussels Conference is that mechanisms for overseeing and monitoring the implementation and realization of agreed targets and commitments must be set in place. If we wish to learn from past mistakes and genuinely improve the implementation problem, the issue of mechanisms for monitoring progress must be given special attention. I have no doubt that such efforts will not only strengthen the partnership but will also deal with the credibility problem that I mentioned earlier.
But monitoring of the implementation process must also apply at the country level. The objective is to ensure that the results of the conference are translated into concrete outcomes at the recipient country level. In the past, lack of linkages between global commitments or targets on the one hand and country-level development objectives and priorities on the other, has been one of the factors contributing to the relative failure of agreed programmes. In an attempt to reduce such a mismatch, this time round, the countries themselves are actively involved in the preparations of detailed country strategy papers to identify, among other things, the main obstacles hindering their efforts to alleviate poverty and attain sustainable development. We hope that the Global Programme of Action will reflect the priority areas of concern and the appropriate international support needed.
Despite the promises of globalization, extreme poverty and economic regression remain a harsh reality for a significant number of the least-developed countries. The international community cannot afford to ignore the consequences of this reality, nor can it afford to delay effective action until this trend has degenerated into uncontrollable humanitarian crises. The forthcoming Brussels conference provides an opportunity to come up with a more pragmatic set of commitments to support development efforts in LDCs. The European Union is well placed to contribute to this process. In addition to extensive experience in North-South cooperation and partnership, its own historic experience during the post-World War II years of reconstruction, which was based on vision and sustained effort to improve the living standards of the people of Europe, means that it has a special responsibility in leading the fight against poverty and underdevelopment in countries with which Europe has traditionally had special relationships. The European integration also provides useful lessons to many regional integration endeavours among developing countries. Above all, they exemplify that the courage and political leadership provided by visionaries such as Jean Monnet are the key ingredients of successful cooperation and economic progress.
Let us then take the opportunity of this important event to initiate a bold and imaginative process of giving hope to the most vulnerable segments of the international community. The current resurgence of international interest in ending poverty once and for all should provide all of us a renewed sense of greater solidarity with the poorest countries as well as the incentive to act. Both North and South have a role to play in Brussels next year.