15 May 2001


NEW YORK, 14 May (UN Headquarters) -- Following is the statement by Secretary-General Kofi Annan to the Non-Governmental Forum at the Third United Nations Conference on the Least Developed Countries, delivered in Brussels this morning:

Thank you for that very warm welcome.

As you know I have left the Conference to come and talk to you.

I did so with some regret, because this is a very serious conference and they are really looking for new ways of tackling the problems that face the Third World and have held back the Least Developed Countries for so long. It is not just heads of State talking to each other. There is Jim Wolfensohn, of the World Bank; Mike Moore of the WTO; Romano Prodi of the European Commission; Thoraya Obaid of the United Nations Population Fund; Mary Robinson, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights: they are all putting forward their own ideas, and listening to those of leaders from the LDCs, of leading businessmen, and -- you will be glad to hear -- of a leading non-governmental organization (NGO), Oxfam International.

But I wanted to come and talk to you, and also to listen to you.

I am delighted that so many of you represent NGOs from the LDCs themselves. You are fighting the battle for human dignity against poverty, ignorance and disease every day -- and you are fighting it on the ground, where it really counts. You know exactly what it means to live in an underdeveloped country. Your ideas about what needs doing are likely to be the most down-to-earth and practical, and therefore the most valuable. Everyone in this conference should be listening to you.

Many events in the past few years have shown how powerful and influential NGOs can be – especially when those of North and South come together, using the tools of new technology such as e-mail and the Internet, and work to build coalitions with like-minded governments.

We saw it with the campaign to ban landmines. We saw it with the coalition for the International Criminal Court. Perhaps most impressively of all, we saw it with the Jubilee 2000 campaign for debt relief.

That campaign really shamed the peoples and governments of the North into realizing how debt cripples the efforts of so many LDCs to break out of poverty -- and how wrong it is, both morally and economically, that resources should be transferred from South to North instead of the other way round.

I don't mean to imply that the debt problem has been solved. As I told the Conference just now, even the poorest countries, which qualify for debt cancellation under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries scheme still spend more on repaying debts than they do on health care.

That is a gross distortion of priorities. Clearly we need deeper, broader and faster debt relief, and that means we need additional resources to put into it.

But at least everyone now agrees, in principle, that LDCs must be relieved of that burden. I think the time has come to broaden the campaign.

First, it is vital that the resources for debt relief are genuinely additional, and are not taken from funds already earmarked for developing countries. Those funds are already far too small, whether we judge by the needs of the developing countries, or by the target that developed countries set for themselves, long ago, of spending 0.7 per cent of their gross national product on development aid. As you know, and as I told the conference, very few have lived up to that pledge, and the developed world as a whole has reached only 0.2 per cent for development.

And secondly, the LDCs do not want to live on handouts. They know very well that official aid, by itself, will never do more than help them to stagger along in poverty. What they need, if they are to escape from poverty, is trade and investment. The two go together, because countries are much more likely to attract investment if they have markets for their products.

So the most important function of official aid is to help countries exploit the market opportunities open to them.

And perhaps the most important role now for a coalition of NGOs would be to ensure that markets really are open to products from developing countries.

The "everything but arms" initiative recently announced by the European Union is a beginning. But only a beginning. We need to persuade Europe to act faster on rice and sugar imports, and we need other industrialized countries, like Canada, Japan and the United States, to follow suit. We also need to ensure that health and safety standards, ostensibly designed to protect consumers, are not used to protect domestic producers against fair competition from poorer countries.

In the Conference just now, I gave the example of the European Union regulation on aflatoxins. The World Bank has calculated that this may possibly save the life of one European Union citizen every two years. But by keeping out 670 million dollars worth of African cereals, dried fruit and nuts it must keep many thousands of Africans in poverty, so that they are more likely to die an early death from malnutrition or endemic disease.

We must break down these barriers. We need a campaign for more open markets, which will muster the same moral force as the campaign to cancel debt.

Recently, some have advocated just such a campaign, calling it "Jubilee 2010". That year may seem distant, but remember that it is a target date. We must take the first steps now.

Supporters of such a campaign have argued that it should have two aims: one, to help the truly poor in the developing countries by dismantling the developed-countries' tariffs and barriers that have survived even as trade barriers have fallen worldwide; and two, to provide adjustment assistance and retraining to the poor workers of the developed countries, instead of abandoning them to cope as best they can with the rigours of competition from developing countries.

Surely, a campaign that embraces the welfare of the workers of both developed and developing countries should have the same appeal to you as Jubilee 2000 had for debt relief. I urge you to bring your wonderful energies and campaigning skills to bear on this issue.

This is the Third United Nations Least Developed Countries Conference in 20 years -- and there are more Least Developed Countries now than there were20 years ago. My biggest fear is that we will hold another conference in 10 years time, and find the list is even longer. Without new market opportunities, we almost certainly will.

I beg you not to let that happen.

But I have been talking too long. I said I had come here also to listen as well. Now it's your turn!

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