Background Release

14 May 2001


NEW YORK, 11 May (UN Headquarters) -- Global policy-makers will confront the economic isolation and severe poverty of the world's 49 poorest countries at the Third United Nations Conference on the Least Developed Countries, which will be convened in Brussels, Belgium, from 14 to 20 May.

In a message issued for the Conference, Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who has called for a "Global New Deal" to help disadvantaged regions catch up with the developed world, says, "At stake, quite simply, in the future of these poorest of the poor, is the well-being of the entire human community."

The Conference, which is being hosted by the European Union, is expected to be results-oriented and to reach agreement on concrete steps that will allow least developed countries (LDCs) to reverse their slide into marginalization and extreme poverty.

This determination was emphasized by the world leaders who gathered in New York last September for the United Nations Millennium Summit. Adopting the Millennium Declaration, they recognized their collective responsibility to uphold the principles of human dignity, equality and equity, and placed poverty eradication high on their agenda, vowing to address the special needs of the LDCs. In a first test of that commitment, the Conference will offer the international community an opportunity to deal comprehensively with debt relief, trade, market access and sustainable development.

In addition to elaborating a programme of action for the decade 2001-2010, Conference participants will hold a special event on "The Challenge of Eradicating Poverty" following the inaugural ceremony, and engage in a series of interactive thematic sessions throughout the week.

The subjects of these events are: Governance, Peace and Social Stability; Enhancing Productive Capacities -- the Agricultural Sector and Food Security; Intellectual Property and Development -- an instrument for wealth creation; Enhancing Productive Capacities -- the Role of Health; Education; International Trade, Commodities and Services/Tourism; Energy; Enhancing Productive Capacities -- The Role of Investment and Enterprise Development; Human Resources Development and Employment; Infrastructure Development; Transport; and Financing Growth and Development.

The sessions, which are being organized by the competent United Nations specialized agencies, are aimed at producing concrete commitments of resources, programmes and initiatives. For example, during the discussion on governance, national plans will be devised based on reciprocal commitments by both LDCs and their development partners. These plans will take into account the institutional, participatory and economic components of good governance. Target actions include: strengthening independence among the executive, judicial and legislative branches; decentralizing decision-making; and reinforcing the role of local civil societies.

The discussion on agriculture, for its part, will examine ways to increase food production, diversify crops, ensure a more reliable food supply and create jobs in rural areas, with a view to breaking the vicious circle of poverty and food insecurity in LDCs. The session on energy will look at ways to: improve access to energy; develop international cooperation on trade in energy; and help populations to use cleaner sources of energy.

Running parallel to those session will be a number of events highlighting the role of civil society, including a high-level parliamentarians round table, discussions on the digital economy and the business sector, and a women entrepreneurs forum.

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) -- the principal organ of the General Assembly dealing with trade, investment and development -- is the United Nations focal point for LDCs and has played a key role in organizing the current Conference, as well as the previous two conferences.

Last year, in its Least Developed Countries 2000 Report, UNCTAD stressed the call for a "New Deal" to help pull LDCs out of their situation and the importance of enhanced international development cooperation. [See Press Release TAD/INF/2865 of 12 October 2000.] The UNCTAD, headed by Secretary-General Rubens Ricupero, also annually publishes the Trade and Development Report and World Investment Report.

At the first conference on LDCs, held in Paris in 1981, the international community unanimously adopted the Substantial New Programme of Action for the 1980s for the Least Developed Countries, containing guidelines for domestic action by the LDCs, which were to be complemented by international support measures. However, according to UNCTAD, despite major policy reforms initiated by many of these countries, and supportive measures taken by a number of donors in the areas of aid, debt relief and trade, the economic situation of the LDCs as a whole worsened during that decade.

Thus, a second conference was held in Paris, from 3 to 14 September 1990, to review the socio-economic progress in those countries, as well as progress in international support measures. The outcome of the Conference was embodied in the Paris Declaration and the Programme of Action for the Least Developed Countries for the 1990s, in which the international community committed itself to urgent action to arrest and reverse the deterioration in the least developed countries and revitalize their growth and development.

The Programme of Action recognized that effective follow-up and monitoring mechanisms should support the development efforts of the LDCs, and that they were key to the successful implementation of the Programme. A three-tiered mechanism was agreed upon to cover national, regional and global follow-up to monitor its implementation. A mid-term review of the implementation, carried out by a high-level intergovernmental meeting held in New York in 1995, concluded that the LDCs continued to be marginalized. It adopted conclusions to accelerate the implementation of the Programme of Action during the second half of the 1990s. In 1997, the General Assembly decided to convene the third conference.

The Conference has a mandate covering the following areas: to assess the results of the Programme of Action during the 1990s at the country level; to review the implementation of international support measures, particularly in the areas of official development assistance, debt, investment and trade; and to consider the adoption of policies for the sustainable development of the least developed countries and their progressive integration into the world economy.

Draft Programme of Action

The Conference draft programme of action (document A/CONF.191/6) is still under negotiation, although it has been issued, with areas subject to negotiation highlighted. In its 69 pages, the draft sets out a framework for partnership, seven specific commitments, and a means for follow-up. The draft text characterizes the implementation of the previous programmes of action as a complete failure, with targets set 10 years ago not yet achieved. The LDCs, it states, have not been able to take full advantage of the ongoing process of globalization, which, in some cases, has also led to a further marginalization.

The task of the Third Conference, according to the draft, is to agree on actions to promote the sustainable development of LDCs and their progressive integration into the world economy. The partnership framework is intended to: accelerate sustained economic growth and sustainable development in LDCs; end marginalization by eradicating poverty, inequality and deprivation in these countries; and enable them to be beneficially integrated into the global economy.

Least Developed Countries

The LDCs are officially designated as such by the United Nations General Assembly on the basis of a number of criteria, including: low national income (per capita gross domestic product (GDP) under $900 for countries now joining the list); low levels of human development (a combined health, nutrition and education index); and economic vulnerability (a composite index based on indicators of instability, inadequate diversification and the handicap of small size). The population of countries that meet all the other criteria for admission to the category must not exceed 75 million inhabitants.

The average per capita GDP in the LDCs was $235 in 1997, compared to $24,522 in developed countries. People in the LDCs can expect to live for only 51 years and only one in four births is attended by trained health personnel. One child in 10 in the LDCs dies before his or her first birthday, and half the population is illiterate.

The 49 LDCs are as follows: Afghanistan, Angola, Bangladesh, Benin, Bhutan, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cambodia, Cape Verde, Central African Republic, Chad, Comoros, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Haiti, Kiribati, Lao People's Democratic Republic, Lesotho, Liberia, Madagascar, Malawi, Maldives, Mali, Mauritania, Mozambique, Myanmar, Nepal, Niger, Rwanda, Samoa, Sao Tome and Principe, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Solomon Islands, Somalia, Sudan, Togo, Tuvalu, Uganda, United Republic of Tanzania, Vanuatu, Yemen and Zambia.

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