| October 24, 2018

The futile summitry

The futile summitry

So long as good food remains a luxury for an LDC journalist there will be no meaningful graduation
I was recently in Turkey to cover the United Nations Conference on Mid-term Review of Istanbul Program of Action (IPoA) on Least Development Countries (LDCs). But if you ask me what the conference achieved for the people of LDCs, I probably wouldn’t be able to answer. Like other conferences, it began well and ended with reaffirmation of commitment to help LDCs. This is an old pattern.

LDC tag is new euphemism for the “third world”. Like third world, LDC is a Western, or to be more precise, a UN construct. The General Assembly of the United Nations coined this term in 1971 to describe the countries with profound poverty and weakness of their economic, institutional and human resources.

Principally, UN conferences on LDCs are occasions to discuss ways to help these countries come out of LDC trap but there has been little to show so far. Only four countries have graduated to middle-income country status so far—Botswana in 1994, Cape Verde in 2007, Maldives in 2011 and Samoa in 2014.

Currently, there are 48 LDCs which have failed to develop their domestic economies and ensure an adequate standard of living for their populations. Poor economic and social development of these countries, we are told, has become a major challenge for themselves as well as development partners like the UN. So the UN organizes conferences every now and then. The outcome is reiteration of old commitments and pledges.

The first UN conference on LDCs was held in 1981. It came up with Substantial New Program of Action (SNPA) for the 1980s with the visions and guidelines for improving the economies of LDCs. But the state of these economies worsened during the 1980s. The response was second conference in 1990 which reviewed the “progress” made during the 1980s and formulated national and international policies and measures to accelerate LDCs’ development process for the 1990s. The second conference ended with commitment from the international community for urgent and effective action to improve LDCs’ socio-economic status through a document called Paris Declaration and Program of Action.

Mid-term review on Paris declaration was held in 1995, which concluded that LDCs continue to be marginalized. UN General Assembly then responded to this marginalization status by deciding to hold yet another—the third—conference in 2001.

What did the third conference achieve? Fourth conference was held to assess the implementation status of third conference. The result was a policy document called Istanbul Program of Action (IPoA) for the decade 2011-2020. The overarching goal of IPoA was to eradicate poverty and achieve internationally agreed development goals. Among other things the IPoA had promised to achieve for LDCs sustained, equitable and inclusive economic growth.

The Antalya conference I attended was meant for a status review of IPoA implementation. It ended with reaffirmation of commitments to continue the effort on the part of the UN and the developed economies to help LDCs. Antalya declaration has proposed fifth conference for 2021. One can predict what will happen in 2021: renewed commitment followed by another mid-term review.

Frankly, after all these UN conferences, LDCs are still LDCs. Much more remains to be done for them but we have to hold another conference to decide what exactly.

Needless to say, whether or not a country graduates from LDC status largely depends on its own government. But that UN has been conducting conferences and reviews every few years to come up with the same recommendations shows there is something amiss with the way UN is helping out LDCs.

Leaders and delegates gathered from 75 countries were talking about LDC graduation from the most sophisticated meeting halls of the finest resort hotels of the Turkish town. It sounded strange to hear them deliver sweet-talk on eradication of poverty and hunger from there.

Had this conference been held in one of the LDCs, say Nepal, perhaps it would be of more symbolic value. In any case, the expense is made by the UN. Nepal would also be the right place for this event because key members of LDCs happen to represent Nepal— Gyan Chandra Acharya, head of UN Office of the High Representative for the Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing States (UN-OHRLLS); Gauri Pradhan, international coordinator of LDC Civil Society Forum; and Chandra Prasad Dhakal, representative of LDCs’ private sector.

In these 45-odd years since LDCs were born, no LDC conference has taken place in LDCs—the first (1981) and the second (1990) were held in Paris, the third (2001) was held in Brussels and the fourth (2011) and its mid-term review (2016) were held in Istanbul and Antalya of Turkey respectively—the places where from poverty and hunger look unreal.

Delegates discussed issues based on reports and suggested solutions through other impressive reports. Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs to Turkey, Ali Nazi Koru, rightly expressed his apprehension in one of the sessions: “You can have a framework which looks good on paper. But if you cannot properly implement it, it will stay on paper forever.” One challenge of the UN is to prove that its pledges won’t be limited to paperwork.

We the LDC journalists would discuss efficacy and relevance of such conference and prospect of meaningful graduation at dinner time. None of us were optimistic. Then we would feast on sumptuous food and drinks, as if we had never eaten such food before. So long as good food remains a luxury for an LDC journalist, there will be no meaningful graduation.

The UN speaks with language of facts. UN’s Millennium Development Goals Report (2015) tells us that extreme poverty has declined, the number of undernourished people in the developing regions has fallen by half since 1990, and primary school enrolment rate in developing countries has reached 91 percent. But is that really the case?

It is hard for an outsider to comment on the UN system. But there are books and literature—some of them cynical—on how UN aid or any other foreign aid is a ploy to increase the dependence of poor countries on rich countries. John Perkins in his 2004 book, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, talks of how western aid is a ploy of making the underdeveloped countries surrender to political pressures of the developed countries. William Easterly wrote in 2006 how western aid always fails to reach the targeted communities. More recently, there was an incise critique of the UN by one of its assistant general secretaries, Anthony Banbury, in The New York Times, who argues that the UN is failing.

We don’t know if the UN is failing. If it can impress on LDC people that it does what it says and that it is not an opaque system that spends money like water while targeted groups are left high and dry, then the people will believe it’s not failing. But UN needs to acknowledge that it has shortcomings that need to be corrected. It needs to communicate its programs in a language everyone can understand. Most issues on which UN is working are understandable only to UN staffs.

The UN should increase the engagement of global media on LDC issue. It is sobering to recall that none of the big international media—The New York Times, CNN or BBC—covered Antalya conference, the event which was discussing the concerns of one billion poor people of the world. 

Finally, the UN would do well to listen to what its former officials have to say. Banbury suggests that “all administrative expenses should be capped at a fixed percentage of operations costs.” He suggests rigorous performance audits of all parts of headquarters operations and calls for a major reform to make the “United Nations succeed.”

Call it a world’s fate or luck, there has not been a war like the first and second world wars since the UN came into being in 1945. At least, it has not abandoned its agenda of world peace and human rights. It has been promising and delivering aid for LDCs as well. But in this day and age when nothing can be hidden, this alone will not be enough to establish continued relevance of this global organization.