Poorest of the poor may be halved in a decade, UN predicts

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An authoratitive United Nations report predicted yesterday that the number of people trying to survive on less than a dollar a day could be halved in just over a decade.

The target - to reduce the 1.2 billion people living in extreme poverty - was among eight ambitious goals set out at the turn of the millennium. The leaders of the world's most powerful nations promised to help the 800 million who suffer from chronic hunger, the 14 million children who have lost one or both parents to the HIV/Aids pandemic and the half a million women who die in pregnancy or childbirth each year.

The Irish rock star Bono vowed to lead a civil disobedience campaign to force world leaders to fight global poverty if UN efforts did not result in progress. "We are about to get very noisy, we are about to bang a lot of dustbin lids," he said in Dublin at a ceremony to launch the UN Development Programme's annual report. "We can actually transform the real lives of people living in absolute poverty," he said. "I, for one, am not going to let it pass. This for me is an issue of equality."

The report gives credit for progress towards these targets not to the heads of developed countries, who jostle to be seen as the benevolent benefactors, but to the premiers of developing nations who have implemented internal reforms.

Progress by China and India in reducing poverty had been enough to bring the primary millennium goal within reach, said the UNDP administrator, Mark Malloch Brown.

Tony Blair, President George Bush and President Jacques Chirac all competed to be Mr Development but the people who had done more than all three were Wen Jiabao, the Chinese premier, President Vicente Fox of Mexico and President Lula of Brazil, he said. "The real story of poverty reduction is big countries where the middle classes have modernised economies who make the decision to direct major resources into the hinterlands."

The Human Development Report 2003 also shows that 59 nations - predominantly in sub-Saharan Africa or the former Soviet Union - have slid further down the poverty ladder in the past decade as they contend with HIV/Aids, wars and mammoth foreign debts.

The UNDP warns that the pledges made in the Millennium Declaration will fail unless sufficient aid is forthcoming soon. It estimates that the annual flow of funds must be doubled to at least $100bn (£60bn).

Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, the report's lead author, said: "The millennium development goals will not be met unless we see changes - it cannot be business as usual. For much of Africa and other parts of the world, progress needs to be desperately accelerated."

The report was launched in Dublin, because Ireland is seen as a country that has gone further than most to honour its pledge to increase assistance. A similar event is planned for Maputo tomorrow in recognition of Mozambique's action in eradicating poverty.

Mr Malloch Brown said: "We are not calling for a blank cheque. There is a new partnership at work here and it says that aid has to be a two-way street. Poor countries have to implement pro-poor reforms. Rich countries have to provide more support."

China and India, the report says, are both examples of nations that have taken a proactive stance on poverty. With two thirds of the world's most destitute living in Asia, the impact of such progress affects international figures severely. China's dynamic economy has moved 150 million people out of poverty. Its success is due to a combination of intensive investment, labour discipline and competitiveness, an infrastructure that has access to world markets, an early investment in literacy and human development and a high degree of devolution, handing control and accountability to people at a local level.

Devolving power in India, though, has offered a mixed bag, with some states thriving on it to form a good education and health system, and others failing equally dramatically. Nevertheless, the country saw a robust per capita growth of 4 per cent annually between 1990 and 2000.

Yet China's and India's successes could not necessarily be repeated in other economies. Mr Malloch Brown said: "In countries with big populations the signs are that they are moving in the right direction. It is the small, landlocked, isolated ones which are not. It is in these vulnerable countries where international assistance will make a real strategic difference." In some African nations - apart from the obvious problems of HIV and war - a dependence on one commodity, isolation from the global economy and an absence of investment in agriculture, leading to environmental degradation, have left them unable to pull themselves out of the poverty trap without help.

The UNDP calls for a multipronged attack, which includes good governance and transparency, with a focus on improving education and health, while not forgetting the importance of trade and a transport infrastructure. "There is a need for a huge push towards decentralisation with improved participation and control by the people. All of this is about democracy and development," Mr Malloch Brown said. "These goals are as simple for poor people as they are for G8 leaders to understand. It is about jobs and a decent meal for all the family, about education for the kids and protecting the environment which such a large number of the world's poor make a living from."

He added: "This is a wake-up moment. We cannot wait five or six years. A kid who is educated now will only contribute to the economy a decade from now. The millennium development goals hang in the balance. In Monterrey [the Financing for Development summit] and Evian [G8 summit] big promises were made. But there is recognition how fragile it all is ... How quickly good words from these summits get washed away."