OP-ED: Major Salvaging Needed for LDC IV in Istanbul

UNITED NATIONS, May 4 2011 (IPS) - Next Monday the United Nations is convening the decennial global conference focusing on the challenges faced by “the poorest and weakest segment of the international community humanity”. This week-long high level hosted by Turkey in Istanbul is the fourth in the series of ten-yearly UN gatherings since 1981 when the first one was convened in Paris.

These countries now numbering 48 and having a population size of 880 million – identified as the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) continue to be the voiceless, marginalized and most vulnerable countries of the world since the category was established more than four decades ago. These countries do not attract world’s attention unless they are engulfed in conflict or devastated by natural disasters.

As the long preparatory process involving all member states and relevant entities of the UN is coming to a final point, the expected outcome of the fourth UN Conference on the Least Developed Countries (UNLDC IV) does not look promising at all. A mood of desperation and disappointment seem to be pervasive. The upbeat atmosphere that existed ahead of all previous three conferences is nowhere to be seen. The forward-looking and responsibility-sharing outcome with a high-level advocacy and monitoring global mechanism at the third conference in Brussels had given the LDCs a big push to their development efforts and put their concerns high on the global development agenda.

In recent years, the global situation, of course, has changed in a negative way requiring a new and innovative approach to structure the possible outcome in Istanbul. Unfortunately, this has not been the case and the preparations took the path of working on an outcome that lacked any spark worthwhile for energizing the LDCs and as a result, the usual, insensitive bickering of the United Nations negotiating process has been visible all through. This unfortunately manifested its worst face when the expression “development partners” present in all previous LDCs-related documents of the UN came under serious and persistent challenge from the long-recognized donor countries.

The LDCs seem to be increasingly frustrated at the slowness of negotiations, lack of creativity in recommendations and basically insignificant outcome document that is being shaped. An expression that is going around is abbreviated as “4Ds” which the LDC delegates believe explain very well the current attitude of the development partners. DENY, DILUTE, DELAY and DIVIDE, according to them, are the strategic steps that the partners are resorting to since the preparatory process for UNLDC IV had commenced. Nothing could be more disappointing than this with only a few days before the start in Istanbul.

In terms of number of events and profile of the conference, Istanbul would be quite a gathering. More than forty heads of government are expected to attend and three parallel forums are going to be arranged for civil society, for the business sector and the parliamentarians. But in terms of substance of outcome, it falls far short of the expectation of all who believe that the international community owes a special supportive obligation for the suffering LDCs, particularly in times of current global economic meltdown that has been made more unbearable as a result of the on- going food, fuel and financial crises. Remember a key criterion for being identified by the UN as an LDC is vulnerability to external shocks that originate beyond their national boundaries. The recent world-wide rise in food and fuel prices has accentuated that vulnerability seriously jeopardizing the domestic programmes that aim at reducing poverty and meeting the basic needs of their vulnerable and disadvantaged.

One wonders what has brought the UNLDC IV to this near dead- end. Well, here are some clear realities that could not be wished away at this final hour:

1) The development partners have taken a minimalist position on their commitment since the negotiations commenced on the outcome document. The European Union and its members who had played a key role in the positive results of the last three LDC conferences have been rather hesitant in pushing for a creative forward-looking agenda for LDCs. US and Japan as major donors have also been dragging their feet. To them “fragile” and “failed” states seem to be more attractive to LDCs. A clever move has also been taken by some donors to slip out of their commitments by overloading the UNLDC IV outcome with sizeable paragraphs in the name of the South-South Cooperation. Current global financial crises and their national economic downturns acknowledged, but if these countries do not fulfill their already-made commitments to the poorest, it is a shame to talk about global partnership.

2) Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon began his second year in office committing him to alleviate the plight of the “bottom billion”. That catchy description which included all LDCs seems to have disappeared from his priority agenda. Nine-member Eminent Persons Group appointed by him for providing much-needed and worthwhile ideas for bringing life to the UNLDC IV failed miserably by focusing on the graduation as the panacea for LDCs. That group was set up too late and with the persons who do not have any credibility with regard to their public commitments to LDCs. As a matter of fact, an examination of the public statements of the “Eminent Persons” during the one year period prior to their selection by the Secretary-General shows that nearly none of them made a single reference to LDCs in a substantive way. The Secretary-General passed the buck of his own responsibility to a group of people who did not have any commitment to the LDC issues and whose report earlier in March did not attract any attention either of the governments or the public or the media.

3) The lack of forceful, dynamic and creative leadership of the group of LDCs in preparing and steering the negotiating process from the outset has been visible all through.

4) The quality of the substantive documentation for UNLDC IV – be it from the member-states, or from the secretariat, or regional inputs – falls far short of the clarity of analysis and vision that is needed as an essential first step for success.

5) Though the negotiations are carried out by the LDCs Chair in the name of the Group of 77 which represent all 132 developing countries, in reality much of the challenge for the LDCs come from better- endowed fellow developing members who are constantly worried that the poorest would get away with special privileges.

6) UN public information apparatus did not play any role to highlight the issues of concern not only to LDCs but also to a larger world community. Its event-oriented press releases failed miserably to encourage much deserving engagement for UNLDC IV. The much-talked about advocacy strategy for LDCs called for by the UN General Assembly has not been able to show results.

7) The imminent death of the Doha round of global trade negotiations would take away the much- awaited formalization of the exclusive and extensive duty-free quota- free market access and export development deals that LDC delegations clenched at the Hong Kong WTO ministerial conference in 2005. The market access obstacles between LDCs and other developing countries are wide-ranging and need immediate removal if South-South cooperation has to be meaningful.

8) Past years’ experience tells us that the development partners as well as LDCs pay any regard to the objectives of the programme of action adopted by the UN for LDCs while structuring their bilateral assistance programme that is basically driven by national agendas of countries on both sides. This increasingly-visible self-serving dimension has been carefully kept out of consideration in any multilateral process in the name of bilateralism.

9) What is missing most noticeably from the expected outcome is a mechanism to cushion the external shocks of the terrible “C’s” – climate change, credit crunch and commodity costs. The global crises of last years have shown that all the programmes and commitments meant for LDCs did not come to any use to give respite to the common people of these impoverished countries. They suffered beyond comprehension and still doing. A Global Safety Net for LDCs is what is needed to save the suffering of the millions of the vulnerable people in the weakest segment of the humanity. Such a safety net is to be structured in a way that it would automatically trigger measures to protect the vulnerable in LDCs in times of crises that is beyond their control.

To regain some credibility, the world leaders gathering next week in Istanbul need to live up to their responsibility to look after those whose needs are the greatest. To show leadership, the United Nations and its Secretary-General should be at the helm steering the international community’s efforts to get these countries out of the morass made worse by, in his own words, the global “development crisis”.

Unless some extraordinary efforts are made to salvage Istanbul by them, a promising opportunity will be lost and the UNLDC IV will be doomed to fail.

*Former Under-Secretary-General and High Representative. He participated in all previous LDC conferences and set up the implementation mechanism for the last UN programme for LDCs. Ambassador Chowdhury is the Chairman of the IPS North America Board of Directors. (END)

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