Reversal of Gains ‘Only One Earthquake Away’, Bhutan’s Representative Says, amid Calls for Partnership in Forging New 10-Year Framework
Access to finance and technology and building resilience against climate change, natural disasters and other shocks are among the key drivers of sustainable development for the world’s poorest countries, speakers said today as the first session of the Preparatory Committee for the fifth United Nations Conference on the Least Developed Countries got under way.
The fifth United Nations Conference, to be held in January 2022 in Doha, and preparations leading up to it “afford us an opportunity for multilateral collaboration at a time the world needs it most”, said Lazarus Mccarthy Chakwera, President of Malawi, who opened the week-long Preparatory Conference on behalf of the Least Developed Countries Group.
Development is “the urgent need of the hour”, he said, as the COVID-19 pandemic has undermined decades of gains. The international community must help least developed countries address extreme poverty through innovation and robust action. Acute financing gaps must be filled through debt sustainability measures, remittances, foreign direct investment (FDI) and official development assistance (ODA), as half of these nations are in debt distress or susceptible to it, he said.
At the Doha conference, Heads of State and Government will formulate a successor framework to the Istanbul Programme of Action, adopted in 2011. The intergovernmental Preparatory Committee will meet twice beforehand, from 24 to 28 May, and from 26 to 30 July, to agree on elements of the new 10-year framework. An organizational session of the Committee was held on 8 February, to elect its two Co-Chairs.
In a video message, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim al-Thani, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs of Qatar, expressed confidence that the Doha summit will showcase the importance of international action, creating and strengthening cooperation between least developed countries and their partners. Noting that the Doha Programme of Action will be the first to address the repercussions of the pandemic on least developed countries, he said it will chart a path that supports recovery, unlocks the “tremendous” potential of science, technology and innovation, and enables graduation from least developed country status.
“Finance is key,” said Munir Akram (Pakistan), President of the Economic and Social Council. He called for fulfilment of ODA commitments, debt restructuring and cancellation, enhanced support from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, and additional outlays from the projected $650 billion in new special drawing rights. Access to advanced technology will enable least developed countries to “leapfrog into the economic models of the future,” he assured.
Fekitamoeloa Katoa ‘Utoikamanu (Tonga), High Representative for the Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing States, and Secretary-General of the Doha conference, drew attention to a new flagship report from her Office, which provides recommendations on overcoming challenges — from investment in people to sustainable structural transformation and the use of technologies, to the mobilization of finance. As the proposals go “well beyond” recovery from COVID-19, their implementation will help least developed countries enhance resilience to future shocks.
In the ensuing general debate, delegates from around the world pointed out that the target set in Istanbul to graduate half of least developed countries was missed even before the pandemic struck. Despite those headwinds, Bhutan’s delegate said her country intends to graduate by the end of 2023 and is in the process of elaborating its smooth transition strategy. She called for post‑graduation support, stressing that reversal of development gains is only “one glacial burst or one earthquake away”. Graduation must be incentivized.
Echoing that sentiment, Eritrea’s representative said the challenges faced by least developed countries differ from continent to region and country. As Eritrea envisions soon graduating from the category, the Doha conference must equip it with the tools it needs to make that ambition a reality. Nepal’s delegate similarly said least developed countries are “the battleground on which the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development will be won or lost”. The new Programme of Action should build on the unfinished business of its predecessor and chart out actions for resilient recovery from COVID-19.
The representative of Yemen emphasized that least developed countries in conflict or post-conflict situations, like his, are the furthest behind in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. He demanded that they are prioritized in the new Programme of Action.
Australia’s delegate, also speaking for Canada and New Zealand, said the new 10-year framework must be focused and compelling, and include concrete actions and solutions. It must not “shy away” from difficult issues, such as human rights and gender equality.
Major development partners also injected their perspectives, with the representative of the United States highlighting climate change adaptation, resilient health systems and food security as the main areas of its targeted support for least developed countries. Japan’s delegate said his country applies the concept of human security to its support for least developed countries, adding that the new Programme of Action must build on existing mandates, instead of creating redundant ones. China’s delegate said his country has cooperated bilaterally or through South-South cooperation, adding that Beijing supports the Group of 20 Debt Service Suspension Initiative as a member of that bloc.
The other featured speakers in the opening segment were Volkan Bozkir (Turkey), President of the General Assembly; Amina J. Mohammed, Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations; and Susanna Moorehead, Chair of the Organisation for the Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Development Assistance Committee. Rabab Fatima (Bangladesh) and Robert Rae (Canada), Co‑Chairs of the Preparatory Committee, also delivered opening remarks.
Also participating in general debate were representatives of Guinea (for the “Group of 77” developing countries and China), Timor-Leste, Afghanistan, Cambodia, South Africa, Russian Federation, Morocco, Portugal, Republic of Korea, United Kingdom, Belgium, Cyprus and Brazil, as well as the European Union.
At the meeting’s outset, the Preparatory Committee approved its provisional agenda and organization of work for its first session. In the afternoon, it held a panel discussion under the theme, “Investing in people in least developed countries: eradicating poverty and building capacity to leave no one behind.”
The Preparatory Committee will reconvene at 10 a.m., on Tuesday, 25 May, continuing its first session with two virtual panel discussions.
RABAB FATIMA (Bangladesh), Co-Chair of the Preparatory Committee for the fifth United Nations Conference on the Least Developed Countries, said that, since the adoption of the Istanbul Programme of Action in 2011, four countries have graduated from that category, and 16 more are in different stages of graduation. However, the COVID-19 pandemic and its socioeconomic impact are threatening to reverse their development gains. The fifth Conference, to be held in January 2022 in Doha, is an opportunity to refocus on implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals. It is also a chance to address global trade imbalance, debt burden, health and education, climate vulnerability and displacement. Despite many challenges they face, least developed countries — rich in natural resources — have great potential to unlock the power of their large youth populations, she said, expressing hope that the next Programme of Action will be transformative for the billions of people in least developed countries.
ROBERT RAE (Canada), Co-Chair of the Preparatory Committee, said there is no topic more important than these deliberations on supporting the least developed countries. The COVID-19 pandemic has not only harmed them, but also exposed the shortcomings of multilateral solidarity. He drew attention to the great devastation the pandemic has caused to the global economy, affecting billions of people, to the problems it will continue to pose and to the effects of both climate change and the digital divide, which have only worsened since the previous Preparatory Committee meetings in Istanbul. Insufficient progress has been made on priorities announced a decade ago, meaning that the international community must now ensure that more least developed countries are on the path to achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. On the issue of graduation, he questioned whether the optimal mixture is in place to support those affected, stressing that “we have a long road ahead of us, but we have to get there in a relatively short time”. He encouraged all participants to listen to experts on where to direct attention in supporting the States concerned.
VOLKAN BOZKIR (Turkey), President of the General Assembly, said the new Programme of Action for the least development countries should seek to build on the successes of the Istanbul Programme of Action, and advance unfinished business. Progress is all the more important in light of the global pandemic, he said, recommending that the Preparatory Committee focus on Sustainable Development Goal accelerators that offer more return for investment, ease the financial and debt burden on least development countries and ensure that building resilience is prioritized at each step of the way.
Stressing that access to affordable, reliable and renewable energy — and related technologies — is critical for accelerating growth, improving livelihoods, and advancing sustainable development, he said many least developed countries are facing the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, under the shadow of crushing debt and precipitous revenue declines — including in remittances, official development assistance (ODA) and investments. The international community must come together to ease the financial burden on these States. Long‑standing flaws in the trade and debt architecture must be resolved, he said, commending the Group of 20 (G20) countries for their support to debt relief. The risk of climate change looms large for least developed countries and must be addressed. “My ask to you is to ensure that every decision, every policy recommendation, is done through a lens of climate resilience,” he stressed.
MUNIR AKRAM (Pakistan), President of the Economic and Social Council, said that, while no nation has been spared the pandemic’s toll, least developed countries have been hardest hit, with many potentially facing a lost development decade and graduating States in need of continued support. Least developed countries need 1.3 billion doses of the vaccine, but with a current vaccination rate of less than 2 per cent, production and supply must be urgently ramped up, patent waivers agreed quickly and the World Health Organization (WHO) COVAX Facility provided with a missing $19 billion in funding. Aggregate poverty in least developed countries has jumped 2.4 per cent to almost 39 per cent of the population, meaning that direct cash support programmes, social safety nets and rural poverty alleviation efforts are urgently needed.
“Finance is the key,” he continued, calling for fulfilment of ODA commitments, debt restructuring and cancellation, enhanced support from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, and additional outlays from the projected $650 billion in new special drawing rights. Building back better from the pandemic must also include expanded and accelerated investment in sustainable infrastructure, which impacts 92 per cent of the Sustainable Development Goals. He noted that application of advanced technology must be a major component of resilient recovery, enabling least developed countries to “leapfrog into the economic models of the future”, as bridging the digital divide is indispensable. Structural impediments to equitable development must be addressed, while a more inclusive financial architecture, development-oriented global trade regime and a fair international tax system must all be put in place. It is also crucial to end illicit financial flows and to create an open inclusive and cooperative global space for the growth of science, technology and innovation.
AMINA MOHAMMED, Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations, said COVID‑19 has affected least developed countries disproportionately. It could take five years or more for one third of these States to recover to pre-pandemic levels of gross domestic product (GDP). As such, she called for extending the Group of 20 (G20) Debt Service Suspension Initiative into 2022 and making it available to all highly indebted countries. Targeted debt relief will also be needed, with the private sector brought into the dialogue. The fifth United Nations Conference offers an opportunity to craft a new Programme of Action, which features a renewed partnership between least developed countries and their development partners and involves all stakeholders, notably the private sector, civil society, parliamentarians, youth and academia.
The new Programme of Action must catalyse ambitious efforts across the Decade of Action to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, she asserted, underscoring the need to recover ground lost to the pandemic. Also highlighting the need to complete the unfinished business of the Istanbul Programme of Action — especially to end extreme poverty, address food security and hunger, build productive capacity, promote export diversification and move up global value chains — she called for ambition to address the new and emerging challenges of climate change, the debt crisis, support for graduation, access to digital technologies and the building of resilience.
LAZARUS MCCARTHY CHAKWERA, President of Malawi, speaking on behalf of the Least Developed Countries Group, said the fifth United Nations Conference and the preparations leading up to it “afford us an opportunity for multilateral collaboration at a time the world needs it most”. Sustaining development is “the urgent need of the hour” as the pandemic has undermined decades of development efforts, requiring that the international community address extreme poverty as a fundamental challenge for least developed countries through innovation and robust action. Acute financing gaps must also be addressed through debt sustainability, remittances, foreign direct investment (FDI) and ODA, as half of least developed countries are in debt distress or susceptible to it.
He described the “alarming” reality that funding decreased significantly in 2020 amid reductions in remittances, merchandise exports and FDI — trends that must be reversed. Noting the importance of leveraging science, technology and innovation for transformative change, he pointed also to young people as essential partners in achieving the goals of the next Programme of Action. It is crucial to address risks related to climate change and price shocks, with development being risk-informed and resilient to various crises for meaningful structural transformation. He called for strengthened, renewed partnerships and cooperation to resolve the complex and mutually exacerbating structural challenges faced by least developed countries.
SHEIKH MOHAMMED BIN ABDULRAHMAN BIN JASSIM AL-THANI, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs of Qatar, said in a video message that his country announced, during the 2019 Climate Action Summit, its contribution of $100 million to support least developed countries and small island developing States in tackling the impact of climate change. As host of the fifth United Nations Conference, he expressed confidence that the summit will demonstrate the importance of international action in support of the least developed countries, and in both creating and strengthening partnerships between them and their development partners.
Expressing hope that the proceedings of the fifth Conference will build on the successes gained during the previous conferences, he said Qatar will spare no effort to make it an event that creates a difference in meeting the ambitions of millions of people living in the most vulnerable countries, and a starting point for moving forward to find solutions and make use of the abundant development opportunities in these countries. The Doha Programme of Action will be the first to address the repercussions of the coronavirus pandemic on the least developed countries. It is an opportunity to chart a path that supports better recovery, unlocks the tremendous potential of science, technology and innovation, enables them to graduate from the list of least developed countries and help them achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. “We are confident that the deliberations of our meeting today will form a solid basis and a valuable contribution to the Doha Programme of Action,” he said.
SUSANNA MOOREHEAD, Chair of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Development Assistance Committee, said global partnerships are more important than ever as “we know that we cannot build back better unless we do it together”. She noted that the COVAX Facility was set up as an international coordination mechanism to ensure that a vaccine would be available to everybody, rich and poor, but “there is still a very, very long way to go before that ambition has been realized”. Funding so far is largely coming from members of the Development Assistance Committee. “We need much more from everyone,” she said.
Vaccination is only the very first step in a longer recovery, she said, and financing will be central to it. Noting that ODA extended by Committee members increased in 2020, and that the resources extended to least developed countries also rose to $34 billion, she explained that demand has risen exponentially, and in a sense, the crisis has accelerated the need to “crowd in” other sources of finance. Much of the blended finance goes to those developing countries that are “better off”. The Committee is working to encourage more of it to go into the very poorest countries, in part by increasing the transparency of reporting to demonstrate to potential investors that “perceived risk” is actually often much less than actual risk. Using ODA and technical assistance to improve domestic environments for investors can go a long way to encourage inward investment. “You are the experts”, she said. “You know the huge potential there is in least developed countries.”
FEKITAMOELOA KATOA ‘UTOIKAMANU (Tonga), High Representative for the Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing States, and Secretary-General of the fifth United Nations Conference on the Least Developed Countries, said that least developed countries have conducted national reviews and 28 of them have submitted their national reports. A synthesis report has been prepared on the lessons learned and best practices in the implementation of the Istanbul Programme of Action. The progress reported includes the growing importance of the service industry, increased access to mobile broadband and information and communications technology, improvements in primary and secondary school enrolments, greater resilience against climate change and strengthened agricultural productivity through agribusiness and land reform.
The African Regional Review meeting, held in February, adopted a political declaration negotiated by the African least developed countries and Haiti, she added, outlining components of a renewed partnership for sustainable development between these countries and their development partners.
She said a new flagship report from her office meanwhile looks at where these countries stand more than a year into the pandemic and provides recommendations on how to overcome challenges they face — from investment in people to sustainable structural transformation and the use of technologies, to the mobilization of finance. As these recommendations go well beyond recovery from COVID-19, their implementation would ensure that least developed countries can also enhance resilience to future shocks and accelerate the achievement of development goals. Over the next eight months, preparations for the fifth United Nations Conference will include various stakeholders, namely parliamentarians, the private sector, academia, civil society and youth, she added.
The representative of Guinea, speaking on behalf of the “Group of 77” developing countries and China, highlighted progress made in implementing the Istanbul Programme of Action, but stressed that actions do not go far enough. Least developed countries must address various risks, including the impact of COVID-19, debt, food insecurity and climate change. There is a need to review the global architecture to support least developed countries and protect them from future shocks, in particular because these nations contribute the least to global warming, but bear the heaviest toll of its impact. Therefore, they must have access to financing, especially ODA, which remains crucial. Stressing that graduation from least developed countries status should not be a punishment, he underscored the need for enhanced collaboration and multilateralism.
The Head of Delegation of the European Union, in its capacity as observer, said the precondition for a solution to the crisis is access to vaccines, with immunization accessible to all across the globe. “No one will be safe until everyone is safe,” he reaffirmed. The WHO COVAX Facility is the best vehicle for delivering on international vaccine solidarity, and Europe is providing €2.47 billion to secure at least 1.3 billion doses for 92 low- and lower middle‑income countries by the end of 2021. However, beyond vaccines, the crisis acutely revealed the need to step up preparedness for future threats in a more effective and orderly manner. The opportunity for a Treaty on Pandemics, a European Union-sponsored initiative, will also be discussed this week. Poverty, meanwhile, should not be seen as an isolated challenge, but, rather, in close connection with the other global problems of climate change, digitalization and inequalities.
Turning to financing, he said public and private investment for least developed countries should be considerably increased, requiring stronger regional and local financial and banking sectors. The “Investing in Young Businesses in Africa” initiative aims to help micro-, small and medium-sized companies across the continent to create jobs. Meanwhile, the “Everything But Arms” plan increased European Union imports from least developed countries by almost 20 per cent between 2017 and 2019, reaching €42.3 billion in 2019. He noted the European Union also provides guarantees to de-risk investment under the External Investment Plan. Considering that 3 out of 4 of these countries are affected by fragility and conflict — with the potential to wipe out their development achievements — it is important to address the issue in line with the outcome of the Africa Regional Review. The ultimate success will be for all least developed countries to graduate, he said, recalling that the target set in Istanbul to graduate 50 per cent was missed even before the pandemic struck.
The representative of Australia, also speaking for Canada and New Zealand, said the outcome document of the fifth United Nations Conference must be focused and compelling, and include concrete actions and solutions, not simply outline challenges and constraints. The draft must be prepared before the start of the General Assembly’s seventy-sixth session because it is very difficult for smaller missions to engage in parallel processes. The outcome also must not “shy away” from difficult issues, such as human rights and gender equality.
The representative of Timor-Leste, associating himself with the “Group of 77” and China, said the Government can only graduate from the least developed countries category when efforts, initiatives and reforms are successfully in place to ensure sustainable economic growth. Timor-Leste faces challenges in implementing the Istanbul Programme of Action due to the pandemic and various structural problems. He said the fifth United Nations Conference in 2022 must consider the obstacles hampering implementation of the Istanbul Programme of Action, achieving the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 and overcoming the devastating impact of the pandemic. As a country on the path to graduation, he called for further support measures, specifically in preparing a smooth transition strategy, and both technical and financial assistance to support the preparation of that strategy.
The representative of Nepal said least developed countries are “the battleground on which the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development will be won or lost”. The new Programme of Action should build on the unfinished business of the Istanbul Programme of Action, he said, stressing that COVID-19 has not yet run its course. The new outcome document must chart out actions for resilient recovery and building back better. The limited progress against the Istanbul Programme of Action also warrants an overhaul of existing international support measures across the fields of development finance, trade, technology and technical assistance.
The representative of Eritrea said the challenges faced by least developed countries differ from continent, to region and country. Eritrea envisions graduating from the category soon, however, the upcoming Conference must equip it with the tools needed to make that ambition a reality. The Istanbul Programme of Action graduation target — enabling half of all countries to meet the criteria for graduation — was not met and must be addressed. She noted that fulfilling commitments will require “that we all take full responsibility”, as building back better and stronger will require international cooperation and partnership. “The 2030 Agenda is at the centre of all of our work, it is important to recall our commitments enshrined therein,” she stated.
The representative of Japan said his country applies the concept of human security to its support for least developed countries in efforts to achieve sustainable development. As a promotor of universal health coverage, Japan intends to leave no one’s health behind. It also provides technical support in the areas of energy, blue ocean economy and disaster risk reduction through the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction. The new Programme of Action for least developed countries should build on existing mandates, such as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, rather than create new mandates. It must be action-oriented and concise, he added.
The representative of Afghanistan, associating himself with the Group 77 and the Group of Least Developed Countries, emphasized the importance of the fifth United Nations Conference, as many nations are falling behind due to the pandemic. “More ambition is needed,” he asserted. The Conference will mark a first opportunity to make concrete commitments to building back better. While the Istanbul Programme of Action inspired change, progress has been uneven. Regional connectivity must be part of the solution, including investment, as should addressing the digital divide and technology transfers to fight multidimensional vulnerabilities. The international community must also invest in human capital, with resilience prioritized as a central concern, he said, stressing that the new Programme of Action must indeed be transformational.
The representative of China, noting that the preparatory process has entered a new stage, called on the international community to promote multilateralism and help least developed countries achieve their economic and social recovery. For its part, China has actively cooperated with least developed countries bilaterally or through South-South cooperation. It has provided COVID-19 medical supplies to 40 least developed countries. It also offered vaccines. As a G20 member, China supports the Group’s Debt Service Suspension Initiative.
The representative of Cambodia, associating himself with the Group of 77 and the Group of Least Developed Countries, called for affordable and equitable vaccines as public goods for all, with special consideration for least developed countries. He added that Cambodia will receive more than 10 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines in 2021. More broadly, the international community and international financial institutions should address debt relief and the rapid growth of digital technologies, he said, calling for preferential trade treatment in the form of quota-free and duty-free market access with simple rules of origin provided by developed countries. If the international community aims to promote a sustainable, inclusive and resilient economic recovery, coercive trade measures imposed on least developed countries must be lifted as soon as possible.
The representative of South Africa said many of the least developed countries are also small island developing States and landlocked countries which are least equipped to mitigate the impact of climate change. To tackle their challenges, he rejected the “business as usual” approach. Citing the G20 Debt Service Suspension Initiative, he called for tackling fundamental development challenges, including infrastructure and science and technology, which will require consistent international assistance that extends “well beyond” graduation from the least developed country category.
The representative of the Russian Federation said the pandemic has revealed multifaceted problems that require international assistance, with balanced consideration for environmental, social and economic sectors. More attention must be paid to boosting domestic capacities and production, technical training and an increased division of labour. She noted the importance of improving regional distribution chains, citing the immense potential of regional integration. However, the climate agenda should not place an extra burden on any State. The main source of financing for least developed countries is still ODA, which has not increased. There are also lower remittances. The Russian Federation is a reliable donor. It provided more than $60 million in funding in 2020, notably sending medical personal protection equipment to 25 countries, delivering vaccines to Angola, Djibouti and Guinea, and writing off debt for Mozambique and Madagascar.
The representative of the United States said his country is committed to supporting least developed countries as they confront the compounding impact of the climate crisis, the critical need to rebuild health systems and the growing threat of food insecurity. The United States is investing $11 billion, on average, in bilateral ODA annually in least developed countries, while also working with its Group of Seven (G7) partners to promote greater global ambition for forging a pathway to net‑zero global emissions by 2050 or before. Its new climate finance plan outlines an intention to double climate assistance for developing countries and to triple the amount devoted to adaptation measures.
The representative of Morocco, associating herself with the Group of 77, said her country prioritizes strong cooperation with least developed countries, especially in Africa. Morocco mobilized swift measures to address the pandemic, sending medical aid to the African Union and 20 States, but the crisis has deepened existing challenges and financial distress. She expressed hope that the upcoming Conference will take stock of the Istanbul Programme of Action, as well as consider the special needs of least developed countries. The outcome document must address urgent debt‑relief measures, bankable projects and investment, she asserted.
The representative of Portugal said generating investment that is aligned with the principle of sustainable recovery from COVID-19 is essential for least developed countries. In April, the European Union Council, under Portugal’s presidency, organized a high-level European Union-Africa Green Investment Forum, in partnership with the European Investment Bank. Stressing that the target set in Istanbul for graduating least developed countries was missed, he said it is time to now agree on a new target. The next United Nations Conference will be a timely occasion to consider the need for an enhanced graduation support facility.
The representative of the Republic of Korea said the international community must place the most vulnerable at the centre of efforts to build back better. Half of her country’s contributions have been provided to least developed countries, with a focus on internally displaced persons and migrant workers. Stressing that the upcoming Conference must generate new momentum for climate resilience, she urged the international community to focus on green and digital economies, and the sharing of information with least developed countries. According to the Global Partnership for Effective Development Co-operation, only one third of least developed countries have access to timely data, she said, highlighting the urgent need to better manage resources in the longer term.
The representative of the United Kingdom stressed the need for greater international collaboration, as well as for transformative health investment in least developed countries. Recovery from COVID-19 and past shocks must be “greener”, he said, stressing that the new 10-year programme must not leave women and girls behind. It is vital to narrow the digital divide and address the links among poverty, famine and conflict. Faster progress on mobilizing domestic resources and strengthening democratic governance, including in the areas of human rights and transparency, is also needed.
The representative of Belgium, associating himself with the European Union, said his country focuses its development assistance on those nations most left behind. It is also launching new regional climate programmes to help the Sahel and Great Lakes regions, and new contributions to the Least Developed Countries Fund of the Global Environment Facility totalling $25 million through 2023. Gender and social programmes and decent work are crucial in the fight against poverty and inequality. Echoing remarks by the European Union’s speaker, he underscored the importance of increasing the number of quality jobs in least developed countries. Noting that more than half the world’s population has no social protection, he promoted the idea of a global fund to address this issue.
The representative of Bhutan called for measures to minimize the risk of reversal on development gains as countries graduate from the least developed country category. Recalling that 16 States are likely to graduate over the next decade, she underscored the imperative of strengthening post-graduation support. Bhutan intends to graduate in 2023 and is in the process of elaborating its smooth transition strategy. For Bhutan, reversal of development gains is only “one glacial burst or one earthquake away”, she said, highlighting the importance of “incentivizing” graduation.
The representative of Yemen said the preparatory meetings are the first step in redesigning programmes for least developed countries, expressing hope that these meetings generate strong inputs into the new Programme of Action. Welcoming the themes of six panel discussions, including climate change and science and technology, he noted that least developed countries in conflict and post-conflict situation are the furthest behind in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. As such, he called on the Conference to make these States a priority.
The representative of Cyprus expressed support for the active participation of civil society organizations in Conference preparations, as they can provide valuable input. One Cyprus-based non-governmental organization that was registered to participate in the upcoming Conference on least developed countries was excluded from the final list of participants without any notification, explanation or justification. The Office of the President of the General Assembly informed that a delegation had objected to its participation. It is not acceptable that a delegation is abetted by an “opaque and non-transparent” process that essentially allows it to arbitrarily exclude a group at will, he asserted.
The representative of Brazil said that, over the past decade, his country has provided South-South cooperation to least developed countries through human capacity‑building, working in education and health, and in strengthening markets aligned with the development priorities of partners in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. He cited the importance of completing what was not achieved under the Istanbul Programme of Action, with a new programme needed for the 1 billion people who represent 14 per cent of the world’s population. It is crucial to address science, technology and innovation, international trade, financing and partnerships. He called for greater access to digital technology and the Internet in order to facilitate participation in the global economy. Agriculture accounts for more than 20 per cent of GDP in least developed countries, and the overall level of employment is much higher, at more than half of the labour force, requiring enhanced productivity and efficiency to tackle poverty, food insecurity and malnutrition. It is disheartening to see that least developed countries have not increased their participation in world trade, he added.
In the afternoon, the Preparatory Committee held the first of its panel discussions on the theme of “Investing in people in least developed countries: eradicating poverty and building capacity to leave no one behind”, co-chaired by Robert Rae (Canada) and Antonio Rodrigue (Haiti), and featuring a video keynote address by Karina Gould, Minister for International Development of Canada.
It also featured panellists Achim Steiner, Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP); Gita Sen, Director and Distinguished Professor, Ramalingaswami Centre on Equity and Social Determinants of Health, Public Health Foundation of India; Gabriela Bucher, Executive Director of Oxfam International; and Amanda Khozi Mukwashi, Chief Executive of Christian Aid Interactive.
Mr. RODRIGUE introduced the speakers, noting that all have been impacted by the pandemic, and must transform shared experience into greater solidarity with the most vulnerable. External shocks are amplified by underlying vulnerabilities, he said, with the gap between least developed countries and the rest of the world revealed in the lack of access to vaccines and medical supplies. Higher mortality rates in poorer areas call for a truly comprehensive approach with multidimensionality at its centre. He stressed that progress must be simultaneous on gender equality, human settlement, water, sanitation, peace and governance.
Ms. GOULD said the theme “reminds us that people are at the heart of our work”. The COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to greater inequality, hunger and poverty, with the World Bank estimating an increase of 150 million people living in extreme poverty by the end of 2021. The pandemic poses an unprecedented threat to the collective achievement of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and undermines decades of development progress. On top of this, the unsustainable debt burden and very limited budgetary margins increase pressure on many least developed countries. She pointed to the initiative “Financing for Development in the Age of COVID-19 and Beyond”, co-led by Jamaica and the Secretary-General, calling for multilateral financing for development in the context of the pandemic. Measures to contain the spread of the virus have had devastating long-term effects on economies, educational systems and gender equality. The new Programme of Action must address these vulnerabilities, and thereby help countries tackle the health and socioeconomic impact of the pandemic.
Mr. STEINER said that, for first time since 1990, the global economy is moving backwards, with extreme poverty rising 3 per cent in least developed countries, and poverty reduction efforts possibly set back by three to six years. These States have accessed just 1.6 per cent of necessary vaccine doses thus far, he added. However, the widening poverty gap need not be a foregone conclusion, as investment in the key areas of governance, social protection, green economy and digitalization can lift 100 million people out of poverty by 2030. Emphasizing that 60 per cent of countries have regressed on human rights, amid eroding social cohesion, he said efforts to counter these trends must involve assisting countries that lack social protections. For example, while women have been hardest hit, only 18 per cent of initiatives have been gender-sensitive, he noted. While ODA has grown by $161 billion, support to least developed countries has risen by only 1 per cent, and increasingly through loans rather than grants — not a viable solution to escaping from debt, he stressed.
Ms. SEN said that the single most important issue is access to vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics. The single biggest barrier to health globally and in least developed countries is trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights. The trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights waiver proposed by South Africa and India at the World Trade Organization (WTO) is therefore essential if health is to be secured in least developed countries and economies are to see the light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel. To be sure, the waiver is not a sufficient condition for vaccines access, she explained, but, given the failures and weaknesses in the alternatives, it has become a necessary condition for increasing production and availability at reasonable cost. To repeat, she said, health and economics are deeply intertwined, all the more so if a country depends on tourism and remittances. The waiver is a sine qua non for leaving no least developed country behind.
“We are facing an inequality virus,” said Ms. BUCHER, citing data revealing that inequality has risen more recently than at any time since recordkeeping began. It could take over a decade for the world’s poorest people to recover from the economic impacts of the pandemic, and in sub-Saharan Africa the fight against poverty risks being set back decades. Meanwhile, the 1,000 richest billionaires on the planet recouped their COVID-19 losses within just nine months. “Inequality has defined the horror of this pandemic,” she said, emphasizing that “a radical pursuit of equality must define how we heal”. Vaccines are currently being denied to people in least developed countries, creating a second, man-made tragedy as supply is artificially restricted by the monopolies of huge pharmaceutical corporations. She called for a multilateral waiver of intellectual property rules, urging Canada, Germany and other countries to stop blocking — and instead start supporting — the waiver as the United States already has. Meanwhile, every country needs clear, timebound and concrete targets and plans to reduce the gap between rich and poor. Donors should fight against inequality “instead of avoiding the topic”, she said.
Ms. MUKWASHI said 120 million people have been pushed into extreme poverty — a number that could rise to 150 million in 2022, according to the World Bank. The decreasing fiscal space for the poorest countries affects access to vaccines, with patchy information in the public domain suggesting those few developing countries able to access vaccines are paying more than rich ones. The pandemic exposes fault lines like the climate crisis, hitting those countries hardest which have least caused it. She called on developed countries to provide the promised $100 billion for the climate fund. She further advocated for the cancellation of least developed countries’ unsustainable debt, noting that, in Africa, the share of revenue servicing debt since the pandemic has risen from 20 to 30 per cent. Noting that internally displaced persons spend an average of 17 years in that condition, she said States need more support to fulfil their responsibilities to them. Peace is 35 per cent more likely to endure at least 15 years when women are at the table, she emphasized, noting that Christian Aid is pushing donors to reassess their priorities, to stop focusing on security at the expense of peace and human rights.
Ms. FATIMA, Co-Chair of the Committee, noted extreme poverty in her native Bangladesh is down to 10.5 per cent, but a new paradigm is widely required to address that scourge. She asked the panellists about new initiatives that can be generated, how rich economies can help least developed nations leverage digitalization, and about how to prevent poverty from becoming a multi‑generational phenomenon.
The representative of Brazil asked if inequality is an intractable cyclical problem of economics, or if it can be addressed. He noted personal protection equipment and vaccines have not flowed to least developed countries.
The representative of Malawi said least developed countries have the world’s fastest growing population at 2.3 per cent per year, an increase of 256 million by 2030, reaching a total 1.3 billion, with 30 per cent remaining in extreme poverty. School enrolment rates remain extremely low, driving many into child labour and early marriage. Additionally, least developed countries need 1.3 billion doses, however only 2 per cent are available. With social protection coverage and employment programmes further requiring an urgent $5.2 billion from development partners, he asked Mr. Steiner for a recommendation on how to reduce poverty by 100 million people, and what it would cost.
Ms. MUKWASHI said localization is part of the “grand bargain” but has remained largely rhetorical. Addressing the “broken food chain”, she responded to Brazil’s representative that agriculture generates one third of greenhouse‑gas emissions. Countries must return to basics and equip local communities with resources and technology. Noting that the world is still not moving away from rhetoric on fiscal space, she asked why private creditors are not brought to the table, as finances are “what we need to address”. With freedoms curtailed in 107 countries over the past 12 months, she said dealing with poverty bottom-up requires that civil society be free to support development action.
Ms. BUCHER said social protection, health and education are the great transformational forces. Given that “a 10 per cent of GDP investment” is needed to establish a social protection floor, she cited the importance of a global social protection fund. Further needs include workers’ rights with guaranteed sick pay, followed by a system of progressive taxation on corporations and highest income levels.
Ms. SEN asked participants to consider what would have happened to Germany and Japan if no one had agreed on a Marshall Plan at the end of the Second World War. The Marshall Plan rejected the beggar-thy-neighbour approach that had followed the First World War and generated the conditions that led to the Second. “Solidarity is profoundly self-serving,” she said, “it is not charity.” Long‑standing inequalities — whether gender, caste, race, sexual orientation — are the most vulnerable, “and that is where poverty resides”. Inequality must be tackled by countries in both the global North and South, high income and low income.
Mr. STEINER said nobody can deny that structural inequality will be more pronounced worldwide following the pandemic. Poverty‑reduction requires employment opportunity and productive economies, rather than simply welfare programmes. Development thinking must pursue those aims. Digitalization will drive opportunities, and education sectors must have the power to provide that training. Emphasizing that 40 per cent of people who escape extreme poverty are driven back into it by health-related issues, he proposed micro-health-insurance nets as an immediate solution.
Mr. RAE noted some of the issues raised by panellists will indeed be addressed by decisions over the coming months. The bad news is that there is much work to be done to convince both wealthy countries and their populations that more must be done — and it is in their interest to do so. “Vaccine nationalism” is driven by vaccine public opinion, he noted, expressing solidarity with countries such as India which are facing “a calamitous situation”, as New York faced at the beginning of the pandemic. It is crucial to find the moral and political will to arrive at critical solutions, he said, noting the LDC5 Conference can bring Governments together because it is in everyone’s mutual interest. “I think this is a moment of reckoning for all of us”, he said.
Mr. RODRIGUE said the discussion had been very progressive, especially the reference to the Marshall Plan, as any recovery efforts must be massive and long‑term. He agreed with panellists that a paradigm shift would represent a “win-win” situation for both developed and developing countries.