Global View: The UN and the poor

By IAN CAMPBELL, UPI Chief Economics Correspondent  |  July 18, 2003 at 9:53 AM
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QUERETARO, Mexico, July 18 (UPI) -- "We have the global means, the know-how and the record of development state categorically that if today Africa and the world make the commitment of will and resources, then tomorrow, 2015, we can reach the Millennium Development Goals of halving poverty, removing hunger, putting every boy and girl in school and stemming the crisis in our health and environment."

These were the words of Mark Malloch Brown, Administrator of the United Nations Development Programmed, as he launched this year's UN Human Development Report in Maputo, Mozambique on July 10.

The blights to which Malloch Brown referred are familiar to most of us from bleak headlines. More than a billion people are "languishing in absolute poverty," he said; about a fifth of the world's population of 6 billion people. On current trends, he added, the goal of halving poverty will not be met until 2147. Worldwide, "at least 54 countries got poorer in the 1990s."

Poverty and the suffering associated with it ought to be alleviated: on that everyone of goodwill would agree. But will the UN and its new report help the world to reduce poverty or not? The question is a big one. Views differ.

"It is a pioneering document," says Sir Richard Jolly, an Honorary Research Professor at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex in England, of the UN Human Development Report.

"We broadly agree with a lot that's in the report," says Oliver Buston of Oxfam.

"The United Nations doesn't do anything except issue these hot-air reports," says Professor William Easterly of the University of New York.

Jolly is a good person to put the case for the defense of the UN and its works. He worked for UNICEF, the UN children's fund, for fifteen years and was for some years one of the authors of the Human Development Report.

The report, he says, is "a fantastic use of resources." It has had "an exceptional impact, getting treatment every year by all the newspapers in all the countries of the world." It therefore attracts "attention to basic messages."

The UN, Jolly contends, has helped to bring about major advances in the health and well-being of the world's population. The often mocked strategy of setting goals for the world to achieve has been effective. This year's report lists some of those already scored goals: for example, the eradication of smallpox, a goal set by the World Health Organization in 1965 and achieved by 1977; immunizing 80 percent of the world's children against major childhood diseases by their first birthday, a target set in 1974, achieved in "about 70 countries; the elimination of polio, set in 1990, now achieved in 110 countries.

"From the beginning," says Jolly, "the industrialized countries have been weaker in contributing their share of the bargain."

That failure lies in two main areas. First, the industrialized countries continue to subsidize hugely their own agricultural production and thereby restrict access of developing country exports as well as dumping their own produce on the global market. Secondly, they have not given as much in aid as the 0.7 percent of their GDP which they agreed would desirable. According to the new report, even if pledges made at recent UN conferences are adhered to, the rich countries' development aid would amount to just 0.26 percent of their GDP.

Oxfam's Buston also emphasizes this, saying it is essential for rich countries to "get serious about increasing aid and removing unfair trade practices."

Easterly of New York University sees both the United Nations and its flagship development report differently. The United Nations, he says, is "a bureaucratic merry-go-round. It's hard to think of anything useful they've done."

The Millennium Development Goals championed by the UN are, in his view, a collection of "good things we would all like to do" but there was "no hard-headed thinking about what actually works." It was "hard to see the recommendations being implemented at all." but the UN could always blame the failure to achieve results on "lack of effort by the rich countries."

Where, between the two extremes, one supporting the UN, one damning it, does the truth lie?

Let us give the UN the floor.

A week ago in Maputo, Malloch Brown argued that the new UN report sought to answer the question of how to enlarge the "circle of prosperity." The remedy was "to put good institutions, policies and growth in place," he said. Yet this far from simple step -- or rather steps and desired result, growth -- was not enough. It was also "about supplementing those necessary steps by addressing deeper structural handicaps such as geographic isolation, undiversified commodity-dependent economies, impractically small, unjoined markets, conflict, exclusion of women and a deterioration of Africa's top soils that is undermining the agricultural base."

To most of us the problems Malloch Brown outlined in his speech would look more than daunting yet he found grounds for optimism. "Africa has become a leader," he said, "with more and more countries holding credible democratic elections."

But how long will it take democratic elections in Africa to produce good governance and good policies? Where in the Third World can "good institutions, policies and growth" be found? And if all three were in place, how long before they overcome "geographic isolation," commodity-dependency -- an obstacle to the growth Malloch Brown takes as given -- and all the other diverse problems on Malloch Brown's long but far from complete list of the obstacles that help to keep the poor poor?

The problems are difficult, the solutions hard to find; and there are new threats.

Progress has been made in past decades, as Jolly points out, in the elimination or reduction of certain diseases but HIV/Aids has brought unwelcome change. According to Professor Tony Barnett of the School of Development Studies of the University of East Anglia in England, "the success of the vaccination campaigns is very seriously endangered by HIV/Aids. We are on the verge of a serious public health crisis."

HIV/Aids is a curse which might be seen as a double-edged sword for the United Nations and the international governmental approach to poverty that it embodies. The organization has not been quick to recognize the problem and respond to it and yet an international, inter-country approach would seem appropriate and necessary for an international epidemic such as HIV/Aids.

Is the United Nations useful? It plays a role but how well and cost-effectively it plays that role is not evaluated. It gathers statistics that are generally acknowledged as being helpful: benchmarks. It has the world's ear. It is right to highlight the hypocrisy of the rich countries on trade but its credibility is damaged by its recommendations for decades of autarchic development behind trade barriers. It is better at public relations than at offering solutions and actually tackling the problems about which it speaks.

Easterly points out that the Human Development Report calls for "national ownership" by not just governments but "communities, local authorities and civil society groups" of the goals drawn up a group of well-paid specialists sitting in plush offices in New York and working in a highly political organization, a bureaucracy that "turns bricks into straw." It is an unhappy image for an organization concerned with Development. This top-down approach, Easterly believes, is entirely wrong.

"Geography is not destiny," writes the UN, but in the bare altiplano of Bolivia or the parched wastes of sub-Saharan Africa, or in the remote, uneducated agricultural villages of Asia, Africa or Latin America, where some local strong man is king, geography looks as though it will prevail for decades to come. The outside world can help but it is locally, though the complex operation of politics, that solutions must be found.

We have "the global means, the know-how and the record of development success" said Malloch Brown. The unhappy truth is, we don't.

Global View is a weekly column in which our economics correspondent reflects on issues of importance for the global economy. Comments to

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