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World: UNDP Says Global Democracy At Risk

  • Antoine Blua

Prague, 24 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The United Nations Development Program, or UNDP, today released its annual survey that ranks 173 countries according to standard of living. This year's report pulls together studies from around the world on trends in democracy.

The report says 82 of the United Nations' 189 member states can be called full democracies. But it also says that more than 40 countries, with 28 percent of the world's population, remained mired in poverty.

At the formal launch of the report in Manila, the director of the agency, Mark Malloch Brown, warned that a failure by governments to eradicate poverty could reverse the spread of democracy in the world.

The UNDP head said that unless governments are able to demonstrate to their citizens that they are taking successful action on key issues such as cutting crime and creating jobs, the recent expansion of global democracy risks being reversed.

Jean Fabre is deputy director of the UNDP. He told RFE/RL that while most countries have achieved progress in human development over the past decades, economic transition has contributed to reversals in many Eastern European and former Soviet countries. "We have a pretty fragmented situation today when there are many regressions inside these countries. All the countries that have gone through an important transition since the fall of the Iron Curtain have essentially had to confront rapid transitions which have not ensured progress for everybody," Fabre said.

It is difficult, Fabre stressed, to move from one decades-old economic system to an entirely new system without hitting roadblocks. Shortcomings at the state level during the transition process have meant that many essential services, such as health care, have suffered. "A part of the population has benefited from progress, but for the most part, we have noted a downturn on the economic and life-expectancy fronts. So [many people] are in an increasingly difficult situation," Fabre said.

The report says that 21 countries have registered a decline in the human-development index, based on life expectancy, education, and income per person during the 1990s.

Fabre pointed out that a poor country like Tajikistan has achieved a life-expectancy level that, at 68 years, is higher than the average of developing countries. In Russia, meanwhile, life expectancy has dramatically decreased in the last decade.

Fabre said there are important problems of governance inside many of the Central Asian countries, where the elites have taken the political power and are operating in "total liberty." "In a country such as Kyrgyzstan, for example, we can note the difficulty of maintaining a really democratic system which takes into account the people's demands. We have seen a downturn in the past years. Besides, transition has been brutal in almost all these countries," Fabre said.

Fabre noted that authoritarian regimes reign in many countries that have seen rapid economic growth, leading to an inequitable distribution of resources. At the same time, he said, the worst economic failures have likewise been in countries with authoritarian regimes.

Fabre said that it is of urgent importance to establish a participative democracy that permits people to express themselves. However, he made clear that good governance and democracy is not an automatic recipe for economic growth. He said a "democracy does not automatically guarantee economic growth, but in general it protects [a country] from the worst. And when there is growth, [democracy] permits a more equitable redistribution of wealth than we see in other countries. It generates more security for citizens. There are [many] fewer conflicts between democratic states than between authoritarian ones."

Besides, according to Fabre, it is important that countries are both democratic and strong. States that collapse, he said, make fertile breeding grounds for terrorism and other forms of extremism. This, Fabre said, is why the UNDP invests a lot in governance. The UNDP, the largest UN aid group, has over the last few years spent around 60 percent of its $1 billion annual budget on public administration and judicial and law-enforcement training.

Fabre added that it is important that a country's people can express themselves democratically not only inside their countries but also on the international stage. "If inside the organizations that make decisions affecting people's existence there is not enough power for developing countries and countries in transition [to ensure] that their goals are heard, this can lead to [significant] frustrations," Fabre said.

Fabre said it is important that rich countries increase their aid to poorer countries such as the Central Asian republics because poverty in these countries can create implosions.

The report notes that during the past decade, aid to developing countries has fallen. At the same time, the document says, donor countries continue to subsidize their own farmers at a rate of more than six times their total aid to poor countries, squeezing out the export potential of farmers in poor countries.

Fabre said a crucial step toward fostering development in poorer countries would be improving trade rules. There are more options for helping countries promote development through equitable trade than by simply providing assistance.