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World: UN Says Many Nations Growing Poorer, Hungrier

  • Antoine Blua

International assistance aimed at helping poorer nations develop is failing and must be drastically reexamined if the world is to meet targets it has set for reducing poverty, hunger, and illness. That's the conclusion of the United Nations in its Human Development Report 2003, released today. The report says 54 nations are poorer now than they were in 1990, while life expectancy fell in 34 countries -- primarily because of HIV/AIDS. And it found that the populations in 21 countries are hungrier today than they were in 1990.

Prague, 8 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- World leaders at the UN General Assembly's millennium summit in 2000 set eight targets for reducing poverty, hunger, and illness around the world by 2015.

This year's Human Development Report, released this afternoon by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), says only one of those goals will be achieved by 2015 -- cutting by half the proportion of people living on less than $1 per day. However, it notes that this will only be achieved because of progress in China and India, which together represent one-third of the world's population of 6 billion.

Despite a widespread assumption that all countries are slowly making progress, the UNDP finds that 54 nations are actually poorer now than they were in 1990. Twenty of those nations are in Sub-Saharan Africa, while 17 are in Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States.

Jean Fabre is deputy director of the UN's Program for Development in Geneva. In an interview with RFE/RL, he stressed the growing contrast between rich and poor countries.

"Economic and political developments in past years have enabled considerable increases in the world's wealth," Fabre said. "But at the same time, many countries have completely regressed in the past 10 years. And this is something that we cannot allow, considering that countries have recently united to proclaim several targets scheduled to be reached by 2015."

Twenty-one states have experienced declines on the Human Development Index, a composite measure that includes life expectancy, education, adult literacy, and income. They include 14 African nations, as well as Russia and six former Soviet republics.

Life expectancy fell in 34 countries around the world -- primarily because of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The report finds that 21 countries are hungrier than they were in 1990, and that poverty increased in 37 countries. In 14 countries, it adds, more children are dying before the age of five, primary school enrollments are shrinking in 12 nations, and life expectancy has fallen in 34 countries.

Fabre describes the situation in the former Soviet Union. "We have catastrophic falls in several countries, which often are republics from the former Soviet Union, from the newly independent states, where poverty is drastically increasing. In fact, poverty has tripled in the whole region. It concerns 20 percent of the region's population, i.e. 100 million people. The Human Development Index is declining in several countries. And some countries almost reached the levels of countries in the less-developed world. The per capita incomes are stagnating or regressing in the region. The most affected countries include Ukraine, Turkmenistan, Georgia, Moldova, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan," he said.

The annual report suggests policies to help countries break out of their poverty traps -- investment in basic education and health, increases in agricultural productivity in unfavorable environments, and improvements in basic infrastructure to reduce trade costs and overcome geographical borders.

Other measures include the promotion of democratic governance and human rights, as well as the fight against corruption and discrimination.

However, Fabre points out that some countries will need external aid to reverse their human development declines.

"There are several countries which will need international aid to stand up again, such as Turkmenistan, Moldova, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan," Fabre said. "They will face great difficulties in dealing with their problems by themselves. They will need international [financial] aid. They will also need a more equitable [international] trade [system], the transfer of technologies from rich countries, and debt relief."

The top 10 nations in which to live, according to the UN report, are Norway, Iceland, Sweden, Australia, Netherlands, Belgium, United States, Canada, Japan, and Switzerland.

The UNDP is calling on rich countries to provide more meaningful debt relief to poorer nations, noting that annual per capita income in each of the 42 highly indebted poor countries is less than $1,500.

Although an overall decline in aid flow has been reversed -- rising to $57 billion last year from $52.3 billion in 2001 -- the UNDP is asking developed countries to double aid to poor countries to $100 billion per year

Fabre stresses the richest nations also have to lift subsidies to their agricultural sectors, as well as trade barriers.

"The richest countries have established various barriers to the entry of goods on their own territories. There are also important subsidies given to agriculture, artificially maintaining these rich countries' agriculture [sectors] above world prices. So international competition is impossible. There is, even worse, a dumping of agricultural products from rich countries on countries having weaker economies," Fabre said.

According to the UNDP, agricultural subsidies in countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development total $3 billion a year. In the European Union, each dairy cow receives a larger subsidy than per capita EU aid to Sub-Saharan Africa. And it notes that U.S. government aid to Sub-Saharan Africa is three times smaller than subsidies to U.S. cotton growers.

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