Fourth UN conference on the LDCs - beyond business as usual?

12 May 2011
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At the fourth UN conference on the Least Developed Countries (UNLDC IV) this week, there was widespread agreement that the Brussels Plan of Action – issued from the previous conference in 2001 – had substantially failed to help the 48 LDCs to ‘graduate’ from that status, despite the economic growth which many had experienced. Growth had not translated into poverty reduction, building human assets or reducing structural vulnerability – the three criteria which determine LDC status.

A rethink was therefore called for, but these are difficult times – with global crisis and climate change pre-occupying world leaders.

It was significant that few leaders of the most powerful countries attended this conference, although there was good attendance from Turkey – the excellent host nation – and from some other middle-income or emerging economies. There is always an assumption of goodwill at these conferences, but previous failures suggest that one should look for harder indicators of global commitment and potential progress on key issues.

The civil society organisations (CSOs) called for a radical new, community-based approach to development, but this was hardly referred to in the main conference. UN agency leaders spoke passionately about gender equality and promoting women’s role in trade and enterprise, education, social protection and food security, HIV/AIDS. But most were retailing their general strategies; few had a specific strategy for LDCs, with the exception of the International Labour Organization (ILO).

Key questions about how LDCs’ structural vulnerability would be reduced were not answered – for example about how LDCs would engage more strongly in national social protection strategies, when they faced significant political and financial constraints, or about how the LDC Climate Change Fund , administered by the Global Environment Forum, would be more accessible in future than it has been.

More seriously, LDCs’ interests are sometimes caught in a bind and trade has traditionally been the major pre-occupation of the LDCs and these conferences.

At this latest conference there was a lot of focus on cotton, produced by smallholders in several LDCs – including the ‘4 C’ in West Africa (Benin, Burkina Faso, Mali and Cote d’Ivoire), which are being advised to go to the WTO’s dispute mechanism, following Brazil’s successful case brought against the United States on cotton subsidies. But Pascal Lamy, WTO Director General, suggested that a dispute might not necessarily go the LDCs’ way because the US is currently not subsidising its cotton producers as the world price is so high. As an agricultural product, any agreement on it depends on a Doha round agreement on agriculture, which in turn depends on a general Doha agreement. But it seems that no one in power is willing to take cotton out of this bind and do something for the LDCs affected.

Beyond these constraints, cotton value chains in West Africa have also been so greatly disturbed during the last two decades by liberalisation and low prices, that now world prices are so high they are unable to respond, leaving the market open for others. There is apparently no space in world trade negotiations to allow these LDCs to get back on their feet.

Cotton is just one example of what seems to be a pervasive business as usual approach to the LDCs. Indeed, the EU was heard being negative about south-south co-operation, since it has challenged the EU’s own trading relations with African countries.

The overall result is that LDCs have bumped along the bottom of every graph during the last 10 years, and so the prospect is that they will simply continue to bump along unless something changes quite radically.

Of the few indicators of unusual business, discussions about education focused much more on post-primary and also vocational education. And gender equality included equalising access to land and other property, and addressing the problem of the poor quality of jobs available to many women. But how these difficult issues are to be addressed remained unspecified – although the Chronic Poverty Research Centre would be happy to work with UN Women to develop strategies on, for instance stemming girls’ chronic poverty and inheritance.

Perhaps the Green Economy will create opportunities for trade, agricultural and manufacturing jobs and better living standards in LDCs? Using the example of pineapple exports from Uganda, UNCTAD showed how organic agriculture could generate sustainable incomes and food security using local resources, and in doing so provides some protection from global economy fluctuations. Organic producers in Uganda are also developing a national market.

There are many such initiatives, but they would need to be scaled up massively to really make a difference. Perhaps UNCTAD, the FAO, Unido, UNEP and UN Women can get together and launch a truly massive initiative along these lines?

Although there were these such glimmers of progress and many statements made to the effect that ‘business as usual’ won’t work if more LDCs are to graduate in the coming 10 years, disappointingly it was generally difficult to see what was not ‘business as usual’ at this latest UN conference on the LDCs.