The world leaders gathering at Rio de Janeiro must address the concerns of millions of people living in the Least Developed Countries
From 3 June to 20 June, 1992, a total of 172 governments took part in the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED)—also known as the ‘Rio Conference’ or the ‘Earth Summit.’ Over 100 heads of state or government actually attended, together with some 2400 NGO representatives. Around 17,000 delegates also attended the parallel NGO “Global Forum.”
Twenty years later, representatives of the governments as well as civil society are again gathering at Rio de Janeiro in Brazil (20-22 June 2012) to review the progress made so far and plan the future course of action.
The Climate Change Convention and Convention on Biological Diversity remain major outcomes of the 1992 Rio Conference. ‘The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development,’ adopted by the Summit, said that “the right to development must be fulfilled so as to equitably meet developmental and environmental needs of present and future generations.”
Principle 6 of the Rio Declaration said that “the special situation and needs of developing countries, particularly the least developed and those most environmentally vulnerable, shall be given special priority. International actions in the field of environment and development should also address the interests and needs of all countries.”
Now, the time has come to review and assess if the international community has been able to fulfil its commitment made 20 years ago.
Who are LDCs?
Least Developed Countries (LDCs) are a category of countries identified by the United Nations as the most vulnerable in the world.
When the category was introduced in 1971, 24 countries were identified as LDCs. Today there are 48, and they account for 32 of the 35 countries in the lowest category of the Human Development Index (HDI) measured in terms of life expectancy, literacy, standard of living and Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita.
According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), in 2011, the total LDC population stood at 855 million, and is expected to double before 2050, as it is growing nearly twice as fast (at 2.2% annually) as that of the rest of the developing countries (growing at 1.2% annually). Although the LDCs contain only 12% of the world population, they will account for almost 40% of the global population growth during the next forty years.
Challenges of Sustainable Development
Thanks to the forces of globalisation, as a small percentage of the world population continues to become richer, millions of people are facing hunger, famine and diseases and encroachment on sources of their livelihoods.
The United Nations estimates that by 2050 the world’s population will reach 9.1 billion, 34% higher than today. Nearly all of this population increase will occur in developing countries, so making adequate provision of food, shelter and employment for the growing population is going to be a major challenge for the world community.
According to an Oxfam Study, at the start of 2011, there were 925 million hungry people worldwide. By the end of the year, it was estimated that the number of hungry people rose to one billion due to extreme weather and rising food prices.
The food system is buckling under intense pressure from climate change, ecological degradation, population growth, rising energy prices, rising demand for meat and dairy products, and competition for land from bio fuels, industry, and urbanization, the report said (ibid, pg 14)
According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, climate change and increased bio fuel production represent major risks for long-term food security. Although countries in the Southern hemisphere are not the main originators of climate change, they may suffer the greatest share of damage in the form of declining yields and greater frequency of extreme weather events (FAO, 2009)
Year 2050 may still look far away for many, but day-to-day challenges being faced by millions of people living in the LDCs are a stark reality. According to the United Nations Office of the High Representative for the Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing States (UN OHRLLS),
• A child born in an LDC is 126 times more likely to die before his/her fifth birthday than a child born in a developed country;
• Women in LDCs have a 1 in 16 chance of dying in childbirth, compared with 1 in 3,500 in North America;
• Only 16% of the population of LDCs has access to electricity, compared with 53% in other developing countries;
• Only 22% of roads in LDCs are paved, compared with 43% in developing countries as a whole, and 88% in member countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)
(UN OHRLLS, 2009)
And, the list goes on.
The international community has time and again made commitments to help LDCs to help themselves. The first and second UN conference on LDCs took place in Paris in 1981 and 1990 respectively at the invitation of the French government. The Substantial New Programme of Action for the 1980s for the Least Developed Countries (SNPA), adopted at the first UN LDC Conference in Paris, aimed to transform the LDC economies towards self-sustained development and enable them to provide at least minimum standards of nutrition, health, housing and education as well as job opportunities to their citizens, and particularly to the rural and urban poor. However, despite national and international efforts, the social and economic situation of the LDCs as a whole worsened during the 1980s.
The third UN LDC Conference in Brussels (in 2001) came up with a framework for partnership between LDCs and their development partners “to accelerate sustained economic growth and sustainable development in LDCs, to end marginalization by eradicating poverty, inequality and deprivation in these countries, and to enable them to integrate beneficially into the global economy”.
The fourth UN LDC Conference in Istanbul (2011) adopted the Istanbul Programme of Action (PoA), aimed at helping at least half of the LDCs to graduate from the LDC status over the next decade.
From Istanbul to Rio
The Istanbul Programme of Action 2011-20, maintained that in the decade since the adoption of the Brussels Programme of Action in 2001, LDCs had made some progress in economic, social and human development. More than 75% of the LDC population, however, still live in poverty and the LDCs continue to have the lowest per capita incomes and the highest population growth rates, it said.
The Istanbul PoA noted that while the LDCs have made considerable efforts to mobilize domestic resources for their development, most of them still face a huge financing gap, and Official Development Assistance (ODA) continued to be the largest source of external financing for the development of the LDCs. The aggregate ratio of ODA to gross national income (GNI) for Development Assistance Committee (DAC) members increased from 0.05% in 1997-98 to 0.09% in 2009, but remained well below the 0.15-0.20% target. An increasing share of aid went to the social sectors, rather than to building physical and economic infrastructure.
The Istanbul PoA calls for enhanced and sustained cooperation from development partners to develop infrastructure, energy, agriculture, trade, human and social development, science, technology and innovation and private sector development, among others.
The Rio + 20 Conference offers an opportunity for the developed Northern countries to revisit their past commitments and come up with time-bound, concrete proposals to address severe imbalances among the nation-states and help vulnerable, developing countries to deal with the effects of challenges like climate change.
The ‘zero draft’ proposed by the Rio + 20 conference to be adopted in Rio calls for developed countries to “provide support to existing regional and sub-regional structures and mechanisms in developing countries and encouraging their creation, where needed, with the aim of facilitating cooperation and the exchange of information, including capacity building, exchange of experiences and expertise to advance the implementation of the decisions at regional and sub-regional levels.”
Building capacity of the LDCs, is, however, easier said than done.
From agriculture and food security to trade and access to essential services, LDCs need help and support to build their productive capacities. In LDCs, the agriculture sector employs about 70% of the workforce but agriculture contributes only 30% of their gross domestic product (GDP). Among the 48 LDCs, 44 rely on imports to feed their populations. Of the total LDC population, one third is chronically malnourished.
According to a report of the UN Secretary General, total volume of LDC exports doubled between 2001 and 2008, and their combined trade increased from just over half of their total gross domestic product in 2000-02 to about 70% in 2006-07. But the share of LDCs in the global trade still stands at less than 1%.
Achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and improving education, health care, clean water, sanitation and access to energy remain major challenges for majority of the people living in the LDCs.
Most of the LDCs are indebted and they are paying huge sums in principal and interest which, otherwise, could have been spent to build schools or buy medicines for their health posts. With an external debt stock of US$155 billion and annual debt service payments of more than US$ 6 billion, LDCs are in a perpetual state of debt overhand. This is proving to be a major handicap in their fight against poverty and underdevelopment.
The debt sustainability framework promoted by the Bretton Woods institutions has led to ‘debt’ being repaid over and over again, with debt servicing eating up a major portion of LDCs’ annual national budgets. The onerous implications of enormous levels of debt should not be borne by citizens who have little or no responsibility for creating such a mess (Civil Society Forum Report, pg 4)
Environmental problems such as climate change are the result of affluence rather than poverty. Affluence in the North demands high levels of consumption, and produces greenhouse gases responsible for climate change. LDCs have contributed the least to the emission of greenhouse gases. But they are the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, and have the least capacity to adapt to these changes (ibid, pg 6).
LDCs are exposed to specific threats, depending on their characteristics. Mountainous and monsoon-dependent countries of South Asia face glacial retreat, droughts and floods, island and coastal LDCs face more frequent and severe typhoons and floods, and Pacific low-lying countries are threatened by rising sea levels. Climate change also poses risks of desertification to environmentally vulnerable arid and semi-arid LDCs in the African Sahel. The LDCs not only need special support from the international community to deal with the effects of climate change, they can legitimately claim compensation for the damage done as a result of climate change precipitated by the industrialised North, which should accede to ‘climate reparations’ and also agree to drastically reduce their greenhouse gas emissions (ibid).
‘Right to Development’
The World Conference on Human Rights held in Vienna in 1993 established the right to development as a universal and inalienable right and an integral part of fundamental human rights. It is the duty of the international community to promote an effective international cooperation for the realization of the right to development and elimination of obstacles to development.
In an era of globalisation, our actions have implications for people in other parts of the world, and rights and responsibilities of all are interrelated and interdependent. The importance of collective and shared responsibilities, a sense of inter and intra-generational equity and common but differentiated responsibilities should be highlighted in the context of equitable and inclusive development in LDCs. The challenge facing the international community is to mobilize the political will to create an enabling environment which takes all these principles into consideration and eliminates the obstacles which face LDCs’ development needs and priorities, and thus, ensures human rights of people living in those countries (OHCHR, 2011)
The LDCs hold a significant share of the world’s strategic resources—petrol, metals, minerals, crops and arable land—together with young workforces and growing consumer buying power. These assets, coupled with recent reforms, are attracting private sector interest. To overcome current global food, energy, climate, economic, financial and social challenges, LDCs need an international enabling environment based on a renewed global partnership for development that aims at building and strengthening their capacity to achieving the development goals.
Promises to keep
Though we have completed the first decade of the 21st century, millions of people in the marginalised communities are forced to live under precarious conditions. The forces of globalisation have further marginalised those who are neither consumers nor producers. In such a context, world leaders gathering at Rio must address concerns of millions of people living in the marginalised communities and ensure that a fair, just and sustainable societies are still possible around the world. Time to act is now.
FAO (2009) ‘How to Feed the World in 2050,’ Food and Agriculture Organisation, United Nations.
OHCHR (2011) The Right to Development Approach to a New Global Partnership for Development for the LDCs, United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Oxfam (2011) ‘Growing a Better Future: Food justice in a resource-constrained world, Oxfam, London.
UN LDC IV Civil Society Forum (2011) Towards A World Without LDCs: Global Civil Society Report and Recommendations to the Fourth United Nations Conference on the Least Developed Countries (LDC-IV) LDC Watch, Kathmandu.
The author works with the BBC Nepali Service in London and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Views expressed in this article are his personal—Editor.