Ahead of next week's conference in Turkey on the world's least developed countries, some leading participants outline plans and targets to reduce poverty
Children play football in Lubango, Angola – one of the nations predicted to ‘graduate’ out of being a least developed country. Photograph: Gianluigi Guercia/AFP/Getty Images
Halving the number of least developed countries – the world's 48 poorest states – in the next 10 years is a realistic goal, according to a top UN official, despite a marked lack of progress in the last decade.
Cheick Sidi Diarra, a UN special representative for LDCs, outlined the ambition ahead of next week's UN conference on LDCs in Istanbul, Turkey. Bringing together about 50 heads of state or prime ministers and Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general.
"It's not unrealistic because several LDCs have made strong progress in terms of economic growth and social inclusion," Diarra said, "for example Equatorial Guinea, Vanuatu, Angola, Tuvalu, Samoa and some others have been making strides, which make us believe they will be graduating during the next decade."
It's brave talk considering the meagre advances so far. Since the establishment of the category in 1971, only three countries have "graduated" from the list: Botswana in 1994, Cape Verde in 2007 and Maldives in January this year. Diarra said next week's conference – which takes place every 10 years – will assess the progress made by LDCs and development partners under the last action plan set out in Brussels in 2001.
The Turkish president, Abdullah Gül, warned that a situation in which 900 million people lived in poverty, with most of them living on $1.25 a day, was not sustainable.
"It is an alarming situation, in moral and political terms," said Gül. "During previous times, communications were not so well-developed – but now everyone is aware of the amount of wealth in other countries and that makes the situation unsustainable. We want this meeting to give warning signals and we would like to see measures taken."
Gül said Turkey was keen to introduce mechanisms at the conference to ensure that decisions and commitments would be followed up – unlike in the past three LDC conferences.
"When I talk about follow-up, I mean not just from donor countries but also from LDCs," he said, "as their leadership capacity and institutions are not well established enough to realise their commitments."
The UK is also emphasising the importance of following up previous commitments, and wants all parties – donors, LDCs and others – to reconfirm their commitment to meet the millennium development goals of eradicating extreme poverty, last made at the MDG summit in September last year.
Stephen O'Brien, the UK international development minister for Africa, said the conference must not miss the chance to give much-needed impetus to the stalled Doha trade negotiations. The so-called Doha development round that began in 2001 was supposed to bring benefits to the developing world but has stalled as key players – the US, the EU, China, Brazil and India – have refused to make concessions.
"We cannot miss the chance to progress the Doha agreement to bring free and fair market access to the developing world and boost growth in the world economies," said O'Brien. "If the entire G20 extended duty and quota-free access to their markets and goods, this would increase the amount of bilateral trade and lift an estimated 3 million people out of poverty at very little cost to these nations."
Whether the goal of halving the number of LDCs is realistic or not, aid groups believe it is important for the conference to set out ambitious targets to shake people out of their complacency, codify good practices, and mobilise political will.
Barry Coates, executive director of Oxfam, New Zealand, who will attend the conference as part of the NGO community, called for immediate steps from rich countries that would help LDCs. Echoing O'Brien, Coates said a good first step would be to allow duty free access for LDC exports, which account for only 1% of world trade.
Coates also argues for further debt cancellation. There was some debt cancellation in 2009, but new debts have also been taken on, particularly in response to the global financial crisis.
The UN said as of late last year, 20 least developed countries were in a situation of "debt distress". The financial crisis, it said, has caused the debt burden to rise. In arguing for a predictable source of finance, Coates said a tax on financial transactions – the so-called Tobin tax – was gaining real political traction.
For Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, managing director at the World Bank, who will be attending the conference as an observer, it was important that the meeting should focus on helping LDCs grow at a robust rate.
"The issue is whether they are performing economically," she said "We need to focus on the sources of growth. Those that have been conflict-affected, the question is how do we help them deal with post-conflict. Those countries that are stable, the question is how do we help them grow."
Okonjo-Iweala said African countries – which make up 33 of the 48 LDCs – should use agriculture to create employment.
"Fifty percent of arable land is on the African continent," she said. "They have the potential to provide food for themselves and can go beyond that, modernise their agriculture and adding value. Instead of just exporting the raw material, process the food and add value to it on the continent. Instead of simply exporting the mangoes and pineapples, turn them into fruit juices.
"Mali is a good example with mangoes and has doubled its exports of mangoes. Ethiopia is trying to do that with coffee and Rwanda is moving along the same lines. We should concentrate on specific steps these countries should take and what concrete steps developed countries should take."
There are 48 least developed countries
Africa: 33 countries.
Angola, Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Central African Republic, Chad, Comoros, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Lesotho, Liberia, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Mauretania, Mozambique, Niger, Rwanda, São Tomé and Príncipe, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, Togo, Uganda, Tanzania, and Zambia.
Asia and the Pacific: 14 countries
Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burma, Cambodia, Kiribati, Lao Peoples Democratic Republic, Nepal, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Timor-Leste, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, and Yemen.
Latin America and the Caribbean: 1 country
Characteristics of LDCs
Average income of less than $475 (£288) a person a year. Weak human resources as measured by nutrition, infant mortality, secondary school environment and adult literacy. High economic vulnerability as measured by factors such as population size, remoteness, share of agriculture, and homelessness due to natural disasters. A country "graduates" from LDC status if the figure hits $900.
Main challenges facing LDCs
High levels of poverty: more than half the 800 million people in the LDCs live on less than a dollar a day. Women in LDCs have a one in 16 chance of dying in childbirth, compared to one in 3,500 in North America.
Food insecurity: More than 300 million Africans are food insecure.
Economic vulnerability: LDCs are highly dependent on external sources of funding, including official development assistance, workers' remittances and foreign direct investment. This overly exposes them to external shocks such as the global financial crisis.
Environmental vulnerability: While they contribute least to climate change, LDCs are among the groups of countries most affected by it. Many LDCs are also small islands whose very survival is threatened by rising sea levels.
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