Engaging the Least Developed Countries transcends our campaign for a permanent seat at the U.N. Security Council; it touches the very core of our national convictions.
If South Block mandarins are looking for reasons why their initiative to host the historic India-Least Developed Countries (LDCs) Ministerial Conference received only limited notice in the country, they need not look far. Looking within will do; an exercise not just they but we, as a nation, should undertake with candour.
A common thread running through our ancient philosophy and the teachings of the Father of the Nation is the advice to care for the poor, the weaker section of our community. Doing so is both good principle and prudent policy. This needs to be practised at the local, national and even international levels, given our natural ambition to be a Great Power. The government's decision to host the first-ever conference where all 48 LDCs were represented is laudable, but a critical assessment is essential for appreciating whether we are doing the right thing, in a right manner, at a right time, and whether we will fulfill our commitments. These questions are unavoidable because the conference has been seen by many as merely India's endeavour to advance its case for permanent membership of the U.N. Security Council and also because scepticism prevails regarding our capability to deliver.
The U.N. created a new category of its member states — LDCs —in 1971. There were 25 of them at that time. Forty years later, the number has shot up to 48, a clear indicator that whatever the U.N. and the international community have been doing to reduce poverty, disease, illiteracy and low productive capacity of its weaker section, has proved to be ineffective. Of these 48 countries 33 are in Africa, 14 in the Asia-Pacific region and one in Central America. Five of our neighbours — Afghanistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar — are LDCs. Only three LDCs, namely Botswana, Cape Verde and Maldives, have managed to graduate out of this unenviable category. The LDCs contribute only one per cent to global trade, despite their 12 per cent share of world population.
The U.N. holds a major conference once a decade to assess the state of development of the LDCs. In the backdrop of previous conferences — Paris (1981), Paris (1991), and Brussels (2001) — the challenge for the conference in Istanbul, to be held shortly, is to go back to the design board and suggest how the ambitious goal to halve the number of LDCs can be achieved by 2020.
The Delhi conference was a preparatory event for the forthcoming Istanbul conference. India has been assisting the LDCs on a broad front for long, even if it took us 63 years (after our Independence) to host a conference exclusively devoted to the LDCs. The conference was inaugurated by External Affairs Minister S. M. Krishna. At a separate meeting with the leaders of delegations, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh reiterated India's commitment to development of the LDCs, underlining the high importance it attached to South-South cooperation.
The conference was prepared and managed quite well. This was reflected in the Delhi Declaration, the outcome document notable for its refreshing brevity, unusual clarity of thought and a combination of realism and optimism. It highlighted the conference's theme on ‘Harnessing the Positive Contribution of South-South Cooperation for Development of Least Developed Countries.' Calling upon the international community to express “its highest commitment” for supporting the Istanbul conference, it stressed that the world needs to accord “its highest priority to the cause of LDCs” for ensuring peace, security and prosperity.
Mr. Krishna quoted India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru who had observed so aptly: “Peace is said to be indivisible, so is freedom, so is prosperity now, and also is disaster in this one world that can no longer be split into isolated segments.”
The Delhi Declaration listed the LDCs' demands and suggestions pertaining to the Doha Round, food security, climate change, and co-relation between South-South cooperation and North-South cooperation along the expected lines.
In an exceptionally important paragraph, the declaration indicated that the LDCs want the world to adopt “a comprehensive approach” for creating an effective solution to the development challenges faced by them. Obviously they need more financial resources, but they expect much more of other kinds of assistance too, which would augment their “productive capacity, institutional strength and policy space to lead their respective national development processes.”
India's policy approach is welcomed by the LDCs. They are, however, clamouring now for a ‘New International Support Architecture' — NISA. Our economic and foreign affairs experts should reflect on this and come up with fresh inputs for government's consideration.
Taking a macro view of what India, as a key development partner, has done and has promised to deliver further, one could discern several important components of cooperation: duty free and quota free treatment to imports from the LDCs, expanded capacity building and technical cooperation under the ITEC programme, cumulative value of previous loans to the LDCs amounting to $4.3 billion, additional LOCs of $500 million for next five years, and a special fund of $5 million for follow-up actions in regard to the Istanbul conference. Total investment by Indian public and private sector companies in the LDCs now stands at $35 billion. India's annual imports from the LDCs are valued at $10 billion at present.
At the pre-conference briefing, Hardeep Puri, India's Permanent Representative to the U.N., pointed out that the LDCs, together with other small island states and land-locked countries, account for about 100 out of 192 members-states of the U.N. Clearly they represent a very important constituency. Dilip Sinha, Additional Secretary in MEA, emphasised that the development experience of some of the “emerging economies” such as India is of “greater relevance” to the LDCs.
India has been on the right track, leading from the front in developing an extensive partnership with the LDCs. The Delhi conference has imparted a fresh momentum, creating hope that the LDCs would receive higher attention in future by the Indian authorities. While our diplomats may have reasons to be reticent, there is little harm in acknowledging that assisting the LDCs more will help the campaign for a permanent seat at the high table. But our policy on the LDCs transcends this campaign; it touches the very core of our national convictions.
Critics would, however, suggest that India should be more generous, earnest and efficient in ensuring timely fulfillment of its commitments. For this purpose, the MEA needs a major reform, i.e. the establishment of a separate Development Agency as its own capacity to implement new commitments seems to be getting stretched to outer limits. Further, India Inc, and not the government, is now the engine of economic growth; hence the former will have to be persuaded to become more pro-active in respect of investing in the LDCs.
Two additional points may be made in the end. Firstly, if the MEA wanted greater media and political attention to the conference, it should have requested the President or the Vice-President to inaugurate it. Secondly, speechwriters of the External Affairs Minister need to take fresh lessons in diplomatic history. Not just four — Nehru, Indira, Rajiv and the present incumbent — but all our Prime Ministers have consistently followed the policy of close partnership with developing countries. Assisting the LDCs enjoys not selective political but broad national consensus. This fact should be projected widely.
(A former diplomat, the author served as Ambassador to Myanmar and High Commissioner to Lesotho, both countries being LDCs.)