A balance sheet of the Fourth U.N. Conference on Least Developed Countries held in Istanbul.

Since the international community recognised the special category of Least Developed Countries (LDCs) in 1971 and started extending special benefits to them, their number has increased from 25 in 1971 to 48 in 2011. In 40 years, only Botswana, Cape Verde and Maldives have moved up. Meanwhile, 26 countries were added. Clearly, the development strategy for LDCs needs a course correction. This was the perception at the Fourth U.N. Conference on Least Developed Countries (IV LDC) held in Istanbul from May 9 to 13, 2011.

Another perception was that the Brussels Programmme of Action (BPOA) adopted at the Third LDC conference in 2001 could not achieve full success, though it had a positive impact. The conference participants were convinced that the world should do more for LDCs. The 48 LDCs account for 880 million people. But their share in global trade is one per cent. Their Human Development Index is low; half the people live on less than $1.25 a day.

Moral and pragmatic reasons were summoned as U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon said: “Investing in LDCs is an opportunity for all.” He said it was a moral obligation to help the vulnerable. However, it is not charity; it is a smart investment that “will help to propel and sustain global economic recovery and stability.” External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna, who led the Indian delegation, shared this perception.

Istanbul was the fourth in a series. The first conference was organised in 1980 in Paris; the second in 1990 was also in Paris. The third was in 2001 in Brussels, which adopted the BPOA.

In Istanbul, 8,931 delegates, including 36 heads of state and government, 96 Ministers and 66 presidents of international organisations, participated. It had four tracks: official delegates, parliamentarians, civil society members under the banner of LDC Watch and the private sector. The mandate of IV LDC included an appraisal of the implementation of BPOA; identification of international and domestic policies in view of the appraisal, as well as new challenges; affirmation of the global commitment to address their special needs; and mobilisation of support measures and actions.

The conference adopted the Istanbul Programme of Action (IPOA-2010-2021) and the Istanbul Declaration. There were parleys among stakeholders. LDC Watch, the umbrella civil society organisation, and private sector delegates adopted separate declarations.

While laying emphasis on enhancing the productive capacity of LDCs and on monitoring the implementation of IPOA, the Istanbul Declaration inter alia underlined the role played by civil society and the private sector.

The IPOA reflects upon the objectives, principles and priorities of the development strategy for for the decade. The first part is introductory. The second appraises BPOA, noting that the goals were not fully achieved. The third lists the objectives and principles of the development strategy. The overarching goal is to overcome the structural challenges faced by the LDCs to eradicate poverty and move up. The IPOA target is for half of the LDCs to move up by the end of decade — a tall order. The other five objectives within this broad goal are: to achieve sustained, equitable and inclusive economic growth; to build human capacities and foster social development; to reduce economic and natural vulnerabilities; to ensure enhanced financial resources, including larger ODA and their effective use; and to enhance good governance. The eight principles underlying the development strategy are: country ownership and leadership of the development process; integrated and holistic approach to the process; genuine partnership between LDCs and their development partners, result orientation with effective monitoring and assessment; ensuring peace, security and human rights; equity at all levels in the development process; effective voice and representation of concerns of LDCs in the international economic system; and balanced role of state and market considerations. The fourth part of the IPOA lists eight priority areas: productive capacity with special focus on infrastructure, energy, science and technology, and private sector development; agriculture, food security and rural development; commodities; human and social development; emerging challenges like economic shocks and climate change; mobilising financial resources; and good governance at all levels. Besides, actions to be taken by LDCs and their development partners in the implementation of IPOA in each priority area are elaborated. The last section highlights, for the first time, the complementary role of South-South cooperation in IPOA implementation. However, it added that South-South cooperation is not a substitute for, but rather a complement to, North-South cooperation. The fifth lists measures for a smooth transition from LDC to a higher category as such countries are deprived of the special benefits after moving up. The sixth emphasises effective monitoring of the implementation process and follow-up action.

An analysis of the underlying assumptions and core features of the strategy outlined in the IPOA reveals opportunities and challenges. The IPOA departs in some respects from the BPOA. While the BPOA's focus was on aid for trade and social development, the IPOA gives priority to enhancing LDCs' productive capacities, with the major role assigned to the private sector and investment. Perhaps the assumption is that the increase in productive capacity would improve trade competitiveness and development prospects in LDCs. For the first time, the private sector has been roped in. But it is to be watched whether it remains committed to the development of LDCs or exploits their resources. The second point of departure is that the IPOA lays much emphasis on monitoring the implementation of Programme of Action and calls for the strengthening of national, regional, and international monitoring mechanisms.

The third departure was the incorporation of, for the time, a complementary role of South-South cooperation in the implementation of IPOA in priority areas. This appears to be a victory for Indian diplomacy. India organised an India-LDC Ministerial conference at Delhi in February. Its declared purpose was to harness the positive contribution of South-South cooperation for LDC development and to strengthen the mutually reinforcing development partnership with them. At this conference, India announced special measures.

South-South cooperation may prove to be a viable mechanism in the implementation of the IPOA as the countries of the South have many things to share and exchange. Yet, the nature and dynamics of South-South cooperation needs scrutiny.

Though the IPOA tried to address the new challenges of climate change, food and energy security and the global financial crisis, two elements may hamper LDCs' capacity to face them. First, the climate change negotiations are not making headway. The new financial commitments made by developed countries for mitigation and adaptation are not additional funds, but funds diverted from ODA. The Doha Round of trade negotiations is stalled.

One big hurdle in the implementation of the IPOA will be the non-realisation of ODA commitments made by developed countries. The experience of ODA flow during the last decade is instructive. Under the BPOA, developed countries agreed to give between 0.15 and 0.2 per cent of their GNP as ODA by 2010. However, only nine countries have met the targets. In Istanbul, the developed countries were less than willing to enhance their percentage. Moreover, defaulters have the liberty to enhance their contribution from 0.15 to 0.2 per cent after 2015.

Both BPOA and IPOA claim to adopt a comprehensive and holistic strategy for LDCs' development. However, this does not take into account the nature of domestic factors and glosses over the socio-ethnic conflicts and political instabilities and lack of democracy in many LDCs under the rubric of achieving good governance.

Development and mobilisation of human resources and their conversion into agents of change rather than the recipients of development benefits may do the trick by reducing the space for social and political conflicts and tensions. The relationship between democracy and development needs better appreciation. In spite of these apprehensions, the IPOA breaks fresh ground by focussing on the productive capacity of LDCs, larger private sector involvement, South-South cooperation and monitoring of the implementation process.

(Dr Arunoday Bajpai, Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science, Agra College, Agra, participated in the Conference on LDCs. E-mail: arunodaybajpai@gmail.com)

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