By Wendy Kristianasen
In May Istanbul hosted the 4th United Nations conference of the world’s 48 least developed countries (LDCs), with their 800 million people, half living in extreme poverty. Turkey is the first developing country to host the 10-yearly mega-meeting.
Nothing much has changed for the LDCs since the last such meeting in Brussels. With the global economic crisis, the problems are worse. There were 25 LDCs in 1971, now there are 48; and only three countries were ever able to graduate from that group. They account for nearly 13% of world population, but only 1% of the global economic output.
As the summit opened on 9 May, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called on all countries to keep their promises to help the world’s poorest, and outlined the need for civil society support. Turkey’s president Abdullah Gul said the gap was widening in “income, education, child mortality, agricultural productivity and export performance… This situation is not sustainable. While a bottom billion lives on less than $1 a day, the rest of the international community cannot turn a blind eye to their sufferings.” The situation was alarming “not just morally, but politically … the nexus between development, peace and security cannot be ignored.”
The civil society forum, concurrent with the summit, with 1,200 representatives from 100 countries, had similar themes. Dr Arjun Karki, chair of the steering committee, was angry at broken promises: “We are frustrated…the Brussels programme of action drawn up in 2001 failed to make a significant dent in the poverty and vulnerability in LDCs” through promised development aid. Strategic interests, including trade and the war on terror, meant that 55% of aid went to just eight LDCs in 2007: Afghanistan, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Sudan, Mozambique, Uganda, Bangladesh and the DRC. So 41 countries – 84% of LDC population – had to share 45% of aid.
The summit drew up the ambitious Istanbul Programme of Action (IPoA) – which aims to halve the number of LDCs by 2021. How can that be done or how, at least, can advances towards that goal be made? The emphasis was on foreign investment and the private sector to lift millions out of poverty, on productive capacity (energy, infrastructure and agriculture) and on South-South cooperation. This was very different from the last summit which concentrated on health, education and social issues. The new approach seemed to be accepted by the LDCs. According to the UN under-secretary general and high representative for the LDCs Cheick Sidi Diarra, “The stress on productive capacity is favoured by LDCs as a means to modernise and diversify economies, create jobs … and eventually eradicate poverty.”
Gul spoke of the LDCs’ investment potential: “With their large populations and rich natural resources, investing in the LDCs … can create a win-win situation.” He thought the Istanbul plan would “create a new momentum” and stressed the need for South-South cooperation (Ankara’s development assistance, including that of Turkish NGOs, has risen to nearly $2bn a year).
Turkey’s private sector took a prominent role: Tuskon, the Turkish confederation of businessmen and industrialists, along with Tobb (Turkish union of chambers and commodity exchanges), organised a trade fair and a global partnership forum, inviting businessmen from LDCs to Istanbul as part of the trade bridge initiative. Tuskon, with 30,000 members, mainly small and medium-sized enterprises eager to expand abroad, is an active player in Turkey’s global economic relations, finding new trade partners and export markets, many in LDCs (1).
Civil society groups were unimpressed by the focus on the private sector and condemned the “cynical way” development had been sidelined. Its forum criticised the Istanbul plan for repackaging old economic liberalisation policies, even if it conceded the private sector had a useful role. It warned of “companies that have unsustainably exploited minerals, fish and forests, land grabs that have stolen the resources and livelihoods of local people, biofuel plantations that have destroyed forests and agricultural lands, food dumping that has destroyed farmers’ livelihoods and projects that leave local people with no water and a polluted environment.”
LDC delegates took a more pragmatic view. “The government can’t operate businesses,” said Alimamy Kargbo, from Sierra Leone. “Private companies create employment. I support private sector companies with adequate regulation. Parliament must make sure they follow the agreements they have ratified” (2).
There were other independent voices at Istanbul – an intellectuals’ forum chaired by Richard Falk, professor of international law at Princeton University. He criticised the UN’s failure to recognise refugee camp dwellers as LDCs, or countries with a population of more than 75 million. “Palestine, under occupation for more than 25 years, should be considered an LDC,” he said, along with other disadvantaged communities. He believed the Istanbul programme was “allowing an independent, detached perspective that brings together the views of leading intellectuals … who have no vested interests in either the private or public sector” (3).
The choice of Istanbul was symbolic. Turkey is still known as a developing country (4), even though it now has the seventh largest economy in Europe and its GDP is 17th in the world. (The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development expects Turkey to be the fastest-growing OECD economy in 2011-17 with an annual rate of 6.7%.)
Turkey’s host role therefore marked the country’s new prominence in the international arena, and the importance of other new global players in development: Brazil, India and China.
Can Turkey’s investment in the summit lead to real change? At Istanbul airport, a Sudanese delegate was trying to untie the string of what had once been a fine, shiny balloon: “It’s to take back to show my kids.” He addressed the wider problem with a knowing smile: “Istanbul? Just one more talking shop. Still, let’s see.” Also at the airport were some 50 Turkmen women, most in traditional costume, on their way back home to Ashgabat after the daily flight to Istanbul with hundreds of big boxes and parcels of Turkish textiles. Turkmenistan isn’t an LDC.