Amid Interlocking Crises, Speakers in Round Table Call for Urgent Action to Help Least Developed Countries Face Financing, Education, Social Protection Gaps
DOHA, 5 March — With least developed countries fast approaching tipping points across a range of interlocking crises — including climate change, conflict and the first increase in extreme poverty in a generation — speakers today stressed that the international community must rise to the occasion, as the fifth United Nations Conference on the Least Developed Countries held the first of its eight high-level thematic round tables.
Opening the meeting, Lazarus McCarthy Chakwera, President of Malawi and co-chair of the Conference, noted that the least developed countries are home to more than 1 billion people, making it simply impossible to achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development without substantial progress made in them. Those countries represent an unprecedented opportunity to address the world’s most fundamental challenges, as achieving the objectives of the Doha Programme of Action will directly address climate change to reduce poverty, eliminate hunger and malnutrition, and foster peace and stability. They represent not only an opportunity for themselves, he stressed — but also for the world. As Chair of the Global Coordination Bureau and President of one of those countries, he is aware of the challenges that they face — but also convinced that the international community has the resources to bring prosperity to everyone. While least developed countries have the energy and the potential to make an unprecedented leap in human development, they must address systemic and structural factors hampering that leap. He noted that Malawi is working to implement policies in pursuit of enhanced productive capacity and industrialization, and that least developed countries need elevated levels of support to build resilience and achieve sustainable development.
Andrzej Duda, President of Poland and co-chair of the Conference, expressed hope that the Doha Programme of Action will galvanize national and international action in favour of the 1 billion people living in the least developed countries. The Conference will discuss how to reduce the gap between economic opportunities of men and women, to ensure the creation of a world that is more conducive to the realization of the aspirations of the millions of women and girls living in the least developed countries. He further called upon it to address the vast potential of youth, as well as the tools and instruments they need to construct a better future fund for themselves and the planet. Better schools with trained professors, good infrastructure and access to the best possible curriculum bring opportunities and constitute an incredibly profitable investment for all societies, he noted. Citing Poland’s efforts to nationally advance education, he stressed that bringing human development to the least developed countries is an investment not only in its people, but in a more prosperous, safe and stable world for everyone.
Titled “Investing in people in least developed countries to leave no one behind”, the round table featured a keynote address by Tarja Kaarina Halonen, former President of Finland. Ms. Halonen stressed that the world is fast approaching tipping points across a range of interlocking crises from climate change to increasing number of conflicts, with growing geopolitical divisions growing. Energy, food security and financial concerns are ongoing — weighing especially heavily on people in the least developed countries. It is critical to stand by the commitment to achieve socially, environmentally and economically sustainable development for all. In Finland, she noted that investment in education has contributed to the country’s own development path into a welfare society — and that the country allocates nearly 50 per cent of its aid to education to least developed countries and more than 50 per cent to basic education. In 1943, Finland was the first country to guarantee free school meals.
She noted that the COVID-19 pandemic has affected all countries, but the impact on those least developed has posed serious challenges to progress made towards achieving sustainable development, especially on poverty reduction. Meanwhile, studies show that with very limited resources and investments, significant results are achieved in the health of mothers and children, for example. Women and girls often bear the heaviest burden in crises and catastrophes — but they are also powerful actors; as in the pandemic, women’s knowledge and know-how has been central to all societies. Women’s role in decision-making can critically strengthen the response and resilience of society. She emphasized that lifting people out of poverty and creating equal opportunities require social protection — a smart investment that can provide important support for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals for everyone in society. Addressing the gender gap in employment, she noted women’s economic empowerment boosts productivity and increases economic diversification and income equality. However, this will not happen if women continue to do most of the informal care and domestic work in the families. Formalization and professionalization of childcare is an opportunity to boost women’s productive labour force participation in all societies. “We are in a race against time to reduce the inequalities and vulnerabilities that risk leaving individuals, communities and whole countries behind,” she stated. Finland hosted the first ever United Nations Least Developed Countries Future Forum in Helsinki and intends to organize this forum annually.
The first of eight thematic round tables scheduled for the Conference featured panellists Patricia Danzi, Director General of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation; Achim Steiner, Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP); Leonardo Garnier, Special Adviser to the Secretary-General for the Transforming Education Summit; and Victoria Kwakwa, Vice-President for Eastern and Southern Africa at the World Bank Group.
Ms. Danzi noted her country, Switzerland, boasts a Constitution including a pledge that it shall assist in alleviation of poverty worldwide, and conservation of natural resources. Without peace and natural resources, “we are nowhere”, she stressed. She accented the importance of partnerships, stressing that the term “least” is inappropriate, as the term “third world” once was. While Switzerland invests $3 billion annually into international cooperation, she noted least developed countries may face less public money in coming years, requiring smarter and more innovative solutions to honouring commitments, which is a responsibility, not a favour.
Mr. Steiner noted that 50 per cent of people in least developed countries have no access to electricity. Citing Africa, comprising 33 of 46 least developed countries, he called for the mobilization of public and private investment to connect 260 million people to electricity, also noting that only 33 per cent of people in least developed States have access to the Internet, compared to 80 per cent in developed countries. Addressing the severe debt crisis, he warned that 51 countries are a step away from debt distress. Debt and debt payment constitute a direct tax on least developed countries’ ability to invest in their people, while many developing countries cannot raise adequate tax revenue.
Mr. Garnier noted that education can be the great leveller but has often been the great divider. There is a crisis of equity and inclusion for all those out of school, while the next generation is not being equipped with necessary skills. This is particularly true for Africa, as the continent has the world’s largest out-of-school population. Stating the Transforming Education Summit brought education back to the top of the political debate, he stressed the global importance of transforming education systems to be fit for purpose. Governments must rethink both the content and methods of education to include everyone regardless of circumstance or background. “Teachers must be agents of change,” he stressed, calling for greater support and resources. While $5 trillion is invested worldwide in education — 6 per cent of global gross domestic product (GDP) — it is concentrated in high-income countries. Noting some African countries can only invest $1 per week per school-age person, he called on the international community to step in to make a difference.
Ms. Kwakwa cited a 2012 World Bank Group report noting the merits of working towards gender equality and women’s empowerment. Gender equality is good economics, she affirmed. She further emphasized the importance of protecting the human capital of women and girls, closing gender gaps in health and social protection. Noting the importance of supporting education policies for girls throughout the cycle, she stressed the unacceptable prevalence of gender-based violence in schools, and the lack of proper sanitation facilities. As women are caregivers, it will be critical to provide access to child and elderly care for women to pursue livelihoods. They must be supported in expanding their ownership and control of financial, land and housing assets, and enhancing their participation in leadership roles.
The Conference then turned to its lead discussants, Shameran Abed, Executive Director of BRAC International; and Cristina Duarte, Under-Secretary-General and Special Adviser on Africa.
Mr. Abed noted that between 1980 and 2020, there was steady progress every year in reducing those living in extreme poverty — but with the interlocking crises of COVID-19, conflict and climate over the last three years, that number is rising for first time in generations. However, eradication of extreme poverty need not seem a distant dream, he said, noting that his organization and many others have realized that initiatives like the graduation programme have illustrated that investment with targeted wraparound services are extremely successful. He stressed the message that evidence exists that programmes can pull people out of ultra and extreme poverty but need political will for Governments to massively scale them up. “What we need to do is stop tinkering around the edges,” he stated, hoping the Doha Programme of Action galvanizes the international community and Governments to invest in such evidence-based approaches at scale to deliver on the promise made at the start of the Sustainable Development Goals. “Those living in the harshest forms of poverty demand nothing less of us,” he stressed.
Ms. Duarte raised the issue of who benefits from economic growth. She noted that in the first 15 years of the twenty-first century, the scene in Africa was promising due to high economic growth, based on GDP — which is overly one-dimensional, and not enough to end the vicious cycle of poverty. Economic growth without income distribution does not lead to resilience and transformation, she stressed, and a focus on poverty management has not left the space to retain Africa’s wealth and deliver inclusiveness. Decreasing poverty does not necessarily mean that a country develops, she stressed. Human capital must be at the centre of policymaking, as without it, the world is being pushed close to self-destruction mode in the long term. It is time to change the policy mindset from backward-designed policies, moving from a charity approach to recognizing that human capital policies should be designed to generate social, economic and cultural returns. She called for movement from cash transfer policies to asset policies, giving vulnerable people the assets to be considered for financial inclusion.
When the floor opened, Heads of State, ministers and delegates called for investment in developing countries, also noting some progress but enduring challenges in the critical education and gender parity sectors, while citing major financing and social challenges across the board. Speakers also called for the international community to honour financing pledges.
Lejone Mpotjoana, Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Relations of Lesotho, stressed that the concept and frame of mind that the world should invest in human development is not a favour but a fundamental responsibility for every Government whether first, second or third world, developed, developing or least developed. Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, President of Somalia, noted his country has one of the most youthful populations in the world with over 70 per cent of its population under the age of 35 — a huge demographic and developmental dividend which his Government is determined to capitalize on by defeating international terrorism at home, reviving an inclusive and accessible education sector, providing skills for employment and creating decent jobs with real prospects.
Jochen Flasbarth, Secretary for State in the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development of Germany, affirmed that his country will dedicate another €200 million in 2023 for financing for least developed States.
In final comments, Ms. Danzi affirmed the importance of involving the private sector and a digitalized approach inviting in young people. Mr. Garnier cited the absurdity of not investing in education and human capital, due to lack of political will and countries trapped in short-term vision and the poverty trap. Ms. Kwakwa called for a strong sense of urgency to move the agenda forward and achieve impact at scale.
Mr. Duda, in closing remarks, highlighted the international community’s collective responsibility to help least developed countries recover from the pandemic and prepare for the future. Mr. Chakwera noted the 46 countries present are defined by how much they have left behind — but that, today, their vision for their countries reveals a group of nations determined to rise and defying the odds stacked against them, with imminent economic transformation. They are the “next to develop” countries.
Also speaking were Heads of State, ministers and delegates of Somalia, United Republic of Tanzania, Timor-Leste, Lesotho, Singapore, Sierra Leone, Burkina Faso, Niger, Estonia, Spain, Germany, Portugal, Thailand, Eritrea, Luxembourg, Monaco, Saudi Arabia, Haiti and Zambia.
Representatives of the International Seabed Authority, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) also spoke.