An Improverished Summit on Poverty

Few New Ideas Come Out of U.N. Conference

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BRUSSELS, Belgium, MAY 22, 2001 ( The United Nations conference on strategies to battle poverty in the world´s 49 poorest countries ended Sunday with few new ideas but lots of questions.

One good sign was that conferees came away with a better sense of the failure of unilateral-aid policies, which were carried out by rich countries without considering the actual needs of poor countries, said the Vatican´s representative at the May 14-20 event.

After two decades of unilateral-aid policies, the number of «least developed countries» rose to 49 from 25.

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, the Vatican´s permanent observer at the United Nations in Geneva, told the international agency Fides: «In the past, the solution to the drama of underdevelopment was conceived unilaterally: with aid from the richer countries to the Third World countries.»

«In Brussels,» he said, «we have seen the common will to address the scandal of the exclusion of nations and individuals from the circuit of development. Rich countries, international institutions, poor countries — all have given their consent.»

Nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, on Monday presented a document that was very critical of the meeting´s conclusions. «The result of this third conference on the least developed countries has been disappointing in terms of specific commitments,» they said.

Archbishop Martin said that the conference´s final 10-point document has new and interesting policies, yet lacked the means to carry out the proposals.

The archbishop noted that the conference proposed to offer poorer countries access to the markets, but he added: «Infrastructure is needed: roads, ports, customs systems. The factor of aid is important in this area.»

One positive move was the European Union´s announcement of the «Everything Except Arms program, which includes the cancellation of European arms sales to poor countries,» Archbishop Martin said.

Conferees included Kofi Annan, U.N. secretary-general; Romano Prodi, president of the European Commission; and numerous heads of state and government, especially from Africa.

The U.S. delegates, Archbishop Martin explained, «did not take clear positions; they were always conciliatory, due to the fact that the change of administration in the White House is still too recent.»

For its part, the NGOs´ Forum expressed its «extreme disappointment» over the lack of progress on the question of cancellation of poor nations´ debts, «which have been incurred without the people — the real victims of the operation — being minimally consulted.»

The NGOs appealed to all governments «to guarantee the consultation of civil society before signing a new loan.»

The NGOs´ petition describes as «deplorable» the fact that nothing has been done to raise the level of rich nations´ developmental aid to poor countries. The NGOs want wealthy countries to dedicate 0.7% of their gross national product to such aid.

The conference issued an invitation to «reinforce the commitment to reach» a level of 0.15% of GNP.

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