Inside the glass house: by Thalif Deen

20th May 2001

More nations pushed into poverty pit

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BRUSSELS - The irrepressible A.C.S. Hameed, always a fighter to the last, was once being assailed in parliament for his free-spending lifestyle and his passion for fancy hotels on his all-too-frequent overseas trips.

When the opposition MP had finished his tirade, out sprang the former foreign minister displaying one of his occasional flashes of humour: "Where do you expect me to stay when I am overseas?" he asked the MP with righteous indignation. "In thosai boutiques?" 

Mr. Hameed's favourite hotels in New York were the swanky Palace and Hyatt. President Premadasa's hideout was the Waldorf Astoria. And current Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar opts for the UN Plaza and the Harley all five star hotels in the heart of Manhattan.

A minister's favourite hotel does not necessarily depend on the state of his country's economy ailing or otherwise.

For nearly a week now, the European Parliament in the Belgian capital of Brussels has been the venue of a major UN Conference on Least Developed Countries (LDCs).

These are countries, described as the poorest of the world's poor, struggling for survival on per capita incomes of mostly between $200 and $800 annually compared with an average of over $25,000 in rich nations. But ministers attending this conference have been staying at five star hotels such as the Hilton, the Meridien and the Sheraton and arriving at the European Parliament building in Mercedes Benzes and BMWs sporting diplomatic license plates (and obviously owned by their respective embassies in Brussels).

None of these ministers from poverty-stricken countries is holed up either in fleabag motels or at the local YMCA.

Some of them, of course, are being hosted by the UN and the Belgian government but most are hangers-on on spending sprees.

Mercifully, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka are not categorised as LDCs. In Asia, the LDCs include the Maldives, Afghanistan, Laos, Bhutan, Nepal, Cambodia, Myanmar and Bangladesh. 

But most of the LDCs, about 34 out of the 49, are from sub-Saharan Africa, including Sierra Leone, Mali, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Niger and Rwanda. 

On Monday, they arrived in Brussels with a laundry list of economic grievances crying out for answers.

"We need access to new markets. We need cancellation of debts. We need increase development assistance. And we need an infusion of foreign capital," complained Ambassador Daudi Mwakawago of Tanzania. A former chairman of the 133-member Group of 77 developing nations, Mr. Mwakawago called for a new approach to problems facing the poorest of the world's poor.

But he warns that merely providing market access for produce was counterproductive without the means for cultivating, storing, packing and shipping that produce.

Mr. Mwakawago said that most LDCs are producers of primary products including jute, cotton, coffee "but these are products that have to be moved to markets".

Summing up the needs of the LDCs, he quoted Professor Jeffrey Sachs of Harvard University, as saying: "We need money, money, money." 

Ambassador Anwarul Karim Chowdhury of Bangladesh, the Coordinator for LDCs at the United Nations, said: "We are here to seek assistance to rebuild our ailing economies through a new partnership with rich nations." 

Mr. Chowdhury said the past two UN conferences on LDCs held in Paris the first in 1981 and the second in 1990 were characterised by "grand commitments" and a slew of promises to help the poorest nations to rejuvenate their cash-strapped economies. But these commitments, he complained, lacked political will for worldwide implementation. 

That in itself is a severe indictment of a UN system, which has failed in one of its key missions: poverty alleviation.

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