UN seeks global plan to fight poverty

by Thalif Deen

New York, June 22 -- The United Nations is trying to formulate a single global action plan to fight the spread of poverty worldwide.

Ambassador Francesco Paolo Fulci of Italy, president of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), says there have been far too many UN conferences and pious declarations since 1990 and, what is needed now, is "more concrete action and less talking."

He told IPS that "too large a share of resources for development is squandered on studies, administrative costs, general expenses and field trips."

Fulci says that proposals made at nine major UN conferences - since the first Children's Summit in New York in 1990 - will be "distilled" into a single action-oriented plan aimed at eradicating poverty. He expects the world's finance ministers - and all UN agency heads - to be present at an ECOSOC meeting in Geneva early July to adopt a "Geneva Declaration" against poverty.

"We will be sending a strong message from Geneva on what immediate steps governments and civil society should take to fight poverty," he says.

The Italian envoy is seeking commitments from the 185 member states - as well as from the heads of UN bodies, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) - to help implement the plan.

Fulci says there has to be a firm commitment to increase development aid - which has been on the decline - and a pledge to write off the growing foreign debts of the world's poorest nations.

"How can one eradicate poverty when some of the world's destitute nations - specifically in Africa - have to spend more than 60% of their export earnings on interest payments?" he asks. "These are debts that will never be paid off. So let's start a new era."

Last week the Group of Seven industrial nations agreed on a $71 billion debt relief package that fell short of total cancellation of debts owed by poorer nations.

According to the United Nations and the World Bank, more than one billion to 1.3 billion people live in poverty, mostly on a daily income of less than a dollar a day. On the other hand, the total external debt of developing nations has reached more than two trillion dollars.

Of this, the highly indebted poor countries (HIPC) account for some $216 billion in unpayable debts. "We have the means to reverse the spread of poverty - and if we don't succeed we will all go down the sink," Fulci says.

He holds the view that the world's economic problems are long on analyses and studies but short on action. "There is no need for another endless round of consultations and studies," he declares.

As an "illuminating example," he points to the 1996 World Food Summit in Rome which pledged to cut the number of hungry people in half by the year 2015.

"Almost three years have gone by since this noble principle was announced but what has happened is that, the total number of chronically undernourished people in developing countries has not decreased but increased, from 822 million to 828 million," he says.

Fulci also criticises the proliferation of UN committees dealing with economic and social issues. Last year he served on of one of the committees and "sad to say...all too often, the right hand doesn't know what the left is doing."

Fulci says there is a lack of coordination and continuity in UN bodies dealing with important social and economic issues -"all too often, we duplicate the work that others are doing or have already done,"

Several Western nations, including the United States, have sought a moratorium on all future UN conferences. No new conferences should be held, they say, until declarations and plans adopted at past meetings have been implemented.

After a three-year hiatus, the United Nations plans new round of conferences next year, including a Millennium Summit scheduled to take place in September 2000. (IPS)

The above article by the Inter Press Service appeared in the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS).