Troubling times for Africa's least developed countries

There were 18 in Africa 35 years ago. There are 34 now—which begs the question: are policies to thin the ranks of the almost three dozen least developed countries (LDCs) on the continent even somewhat effective?

All in all, 50 LDCs have been identified, the remainder scattered across Asia, the Pacific and the Caribbean. This category of state was defined by the United Nations in 1971, in acknowledgement of the fact that the poorest of countries require special assistance.

To date, only one African state has managed to leave behind its LDC status: diamond-rich Botswana, in 1994.

“Botswana enjoys a strong resource base. Its population is small [about 1,7-million],” says Imraan Valodia, a lecturer at the school of development studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. “Unfortunately it has not been very successful in increasing its trade volume. We don’t know what will happen when its resources run out.”

There are reportedly also hopes that Cape Verde and the Maldives may graduate from LDC ranks, although the tsunami of December 2004 proved a setback to the latter.

According to the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), Cape Verde reduced absolute poverty from 49% in 1988 to 37% in 2002. (The UN considers someone to be living in absolute poverty if their basic needs—for food and safe drinking water, for instance—are not being met.)

The former Portuguese colony also registered economic growth of 5,5% between 2001 and 2005, and is forecast to reach a target growth rate of 7% by 2007.

“Over the last several decades Cape Verde has made notable progress ... [as] a result of policies and strategies implemented by the government,” said UNCTAD in an August 2 report. “The goal of the policies and strategies of the government was to significantly improve the living standards of the people through increased real income levels, a vibrant private sector and expanded employment opportunities, among others.”

The report is titled Assessment of Progress in the Implementation of the Programme of Action for LDCs for the Decade 2001-2010: UNCTAD’s Contribution to the Mid-term Review—Progress Made, Results Achieved and Lessons Learned.

The programme of action referred to was adopted at a UN conference on LDCs held in Brussels, in May 2001, the third of its kind. A fourth meeting is mooted for the end of the decade, while the coming week will see a mid-term review in New York of efforts to fulfil the Brussels Programme of Action—this to coincide with the 61st session of the UN General Assembly.

Troubling situation

Overall, however, the situation of African LDCs remains troubling—sunny statistics notwithstanding.

“Even if the IMF [International Monetary Fund] economic statistics are showing positive growth, the reality on the ground in terms of poverty reduction suggests there’s nothing to talk about in Africa,” says Vitale Meja, programme director at the Harare-based African Forum and Network on Debt and Development, an NGO.

“Health delivery services are in shambles, transport systems are in bad shape and Africans are still begging for food from donor agencies,” he says. “Africa is getting poorer. Countries like the DRC [Democratic Republic of Congo] and Somalia are sinking further into poverty. It’s the same with oil-producing Angola. We are not seeing efforts by Angola to escape from the least-developed-countries category soon.”

Between 2001 and 2004, LDC states Angola, Chad and Equatorial Guinea—all oil producers—together with Mozambique and Sierra Leone, met or exceeded an average annual growth rate of 7%, says UNCTAD.

However, Angola failed to make substantial progress in providing access to safe drinking water and in reducing child mortality.

According to Valodia, African LDCs are stifled by a variety of factors, both internal and external.

“There are issues directly under the control of LDCs. These are largely social and cultural issues, such as the war in the DRC, which stops development. There are also clear issues of corruption. Some of the countries have poor infrastructure and lack the necessary skills,” he notes.

“Then there are external issues. LDCs are not all that linked up to international trade; where they are, they depend on one or two crops like cocoa and cotton. In fact, LDCs are weak and can’t express themselves in institutions like the WTO [World Trade Organisation].”

Debt

Meja also points a finger at debt, saying existing efforts to lift the burden of repayments need to be improved.

“Liberia, for example, needs debt cancellation—given the strides it has made in ending its civil war. With a population of 3,6-million people, it owes $3,5-billion dollars in external debts, mostly to the United States, Britain and Germany,” he says. “This means each Liberian, including children in schools, owes $972 to donor countries. Yet 85% of Liberians live below the poverty line of $1 a day.”

For Dot Keet, senior researcher at the Cape Town-based Alternative Information and Development Centre, there is an overall need for more money to be spent on the LDCs. While rich nations have long been urged to commit 0,7% of their gross national product on development assistance, only Denmark, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Norway and Sweden have met the target.

“The 0,7% [target] is an insult. They are dealing with symptoms rather than sustainable eradication of poverty,” says Keet, a veteran of the 2001 LDC conference.

At present, LDC status is determined by a country’s income (average per capita earnings of under $750 over three years could land a nation on the list), human assets and economic vulnerability.

The extent of a country’s human assets is measured by levels of education, adult literacy, nutrition and the likes—while economic vulnerability is determined by factors such as instability in agricultural production and in the export of goods and services.

The Brussels Programme of Action sets out seven commitments for LDC nations and those assisting them with development to meet, in a bid to help the countries emerge from poverty. These include cultivating good governance, giving trade a greater role in development, and protecting the environment.—IPS

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