/ 22 September 2008

Financial crisis casts cloud over UN poverty meeting

Heads of state, private-sector leaders and development agencies will this week assess the global fight against poverty, where progress is threatened by upheaval in global markets and soaring food prices.

The meeting in New York marks the midway point since global leaders first signed on to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2000, which aim to halve hunger and poverty by 2015.

The goals have been chosen by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon as the keynote theme of this year’s annual General Assembly gathering of leaders of the 192 UN member states.

Events start on Monday with a look at development needs in Africa, where poverty is still widespread but faster economic growth is opening new investment opportunities. On Thursday, Ban will lead a meeting to gauge overall progress on reaching the goals.

”It is totally unacceptable that in 2008 when we have the knowledge and resources to wipe poverty off the face of the globe, so many children still die of preventable diseases and millions miss a chance to go to school,” British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said through a spokesperson.

He called the New York meeting ”a vital opportunity to get the world back on track in the campaign against poverty, illiteracy and disease, and the beginning of a unique coalition of forces — government, the private sector, NGOs and faith”.

This year sees major efforts from the private sector, including private philanthropic foundations, to support the fight against poverty, with billions of dollars in commitments for malaria, education, health and food projects expected.

On the fringes of the UN debate, more than 130 company CEOs and over 50 current and former heads of state, as well as celebrities, will participate in the Clinton Global Initiative led by former US president Bill Clinton.

With this new coalition of forces in the fight against poverty, illiteracy and disease, new lenders like China, India, Brazil and Arab states are playing a greater role.

Financial turmoil
But there are concerns the financial turmoil rocking Wall Street firms and global markets could undo progress made in tackling poverty and disease, especially if major donors like the United States fall further back on their aid promises to poor countries, already battling higher energy and food costs.

The World Bank has warned that 100-million people could be pushed deeper into poverty unless there is a global response to tackle the rising cost of food and oil. When the MDGs were launched, oil traded around $10 a barrel and is now at over $100 a barrel.

”Leaders must not just reissue empty promises, with their fingers crossed behind their backs,” said Alison Woodhead, spokesperson for development agency Oxfam. ”This is a poverty emergency that requires exactly the same attention and response as the financial crisis grabbing the headlines.”

Woodhead said an additional $150-billion a year is needed by 2010 to meet all of the poverty goals.

”Given the turmoil in financial markets, rich countries will be tempted to tighten their belts. But we must do more, not less, if we are to prevent the real danger that progress on the MDGs will be wiped out.”

A recent UN report pointed to strong and sustained progress in reducing extreme poverty, but new estimates by the World Bank show the number of poor in the developing world is larger than previously thought at 1,4-billion people.

The estimates confirm that between 1990 and 2005 the number of poor people living in extreme poverty fell by over 400-million, and the poverty rate is likely to fall by the targeted 50% below the 1990 rate by 2015.

Still, the World Bank has also said that while fast-growing countries like China have seen poverty rates drop, progress has been less pronounced in Africa. – Reuters