Saturday, July 16, 2005

[Global Poverty] 50 Countries, 700 Million People, One Poverty Trap

Anja Tranovich

UNITED NATIONS, Jul 15 (IPS) - A new U.N. report calls for urgent action to combat the dual crises of poverty and AIDS in Least Developed Countries (LDCs).

The report, ”Hoping and Coping, The Capacity Challenge of HIV/AIDS in Least Developed Countries”, issued by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Office of the High Representative for the Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing States (OHRLLS) on Jul. 12, details the effects of AIDS on LDC economies.

”This call for action sets out the plight of the nations that are bearing the brunt of the worst epidemic in human history while having the least capacity to deal with the immense challenges it presents,” says Secretary-General Kofi Annan in a preface to the report.

The LDCs, a U.N. marker of lowest economic development, suffer from extreme poverty and have some of the highest HIV/AIDS rates in the world. Sixteen out of the 50 LDCs have an HIV/AIDS adult prevalence rate of higher than four percent, and for others, the prevalence rate is much higher. In Lesotho (an LDC), the HIV/AIDS prevalence rate among adults is 28.9 percent. For the 700 million people in Least Developed Countries, the epidemic is an economic and social issue as well as a health crisis.

The report suggests that HIV/AIDS erodes individual and institutional capacities so acutely because HIV/AIDS affects people in the prime of life. Felipe Chidumo, the ambassador of Mozambique, said that, ”for economic growth, strengthening of human capacity is essential.” The report refers to human capacity as, ”the ability to achieve higher levels of returns in economic and social development.”

Already disadvantaged sectors of the population disproportionately bear the burden of AIDS in LDCs. Women, for example, contract the disease more easily than men for both biological and social reasons. At the 15th annual AIDS conference in Bangkok, Annan noted that, ”Among people younger than 24 in sub-Saharan Africa, girls and young women make up nearly two-thirds of those living with HIV, and yet one-third of all countries still have no policies to ensure that women have access to prevention and care.”

In Uganda, an LDC, women produce 75 percent of the country's food and make up 80 percent of the agricultural workforce. When AIDS disproportionately affects women, food production also suffers. Similarly, migrant mine workers in LDCs like Burkina Faso and Togo are at high risk for the virus. Agriculture and mining are two of the largest sectors of many LDC's economies.

The report advocates for policies that support women's empowerment and for extending public services to migrants. In South Africa, migrant mine workers are two and a half times more likely to be HIV positive than non-migrant mine workers, according to a U.N. report published in February. For many LDCs, an unsustainable debt burden also contributes heavily to the joint problem of poverty and AIDS. Debt servicing in some LDCs such as Senegal, Malawi and Sao Tome absorbs around 30 percent of the public income. ”Heavily indebted countries are asked to make a choice between addressing their debt and addressing the health of their populations,” noted Anwarul K. Chowdhury, the U.N. under-secretary-general.

The problems facing LDCs impede progress on U.N. development targets such as the Brussels Programme for Action for LDCs, launched in 2001, and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which include a 50 percent reduction in poverty and hunger; universal primary education; reduction of child mortality by two-thirds; cutbacks in maternal mortality by three-quarters; the promotion of gender equality; environmental sustainability; and reversal of the spread of HIV/AIDS, all by 2015.

The epidemic has actually reversed some markers of development. Life expectancy, for example, had shown positive trends, rising to 50 years in some LDCs. But since the onset of the AIDS/HIV epidemic, life expectancy has fallen to 39 years old in some LDCs. Mark Malloch Brown, the UNDP administrator, notes that, ”Halting and reversing the course of HIV/AIDS, the sixth Millennium Development Goal, is not possible if we continue business as usual.” ”It requires an intensified multi-sectoral approach that promotes leadership at all levels of society and helps break the silence once and for all by permanently altering the norms, values and attitudes fueling the epidemic,” he said.

Joseph Annan, a senior policy advisor at UNDP, echoed Brown's call for a comprehensive approach to the multifaceted problems that LDCs like Ethiopia face. Ethiopia has an HIV infection rate of 4.4 percent, compounded by drought that has caused nearly half of the population to be at risk of food insecurity. Ethiopia also faces problems of emigration of its skilled workforce. Addis Ababa University reports that up to half of the staff members who went abroad for postgraduate studies never returned. Problems of emigration, loss of skilled workers and educators, AIDS and natural disasters are endemic to many of the LDCs, and the report recommends responses from all levels: the private sector, governments and regional assistance.

However, LDCs cannot go it alone. The report advocates for aid from developed countries, recommending that official development assistance be earmarked for capacity development in LDCs. ”Targeted interventions can enable many to break out of the poverty trap,” it says. The call for development assistance from wealthier countries is one of the 10 action points, as LDCs by definition lack the resources to implement some of the economic and social policies that the report suggests are needed to battle AIDS and poverty.

Amid the bleak statistics, there are some positive signs. A 2004 MDG report on Ethiopia stated, ”there is sufficient hope for Ethiopia to attain the goal of halving poverty by 2015 if it commits to a growth path that is broad-based and pro-poor in line with its current development strategies.”