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Hope springs eternal among the poor

Published by Newsweek on 2000-03-01

In the international development community, spring inevitably unveils a curious variety of global warming--the annual talkfest season. Spring is when the major multilateral agencies convene their assemblies, mostly in favored cities such as Geneva and Paris, to weigh in on health, education and human rights. Spring, too is when representatives of nongovernmental organizations shuttle from resort to resort, in pursuit yet again of solutions to widening worldwide poverty. And in this age of the Internet, peripatetic--and pricey--consultants drop in on distant places with mellifluous names to deliver homilies on the "digital divide." They appear before eager audiences whose attention is often diverted by power shortages and whose societies are being buffeted by the sheer velocity of change.

Change and the bewildering issues associated with it will be hotly debated in Havana this week. Some 3,000 officials from 133 countries of what used to be called the Third World--along with huge numbers of NGOs--are gathering for the biggest summit that developing nations have organized for themselves. The summit is being organized under the rubric of the G77 grouping; G77 actually consists of 133 developing countries but continues to use the moniker denoting the original membership when the association was founded 36 years ago to give emerging states a stronger voice in world affairs.

Why Havana in this day of democratization and expanding free markets? At a time that they are energetically seeking more Western investment to jumpstart flagging economic development, do the poor countries really want to signal a tacit endorsement of the anti-capitalist rhetoric that the host, Cuba's Fidel Castro, is certain to self-indulgently offer? It's not as though there aren't scores of "development agendas" floating around in the global bazaar. So what's the point of this summit in Havana anyway?

It couldn't be just the geography. Castro's predictable effusive hospitality aside, the charm of the Malecon could scarcely compete with the Place Pigalle. Nor would the visiting foreigners want to be seen partaking of fleshy pleasures in a police state--especially on the record, so to speak. Renting rooms in Havana this week is proving costlier for many delegates than buying real-estate back home; and the U.S. Secret Service could get a lesson or two from the Cubans on how to dun visitors for protection.

It couldn't be merely a desire to pay homage to Castro, the longest ruling patriarch in the developing world. His Marxist ideology is widely deemed irrelevant in the developing world; his firebrand positions on issues such as globalization are considered virtually clueless. Yet, more than a hundred world leaders are showing up, among them tough-minded democrats such as Nigeria's president, Olesegun Obasanjo, who suffered years of incarceration without trial in his own country--not unlike some of Cuba's political dissidents.

And it couldn't be because the developing world sees itself any longer as influential in East-West geopolitics. The end of the cold war almost a decade ago pretty much paid put to such pretensions; neither Washington nor Moscow sees a need any longer to sign up ideological allies among the poorer nations, many of which were eager to be romanced with aid and armaments with which to prop up failing domestic regimes.

The cold war may have ended but the development woes of the emerging nations haven't. The G77 are coming to Havana because the developing world--now known in development parlance as the "Global South"--is seized by a growing panic concerning economic and social progress. The global cohort of poverty is now estimated by the World Bank at nearly 2 billion--which is to say, a third of the world's population lives on the equivalent of less than a dollar a day. Donald Johnston, Secretary General of the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, told Newsweek last week that this wasn't an auspicious time for poor countries because of the aid situation. Johnston, who supports more and not less aid, wants his so-called "rich man's club" of 29 donor countries to work more actively on debt relief and on issues such as transfer of affordable technology.

Johnston's worry about aid is amply shared by the Global South. Consider these statistics about Official Development Assistance (ODA): In 1975, the annual grant figure was almost $80 billion; in 1999, it had fallen to barely $45 billion. This year, the rich countries will give barely $40 billion to G77 members. Only four countries--Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden--meet a longstanding international aid target of 0.7 percent of gross domestic product (GDP); the U.S. aid figure of $10 billion annually represents barely 0.1 percent of its GDP.

Similarly, Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) tends to go to those countries already possessing good infrastructure and skilled labor--China, India, Brazil, South Africa, for example. The Chads of the world remain basket cases, yet their populations are growing; and with such demographic growth comes rising social expectations that can be politically explosive for governments that fail to deliver. (More than 90 percent of the world's annual population growth of 100 million occurs in the G77 countries.)

The G77 will certainly raise the question of forgiveness of $1.6 trillion that its members currently owe to governments and other sources in the industrialized countries, according to Qazi Shaukat Fareed, a senior Pakistani diplomat. Although the U.S. and the 15 members of the European Union favor debt relief in varying degrees, the Global South will be deluding itself if its leaders seriously expect a collective pardon for the debt--and implicitly for the misgoverance and malfeasance characterizing so much of the developing world. And yet, some G77 members must channel up to 95 percent of their hard-currency revenues into debt service each year. So what's left for domestic development?

"Historians are not going to be extremely kind to us," Chief Arthur C. I. Mbanefo, Nigeria's ambassador to the United Nations, said last week. "We have to leave behind something constructive."

The reality for the G77, however, is that its leaders are unlikely to leave behind much more than well-intentioned communiques. At the Havana summit, the assembled leaders will deliberate on aid, debt, globalization, technology and enhanced economic cooperation and trade within the Global South. But it's still a poor man's summit. The big, rich boys--Bill Clinton, for example--aren't coming. And in an increasingly globalized world, it's the big boys--outnumbered though they may be by the demographic might of the Global South--who call the shots, now more than ever. So after Havana's festivities, next stop: Washington, where the tough, sometimes cruel decisions about development are really made.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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