UNITED NATIONS, Sep 14 (IPS) - When the United Nations decided in 1971 to create the concept of "least developed countries" (LDCs) -- a new category of member states needing special social and economic assistance from the international community -- they were described as the "poorest of the world's poor".
But since then, the number of LDCs has virtually doubled to 50 -- the last two countries being Senegal (in 2001) and East Timor (in 2003) -- signifying the deterioriating economic conditions, specifically in the developing world.
Asked if this was symbolic of the failure of the United Nations and the international community towards LDCs, U.N. Under-Secretary-General for LDCs Anwarul Karim Chowdhury told IPS: "The doubling of the number of LDCs since the category was created in 1971 is a reality of the global economic and social situation."
On the other hand, he argued, it must be recognised that the international community, particularly the U.N. system, has given special attention to the LDCs as never before. Chowdhury pointed out that "development is a long process and it takes time to show results".
"We should also recognise that quite a few countries have been identified by the General Assembly, as well as recommended by the U.N. Committee for Development Policy (CDP) in recent years, for graduation from the list of LDCs, (signifying economic improvement)," he added.
The first one to graduate from LDC status was Botswana in 1994, while two other LDCs, Cape Verde and Maldives, have been recommended by the CDP to "graduate" soon primarily because of "the durable and undisputed socio-economic progress" made by the two countries. A third country, Samoa, is also a potential candidate for graduation.
Last year, the U.N. General Assembly, however, postponed by three years the start of the grace period for Maldives because of the devastation caused to that Indian Ocean island nation by the December 2004 tsunami.
The CDP continuously monitors the LDCs -- which are entitled to special duty-free concessions and increased debt relief and official development assistance (ODA) -- to check which of the countries should remain as LDCs and which should graduate.
The criteria and thresholds for LDC status include low incomes, weak human assets, high economic vulnerability and a population of less than 75 million.
The 50 LDCs, of which 34 are from Africa, range from Afghanistan and Central African Republic to Vanuatu and Zambia.
At the third U.N. Conference for Least Developed Countries held in Brussels in May 2001, the United Nations adopted a wide-ranging Programme of Action aimed at providing increased assistance to the world's 50 poorest nations.
After five long years, the programme will be reviewed at a high-level ministerial meeting scheduled to take place at the United Nations Sep. 14-19, on the eve of the opening of the 61st session of the General Assembly.
Asked about the successes and failures of the programme, Chowdhury told IPS: "I believe that during the last five years, the LDCs initiated many reforms and took wide-ranging actions for implementing the commitments they made in the Brussels Programme covering its seven areas of commitments from policy-making to capacity development, to governance, to environment."
The needs of the LDCs are of such magnitude, and also because the development process takes a while to bear fruit, that it would be inappropriate to term the slow progress in some areas as failures, he added.
"As a matter of fact, LDCs have done remarkably well in a number of areas given the multifarious impediments that they continue to face because of their structural constraints," he said.
The development partners need to encourage the LDCs by providing substantive support. Since Brussels, HIV/AIDS, natural disasters and conflicts have presented additional challenges for these most vulnerable countries, Chowdhury said.
In a report released last week, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan says the LDCs have generally grown faster than other developing nations, significantly so if China and India are excluded, while there has also been a decline in conflicts, a critical factor in improving development prospects.
At the same time, the current rate of growth -- roughly moving close to the target of seven percent -- has not helped reduce extreme poverty and hunger, while the spread of HIV/AIDS is diluting some of the hard-won economic gains.
Asked if he expects more developing nations to join the ranks of LDCs because of rising oil prices and a global economy threatened with recession, Chowdhury said: "Yes, the oil price hike has seriously affected the economic situation in many of the developing nations, but that should not necessarily result in their immediate inclusion in the ranks of the LDCs."
The inclusion is decided by the CDP on the basis of specific criteria that include a human assets index based on indicators of nutrition, health, education and adult literacy.
But he expressed reservations about LDCs meeting the goal of eradicating extreme poverty and hunger by the 2015 deadline.
"Not many LDCs, according to the present scorecard, would be meeting all the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015," he said. However, some of them have achieved considerable success in meeting at least the goals like school enrolment and access to safe drinking water.
The main constraints faced by the LDCs are their existing development challenges, particularly the lack of capacity and infrastructure compounded by paucity of resources.
All these have been made worse by the HIV/AIDS pandemic, particularly in many of the 34 African LDCs, he added. (END/2006)