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World's Poorest Countries Falling Further Behind Developing World

UNICEF Report: Children Worst Hit, But Also Key to Reversing Alarming Trend

BRUSSELS/GENEVA/NEW YORK, 15 MAY 2001 - The world's poorest countries slipped further behind other developing nations during the 1990s, keeping hundreds of millions - almost half of them children - mired in abject poverty, according to a report released today by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).

Please note: The report is available online at https://www.unicef.org/pubsgen/poverty-ldcs/

The impact of this alarming trend can be seen in the status of these countries' children, whose wellbeing is threatened by several factors, including: poor education, malnourishment, and exposure to disease and conflict. These factors are major obstacles to development for the world's 49 Least Developed Countries (LDCs), keeping them ensnared in a vicious cycle of poverty and despair.

However, the report, Poverty and Children: Lessons of the 90s for Least Developed Countries, also highlights a few models for progress. It says countries such as Bangladesh, Malawi and Uganda are actually closing the gap with other developing countries thanks to investment in basic social services for children, especially girls' education.

"We should be alarmed but not surprised by these findings," said Carol Bellamy, UNICEF Executive Director. "Most of these countries are stuck on poverty's seemingly endless treadmill. Their children are bearing the brunt of this, which inhibits their development and, consequently, the development of their country. It's a vicious cycle that must be broken."

UNICEF produced the report for the Third United Nations Conference on Least Developed Countries, held May 14-20 in Brussels. It highlights that when compared to other developing countries, LDCs have higher infant mortality, lower immunization coverage, lower literacy rates, lower school enrolment, lower access to safe water and more severely underweight children. A contributing factor is that the low average per capita income growth in LDCs of 0.4 per cent in the 1990s compared to the rate in other developing countries of 3.6 per cent. The low levels of human development, in turn, raise the stakes for LDCs and their development partners to implement poverty-reducing economic growth strategies.

Notable findings from the 1990s include:

  • Two-thirds of the LDCs either fell behind when compared to other developing countries or experienced an absolute deterioration of their average income level.
  • Of the 22 LDCs whose economies either stagnated or declined, 19 were in Africa.
  • The average population growth rate in LDCs is 2.5 per cent - double that of other developing countries.
  • Under five mortality in LDCs is 162 death per 1000 live births, compared to 69 per 1000 in other developing countries.
  • Only 63 per cent of children in LCDs are enrolled in primary schools, compared to 85 per cent in other developing countries (the number for girls are 54 and 81 per cent respectively.)
  • Adult female illiteracy is 56 per cent in LDCs compared to 31 per cent in other developing countries.
  • Eleven LDCs experienced a reversal in life expectancy, primarily because of HIV/AIDS.
  • Between 1993-8, an average of 40 LDCs received emergency relief annually for both natural and man-made disasters. Often this came at the expense of other external assistance.

Basic Services: The Foundation for Poverty Reduction

While government action alone will not end the LDCs struggle for survival, the report prescribes major investment in basic social services as essential to breaking the cycle of poverty. "Universal access to basic social services of good quality - especially education, health and water and sanitation - gives governments a firm foundation for development," says Bellamy. "As important, it ensures that the rights of their children are met."

Such investment requires a reallocation of national budgets and increased overseas assistance. Currently, LDC governments spend far more on defense and debt services than on basic social services. In Tanzania, for example, the amount of the national budget spent on debt servicing is nine times the amount spent on basic health care and four times the allotment for education.

Bangladesh is one LDC that has demonstrated what higher basic services spending can do. It increased the percentage of it national budget dedicated to basic social services from 22.6 per cent in 1990 to 25.7 per cent in 1999. This resulted in, among other things, dramatically reduced under-five mortality and a significant rise in female literacy.

What is a Least Developed Country?

The United Nations classifies countries as "least developed" based on three criteria:

  • Income: currently set at annual gross domestic product (GDP) below $900 per capita.
  • Quality of life: including life expectancy at birth, per capita calorie intake, primary and secondary school enrolment rates and adult literacy
  • Economic Diversification: based on the share of manufacturing in GDP, share of the labour force in industry, annual per capita commercial energy consumption and merchandise export concentration as indexed by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).

Who are the Least Developed Countries?

30 African LDCs and Haiti,

Angola, Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Central African Republic, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Lesotho, Liberia, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Mozambique, Niger, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, Togo, Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia and Haiti.

7 Asian LDCs and Yemen,
Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, Lao People's Democratic Republic, Myanmar, Nepal and Yemen.

9 Island LDCs
Cape Verde, Comoros, Kiribati, Maldives, Samoa, Sao Tome and Principe, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu and Vanuatu

* * *

Please note: The report is available online at https://www.unicef.org/pubsgen/poverty-ldcs/

For more information, please contact:

Lynn Geldof, UNICEF Media, Geneva, (4122) 909-5531
Mitchie Topper, UNICEF Media, New York, (212) 303-7910