A Pipe Dream Indeed!
The Reporter (Addis Ababa), April 13, 2000
By Emrakeb Assefa
Addis Ababa - "It must pain us all beyond description to witness a war between two of Africa's poorest countries drag on into yet a third year, having already taken an estimated 55,000 lives, and with 8 million people in one of the countries threatened by famine."
Such a sweeping and "painful" statement was made by the secretary general of the United Nations in his report on the UN reform: measures and proposals to the Millennium Assembly of the UN to be held in September, released on April 3.
The interesting thing was that nowhere in the statement have the two countries' names been mentioned. There was no need for explaining that they were Ethiopia and Eritrea, the former with the additional laurel of having eight million people on the verge of starvation.
Later on, the secretary-general pointed out that it is mostly the poor ones that are nowadays doing the fighting. "The majority of wars today are wars among the poor." Why, he asked?
He explains, because they have "fewer economic and political resources with which to manage conflicts," a routine instrument in richer countries. He said that in many countries at war, the condition of poverty is coupled with sharp ethnic or religious cleavages.
Ethiopia was referred to - again not on the positive light - in educational levels attained by developing countries. While most have "climbed dramatically in the past half-century" and a majority of the world's children are attending school, more than 130 million primary- school-age children in developing countries are not. More than half of these live in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nigeria and Ethiopia.
If these 130 million children are to be provided with at least primary education, about 7 billion US dollars a year to educational costs would be needed over a 10-year period.
One policy to curb such a problem is not "short-changing girls" in education for boys, which Annan calls "bad economics and bad social policy" because, he said, investments in girls' education translate directly or indirectly into better nutrition for the whole family, better health care, declining fertility, poverty reduction and better overall economic performance.
Attempting to insert an optimism unconvincingly, he said: "Demography is not destiny" and called for the world's people to see it as not "a lottery in which most of us will lose" but to treat this challenge as an opportunity. The world faces a third new freedom: "The freedom of future generations to sustain their lives in this planet," which he said, "we are failing to provide." This was in addition to the other two freedoms, from want and fear, which the UN founders promised themselves over fifty years ago.
The report said that the cost of natural disasters in 1998 alone exceeded the cost of all such disasters in the entire decade of the 1980s. Tens of thousands of people died in that year and more and more poor people have little choice but to live in harm's way - on flood plains, unstable hillsides and unsafe buildings. One wonders if the eight million Ethiopians are part of that problem too.
Although he urged the world's people to halve poverty by 2015, he said it might end up by being a "pipe dream." This is true considering that increase in farm productivity, boosted by high-yield crops and nine-fold increases in fertilizer use in the 90s, never reached sub- Saharan African countries. Buying from food-surplus is an alternative, but FAO says that no fewer than 82 countries lack those resources.
Conflict and poverty are still the order of the day in today's world. Nearly half the World's population is "desperately poor" and still has to make do on less than 2 dollars a day. Approximately 1.2 billion people - 500 million in South Asia and 300 mllion in Africa - subsist on less than a dollar a day. People living in Africa south of the Sahara are almost as poor today as they were 20 years ago, Annan pointed out.
He accused the rich, especially the international financial institutions, of perpetuating such a state of affairs. Military dictators in resource rich counties in a poor part of the world siphon off as much as 27 billion dollars of the public money. International banks eagerly transfer their funds to safe havens.
Annan said the world must "include Africa." The reality now is that the 1 billion people living in developed countries earn 60% of the world's income, while the 3.5 billion people in low-income countries earn less than 20%, most of them in Africa. One way of including Africa means reducing fertilizer prices, estimated to be two to four times higher in Africa than in Asia.
The most vociferous disciplines of free trade and globalization are the developed countries. Strikingly enough, Annan pointed out that they are the ones that wall their countries with stiff tariffs and quotas, in so far as agricultural products are concerned.
"Most industrialized countries still protect their markets for agricultural products heavily, and all protect textiles - the two sectors in which the developing countries have a recognized comparative advantage. Moreover, agricultural subsidies in the industrialized countries drive down prices, hurting farmers in poor countries even more."
He, however, did not go further. Annan failed to mention the additional unfair practice that the industrialized countries make of the international financial institutions, which brandish the stick to give the carrot. The IMF and the World Bank threaten, for instance, to ban on loans and debt relief if the poor countries fail to "deregulate" prices by not lifting subsidies in agricultural inputs such as fertilizers.
Lack of freedom from want has another manifestation. The poor countries spend less than 10 dollars per person per year in health care. More that 56 billion dollars a year are spent globally on health research. Less than 10% goes to health problems threatening 90% of the world's population. Only 1% goes to pneumonia, diarrhea, tuberculosis and malaria. Meanwhile, most of the money goes to "how to make you look younger, live longer ..."
Some 50 million people (23 million of them in sub-Saharan Africa) have been infected with HIV since the early 1970s; 16 million have died. In 1996 alone, 5.6 million people were infected. More than one child in every 10 has already lost his mother to AIDS. By the year 2010, some 40 million AIDS orphans will live in Africa.
All this was uncalled-for because it could have been so easily prevented. The report said that, for instance, a four-dollar single dose of the nevaripine drug, along with the cost of testing and voluntary counseling - would prevent mother-to-child transmission and could avert half a million new infections in babies every year. Despite such findings, however, only 250 million dollars (out of the 2 billion spent annually on research for the treatment of AIDS) has been spent on creating vaccines.
“The world's people are telling us [the UN] that our past achievements are not enough, given the scale of the challenges we face." One could not agree more!