U.N. Says Bad Government Is Often the

Cause of Poverty

New York Times (04/05/00)



 UNITED NATIONS, April 4 -- After years of treading carefully around the issue of why so many countries stay poor or become poorer, the United Nations put a lot of the blame in a report today on bad government, a message many leaders seeking more aid and debt relief will not want to hear.


 The report from the United Nations Development Program, the world's largest aid agency, calls for rethinking traditional ideas about battling poverty in the third world. It reflects the debates in many nations, including the United States, about why poverty persists even in regions of substantial economic growth and political freedom.


The report makes "good governance" the top priority in poverty-fighting by the development program under a new administrator, Mark Malloch Brown, whose organization supports a range of governance projects. Without good governance, reliance on trickle-down economic development and a host of other strategies will not work, the report concludes.


Mr. Malloch Brown, a Briton who came to the United Nations last year from the World Bank, has drawn hostility from developing countries. They accuse him of interfering in the internal affairs of governments, a criticism also leveled at Secretary General Kofi Annan for suggesting that nations with human rights abuses can no longer hide behind their borders, claiming national sovereignty.


"This report is particularly important for me in terms of skewering a particularly odd U.N. debate which flourishes in this curious greenhouse at the East River," Mr. Malloch Brown said at a news conference today, "which is that somehow the U.N.D.P. was getting out of poverty and into governance work. What this report clearly demonstrates is that governance is a critical building block for poverty reduction."


Embracing democracy is often not enough, and certainly not a panacea, the report found.


"Having regular elections -- free and fair -- contributes to accountability, especially if they are also held at the local level," the report says. "But such democratic forms are no vaccination against poverty."


Development experts now accept the idea that local governments, often neglected or nonexistent in the developing world, must play a crucial role in poverty reduction. Historically, foreign aid has gone to central governments. When donors could no longer ignore how much aid was being siphoned off in corruption or misuse of funds, nongovernmental gencies, not local overnments, were given the money or goods.


A growing number of development experts now believe that this shift bred its own problems as the private agencies invented projects to get more money or funneled aid in line with their own priorities, making national efforts disjointed.


Big, expensive surveys of poverty are not much good either, the report says. It recommends frequent and rapid monitoring studies to assess  programs and policies.


The United Nations Development Program's report is being published as the General Assembly prepares to review progress since the 1995 international conference on social development in Copenhagen. At that conference, nations made three commitments: to estimate the incidence of poverty within their borders, to set targets for reducing or eliminating poverty and to introduce anti-poverty plans.


Surveying 140 of the United Nations' 188 members, the report found that 77 percent of countries had estimated their incidence of poverty --including extreme poverty, measured by the inability to buy enough food for daily needs -- but that only 40 percent had incorporated anti-poverty measures into national planning and 29 percent had dedicated anti-poverty projects.


Countries with the most active and focused measures against poverty were found in the Caribbean, Latin America and Africa, with Asia and the Pacific falling behind sub-Saharan Africa. The survey highlights some of the successful projects found around the world.


The new report from the United Nations Development Program --"Overcoming Human Poverty: UNDP Poverty Report 2000" -- builds in some ways on the agency's pioneering annual human development reports, a creation of the Mahbub ul Haq, a late Pakistani expert who shifted criteria for measuring development away from per capita income figures to aspects of human life that play a role in social and economic growth.


Three factors used by the human development surveys -- adult illiteracy, the proportion of children under 5 who are underweight and the probability of dying before 40 -- are also assessed in the new report. It shows most regions lagging on all three fronts, and sometimes moving backward, even as democracy spreads and economic growth rates rise.