The MDGs and the Least Developed Countries: The Challenges for Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing States

When world leaders vowed at the United Nations Millennium Summit in September 2000 to "spare no effort to free our fellow men, women and children from the abject and dehumanizing conditions of extreme poverty", they recognized that special measures would be required for the weakest members of the international community to achieve this goal.

Thus the eighth Millennium Development Goal (MDG) -- develop a global partnership for development -- gave consideration to the special needs of least developed countries (LDCs). It called for tariff-free and quota-free access for their exports, enhanced debt relief for heavily indebted poor countries, cancellation of official bilateral debt and more generous official development assistance for countries committed to poverty reduction. It also addressed the special needs of landlocked developing countries and the small island developing States. Together, these countries constitute nearly half the membership of the United Nations. Meeting the targets of the MDGs at the global level, therefore, requires progress in these countries.

The attainment of the MDGs is the central pillar of the programmes of action for the three groups of countries: the Brussels Programme of Action for the Least Developed Countries (2001); the Almaty Programme of Action for Landlocked Developing Countries (2003); and the Mauritius Strategy for the Implementation of the Barbados Programme of Action for Small Island Developing States (2005). At a minimum, these three programmes of action can be viewed as international frameworks for the achievement of the MDGs in the respective groups. However, while the rest of the world has made significant progress towards the achievement of the Goals, these groups of countries, particularly the LDCs, continue to lag behind.
According to the Millennium Development Goals Report 2007, the number of people living on less than one dollar a day in developing countries dropped by 270 million between 1990 and 2004. In 2004, 20 per cent of the population in the developing world were living in extreme poverty, compared to 32 per cent in 1990. Enrolment in primary education increased from 80 per cent in 2001 to 88 per cent in 2005. Child mortality also declined. These successes call for celebration, as they demonstrate that with the right policies and necessary international support, the MDGs can be achieved.
Unfortunately, the same level of progress has not been reflected in the majority of the LDCs. Going by current trends, the number of people living in extreme poverty in these countries is projected to rise from 340 million, or 45 per cent of the population in 2000, to 470 million, or 50 per cent of the population by the target date for achieving the MDGs, in 2015. The other MDG targets will also be missed in a number of LDCs, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, where the majority of them are located.
Although the majority of the LDCs would not achieve the MDGs at the current pace, there have been encouraging signs in the last few years. Economic growth has averaged 6.5 per cent per annum since 2001. Some LDCs have achieved impressive results in certain areas of human development, such as primary school enrolment (Uganda and United Republic of Tanzania), controlling malaria (Niger, Togo and Zambia) and increasing access to water and sanitation (Senegal and Uganda). However, these achievements have been uneven across countries and across the eight MDGs. So while attaining the Goals is certainly possible, a number of critical issues need to be effectively tackled to expand and accelerate these gains.
One of the main obstacles to the achievement of the MDGs in the LDCs is the high population growth rate. Although they account for 12 per cent of the world's population, the 50 LDCs will absorb a quarter of the world's increase in population between now and 2015. Nine out of the ten countries with the highest average population growth rate between 2005 and 2010 will be LDCs. Fertility rates have been declining in developing countries in general, but in 13 of them -- all LDCs except for one -- the high fertility rates show no sign of tapering off. Aside from eroding the impact of economic growth, these trends also have a negative impact on prospects for achieving the MDGs, especially in eradicating poverty and hunger, improving maternal and child health, and controlling HIV/AIDS and other diseases. Lack of access to family planning services is one of the main explanations for this worrisome situation. Increased access to reproductive health services and empowerment of women would help reduce high fertility rates, maternal and child mortality and, ultimately, the very high population growth rates. Reducing the number of unwanted births would also help reduce poverty, but this would certainly not be enough by itself. Bolstering economic growth, creating jobs and increasing the incomes of the poor are just as crucial.
The achievement of the MDGs in the least developed countries, landlocked developing countries and small island developing States requires significant investments in basic social services, physical infrastructure and human resources. In particular, more attention needs to be paid to the agriculture, energy, transport and communication sectors, as well as to building institutional and technical capacities. The resources needed for these investments are beyond the means of these countries -- hence, the crucial importance of international support. In general, international support to vulnerable countries has improved in recent years. However, more efforts are needed to achieve the agreed targets of between 0.15 and 0.2 per cent of the gross national income of developed countries as aid to the LDCs, and 0.7 per cent to other developing countries. Equally important is enhancing the capacity of vulnerable countries to generate their own resources, including through increased investment and equitable participation in international trade.
As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has stated: "The MDGs are still achievable if we act now. This will require inclusive sound governance, increased public investment, economic growth, enhanced productive capacity and the creation of decent work." For the least developed countries, landlocked developing countries and small island developing States, the full and timely implementation of their respective programmes of action is a solid path to this objective.