World Bank president calls on rich countries to help poor nations

World Bank president, James Wolfensohn, has called on rich countries to do more to help poor nations, pointing out the environmental and social impact of the drastic drop in overseas aid, and the lack of trade between first and third world countries.

At the Child Poverty Forum in London on 26 February, the President pointed out that rich countries need to open up their markets to developing countries exports and must reverse the drop in aid to third world countries, which has lead, in Africa, to a reduction in aid per head from $32 in 1990, to $19 in 1998. This should be done by richer nations by honouring their commitment to devote 0.7% of their annual GDP to overseas aid.

In a paper launched at the Forum, titled International Development Goals: Strengthening Commitments and Measuring Progress, the World Bank points out that indicators of poverty are many and varied, and include a lack of control over resources, a lack of education and skills, and poor health and malnutrition. There are also strong and complex links between environmental conditions and human welfare, says the paper. Whilst environmental resources provide basic sustenance for many people, millions more are also affected by environmental degradation.

Water and sanitation are of particular importance, with an estimated three million lives claimed every year by water-borne diseases, such as cholera and diarrhoea, with the majority being children under five years old, according to the World Bank paper. “Contaminated drinking water (see related story) and an inadequate supply of water cause diseases that account for 10% of the total burden of disease in developing countries,” says the paper. In some countries, only small proportions of the population have access to safe water, such as Afghanistan, where only 13% of the population has access to safe water, Ethiopia where only 24% have access, and Paraguay, where the figure is 39%. Within these countries, there is also a considerable divide between the access to safe water between rich and poor social groups, says the paper.

In some countries, however, there have been large improvements in access to safe drinking water since the 1980s, such as the Côte d’Ivoire, for whose population access has increased from 20% in 1982 to 77% in 2000, and in Benin, where the number had increased from 14% in 1985 to 63% by last year. Nevertheless, at the current rate of progress, one third of all low income people will still lack adequate sanitation in the year 2015, says the paper.

“It is simply unacceptable that in Africa today, one child in seven does not live to see his or her fifth birthday,” said Wolfensohn. “At a time of unprecedented prosperity, rich countries should be increasing, not cutting, their aid budgets, reaching out, not turning their backs on Africa and its children.” He said that heads of governments should regard overseas aid as an investment in global peace and security, not as charity, and that some countries are currently only giving 0.24% of their GDP, hundreds of billions of dollars per year lower than the target.

Wolfensohn also called on wealthy countries to also assist in more sustainable ways. “It is hypocritical to give debt relief with one hand, and then deny poor countries the ability to export their way out of poverty with the other,” he said. “Rich countries must open their markets and reduce their agricultural subsidies. The OECD today spends more than $300 billion a year on agricultural subsidies, a total roughly equivalent to the entire GDP of Sub-Saharan Africa.”

Despite the drop in aid, extreme poverty has fallen slightly over the 1990s, with the world share of people living on less than $1 per day dropping from 28% in 1987 to 23% in 1998, which has resulted in the actual number of poor remaining constant as the total world population has increased. The largest proportion of those living in extreme poverty is now found in South Asia, which has 44% of the total.

“We are working with governments to implement anti-poverty strategies that will focus not just on growth, but on improving key social indicators such as access to education, nutrition, healthcare, and infant and maternal mortality, and to make sure that growth truly benefits the poor,” said Wolfensohn.

However, he also pointed out that a major effort is required in order to achieve development goals. “On present trends, we in the international community will not succeed,” Wolfensohn said. “Business-as-usual will no longer work. Whether rich countries reduce their barriers to trade and honour their agreements on overseas aid will be a test of their commitment to poverty reduction and to a peaceful and stable world for all our children.”

The London forum was called by British Chancellor Gordon Brown and Secretary of State for International Development Clare Short in order to focus on child poverty. The World Bank president arrived in the UK following a visit to Africa, during which he and the Managing Director of the IMF, Horst Kohler, met with 22 heads of state.

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