India, China or Vietnam, once considered developing nations, have grown into powerful economies. But in the ‘least developed countries,’ poverty is still rife and now climate change is complicating the situation.
The world's industrialized nations, grappling with a financial crisis, can only dream of achieving growth rates of six percent. But those figures have long been surpassed by the booming economies of China and India which have partially recorded double-digit annual growth in recent years and are held up as proof of a global shift in economic and financial power.
And it's not just the robust emerging nations of Asia that are enjoying an economic boom. According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, or UNCTAD, even the world’s “Least Developed Countries” are posting six percent growth on average.
Yet the 48 countries that make up that group – also known as the „fourth world“ – remain vastly underdeveloped, and many people there live in abject poverty. “It’s become even more difficult in those countries,” Michael Kühn from German aid organization “Welthungerhilfe” says.
Stuck with an LDC status
Kühn is a senior adviser on climate change at Welthungerhilfe, and has spent several years working in some of the world’s ‘Least Developed Countries,’ or LDC’s as they're known.
“These countries have to deal with major structural problems,” Kühn says, referring to poor agricultural policies, corruption and imbalances in the global trading system. “And on top of that, climate change worsens the situation further,” he adds.
Every three years, the United Nations re-assesses the status of the LDC’s, to take into account possible economic developments. But this spring’s assessment will bring no changes: not one of the fourth-world countries will be moved up and classified as a “developing nation.”
Only 3 nations – Botswana, Cape Verde and the Maldives - have managed to make that leap in the last 40 years.
Climate change intensifies poverty
To make matters worse, the number of Least Developed Countries has grown in that time period to include 26 countries. Vulnerable and extremely poor, many of these nations have seen their fortunes fall even further because of the negative effects of climate change.
Most of the population lives in rural areas or on the coasts, making a living through agriculture, livestock or fishing. That makes them particularly vulnerable to droughts, floods and erratic weather patterns.
Most of the world’s LDC’s are located in Africa – 33 in total, according to the UNO. The continent, which is the worst-affected by global warming, faces the biggest battle in fighting the consequences of climate change.
Africa hit the hardest
Michael Kühn says the effects of climate change can be devastating. “Droughts, floods and storms could lead to up to 50 percent crop losses by the year 2050,” he says.
His organization’s world hunger index indicates especially high rates of hunger in countries south of the Sahara Desert. Many of the countries in this region have no irrigation system in place, depending on rain, instead, to water the fields. The rapidly changing rain and climate patterns have made people’s lives and work unpredictable and difficult.
The United Nations is well aware of the additional danger climate change presents in LDC’s. In its upcoming status assessment, the UN plans to add climate-related factors to the three criteria used to rate countries as LDC's. Until now, per-capital income as well as access to education and health services have played a major role. The UN will now also examine economic vulnerability and see how sensitive LDC’s are to major disasters, including climate catastrophes.
The organization will also consider the risks facing communities living in low-lying coastal regions, where the threat of flooding is often imminent.
Helping the weakest
One of the advantages of belonging to the group of LDC’s is the international attention and global aid the countries attract. Development organizations in most wealthy countries focus specifically on fourth-world nations, earmarking grants and subsidies without repayment conditions or offering credit at low interest rates.
Through its ‘”Everything But Arms” initiative, the EU has lowered customs barriers in trading with LDC’s, and the UN gives them priority when creating and funding projects to address climate change adaptation.
The challenges faced by the world's poorest nations are increasingly the focus of special conferences.
At the Fourth United Nations Conference on the Least Developed Countries in Istanbul last May, delegates agreed to set their sights on a hugely ambitious goal - by the year 2020, the UN wants to lift half of the world’s LDC’s out of poverty.
The organization hopes that projected annual growth rates of seven percent will help. But there's a still a long way to go before that happens.
Reporter: Verena Kern /ss
Editor: Sonia Phalnikar