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Annan urges action on rural poverty

(Wednesday, July 2, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Environment News Service, 07/01/03: GENEVA - It is time for the world to stop talking about rural development and to start acting, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan said at Monday's opening session of the annual meeting of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). This means altering agricultural policies and trade practices that if left unchanged will drive much of the global poor further into poverty, Annan told the UN's central body for development policy.

Realizing real positive change for the world's poor "will require developed countries to allow agricultural products from developing countries to reach their markets, unimpeded by direct or disguised barriers such as subsidies," Annan said.

At several recent world trade and development conferences, the world has outlined paths to aid rural development, Annan said, and the challenge now "is not to decide what to do, but rather, simply, to do it."

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan: Realizing real positive change for the world's poor "will require developed countries to allow agricultural products from developing countries to reach their markets, unimpeded by direct or disguised barriers such as subsidies." (AFP/Joseph Barrak) Annan took particular aim at the Doha trade talks, which negotiators are struggling with ahead the World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting in September. Those talks have largely stalled, although there is belief among some that the European Union's recent announcement of agricultural reforms could help jumpstart negotiations.

The program outlined in Doha is a critical step in changing the framework of world agricultural policy and "is more than just another round of trade negotiations," according to the UN Secretary General.

The Doha program, he said, aims to eliminate unfair agricultural trading policies faced by the rural poor and to open markets in developed countries. But there is concern that the developed countries have stalled in their negotiations and Annan warned the success "is by no means assured."

"Key deadlines have been missed," he said. "The time has come for all parties to show more flexibility, and give priority to the global interest. It is not too late to avoid a setback for economic development."

Failure to act will simply contribute to a myriad of global factors making the lives of the poor "much bleaker."

Some 900 million of the world's poorest people scratch out a living from agriculture and rural activities, the UN Secretary General said, and their efforts at mere subsistence survival are being hampered by unfair practices in the global economy.

"They are on the frontlines of drought, desertification and environmental degradation, they are the farmers - women above all - whose hard labor is undermined by protectionism, meager infrastructure and, increasingly, the spread of AIDS," Annan said. "They are the indigenous people, herders, artisans, fishers and others, whose struggles in isolated areas all too seldom capture world attention."

Adding to the challenges, the Secretary General explained, is that the world economy has yet to recover from its slowdown in 2001 and is struggling with the risk of deflation, the spread of disease, rising unemployment, overcapacity in several sectors and lingering geopolitical concerns. This impacts aid from developed countries and impedes the economic opportunities for developing countries, Annan says.

More than 30 developing countries have actually seen their per capita income drop in each of the past two years, and few expect growth before the end of 2004, the UN Secretary General said.

"It may not be true that 'a rising tide lifts all boats,'" Annan said. "But it is certainly true that, in bad weather, the weakest boats are the most vulnerable."

The world must focus on stimulating economic growth, Annan said, but he warned that combating poverty and achieving the UN's Millennium Development Goals will require much more than that.

The Millennium Development Goals are targets drawn up in 2000 at the UN Millennium Summit to combat poverty, hunger, illiteracy, environmental degradation and discrimination against women, and to be achieved by 2015.

These goals require some $100 billion a year, but commitments thus far only cover about half the required total.

Success on trade policy is vital, but still not enough on its own, Annan told attendees of the ECOSOC meeting, who will meet in Geneva through July 2 to explore ways to promote an integrated approach to rural development in developing countries for poverty eradication and sustainable development.

This development entails much more investment in agricultural research to develop higher yield crops, Annan said.

The rural poor need assistance to develop more efficient water management, to increase non-farm employment as well as efforts to the help them secure land tenure and land reform and embrace sustainable farming practices.

"All this can happen only with a real commitment to bring rural development back to the center of the development agenda," Annan said. "Nowhere will our commitment be put to the test more than in Africa, where food insecurity and AIDS are working in vicious tandem to thwart the continent's rural development."