World's poorest countries falling further behind developing world: UNICEF

World's poorest countries falling further behind developing world: UNICEF

The world's poorest countries slipped further behind other developing nations during the 1990s, keeping hundreds of millions of people - almost half of them children - mired in abject poverty, according to a report released today by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).

Prepared for the Third UN Conference on Least Developed Countries, which is being held this week in Brussels, the report says that this alarming trend has a particularly strong impact on the children of the world's 49 poorest nations, known as LDCs. The children's well-being in these countries is threatened by poor education, malnourishment, exposure to disease and conflict and other blights, which present major obstacles to development and keep LDCs ensnared in a vicious cycle of poverty and despair.

On the brighter side, the report, "Poverty and Children: Lessons of the 90s for Least Developed Countries," also highlights a few models for progress. It says countries such as Bangladesh, Malawi and Uganda are actually closing the gap with other developing nations thanks to investment in basic social services for children, especially girls' education.

While noting that government action alone will not end the LDCs' struggle for survival, the report prescribes major investment in basic social services as essential to breaking the cycle of poverty. "Universal access to basic social services of good quality - especially education, health and water and sanitation - gives governments a firm foundation for development," said Carol Bellamy, UNICEF's Executive Director. "As important, it ensures that the rights of their children are met."

Such investment requires a reallocation of national budgets and increased overseas assistance, UNICEF noted, adding that currently LDC governments spend far more on defence and debt services than on basic social services.

According to the report, Bangladesh is one LDC that has demonstrated what higher basic services spending can do. It increased the percentage of it national budget dedicated to basic social services from 22.6 per cent in 1990 to 25.7 per cent in 1999. This has dramatically reduced mortality in children under five while contributing to a significant rise in female literacy, among other benefits.