Bad government causes poverty, U.N. report says

Economic development and democracy are not enough, study shows


UNITED NATIONS -- After years of treading carefully around the issue of why so many countries stay poor or get poorer, the United Nations said in a report yesterday that much of the blame goes to bad government, a message that many leaders seeking more aid and debt relief do not want to hear.

The report from the U.N. Development Program, the world's largest aid agency, is a call to rethink traditional ideas about battling poverty in the Third World.

The report elevates "good governance" to the top priority in fighting poverty by the development program's new administrator, Mark Malloch Brown, whose organization supports a range of governance projects.

Without good governance, reliance on trickle-down economic development and a host of other strategies will not work, the report concludes. Embracing democracy is often not enough, it says.

"Having regular elections -- free and fair -- contributes to accountability, especially if they are also held at the local level," the report says. "But such democratic forms are no vaccination against poverty."

Malloch Brown, a Briton who came to the United Nations last year from the World Bank, has drawn hostility from developing countries, which accuse him of interfering in their internal affairs.

That criticism has also been leveled at Secretary-General Kofi Annan for suggesting that nations with human rights abuses can no longer hide behind their borders, claiming national sovereignty.

Development experts now accept that local governments, which are often neglected or nonexistent in the developing world, must play a critical role in reducing poverty.

Historically, foreign aid has gone to central governments. When donors could no longer ignore that aid was being siphoned off through corruption or misuse of funds, nongovernmental agencies, not local governments, were given the money or goods.

A growing number of development experts believe that this shift bred its own problems, as the private agencies invented projects to get more money or funneled aid to meet their priorities, making national efforts disjointed.

Big, expensive surveys of poverty are not much good either, the report says. It recommends frequent and rapid studies to serve as barometers of the effectiveness of programs and policies.

The report, "Overcoming Human Poverty: UNDP Poverty Report 2000," is being published as the General Assembly prepares to review progress since the Social Summit, the 1995 conference on social development, in Copenhagen, Denmark.

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