Statement at the Third United Nations Conference on the Least Developed Countries, in Brussels, Belgium.

16 May 2001

Mr President,

Since this is my first address to a United Nations conference at the global level, perhaps I may be allowed to introduce myself. I am Thoraya Ahmed Obaid of Saudi Arabia, and the Secretary-General appointed me as Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) effective 1 January 2001, succeeding the able leadership of my friend and colleague, Dr Nafis Sadik. During her 13 years as Executive Director, she blazed the way forward on so many issues concerning population and development as expressed in the Programme of Action adopted by consensus of 179 countries at the International Conference on Population and Development, Cairo, 1994.

As H.E. the Deputy Minister of Trade and Industry of South Africa said, this conference of LDCs, while focusing on economic issues, has social development as an ultimate objective. It has at the heart of its agenda the well-being of the poorest and least-developed members of their societies, among whom a disproportionate number are women. Working for the well-being of women is a development imperative. We have learned from experience that successful development attacks poverty directly at its roots. Development begins with the individual woman and man.

Women in the least developed countries face many problems that are more serious than other women all over the world.When compared to women in industrialized countries, LDCs women are a hundred times more likely to die as a result of pregnancy. Their life expectancy is shorter by 20 years, and their burden of ill-health is ten times that of women in industrial countries. Their children are ten to 15 times more likely to die in infancy. Where literacy is a basic standard for women in industrial countries, most women in the least developed countries have no education at all. These are the facts of everyday life for women in the least developed countries.

As we speak of the future, it is especially important to invest in young people. Their education and health status, including their reproductive health, will help determine their future as well as that of their community and their country. All the developing countries where economies have grown fastest in the last 50 years have made these investments a priority. One result is smaller families and slower population growth today; another is higher quality education and health care for the same expenditure, because there is a smaller group of children who need it. Another result is a large well-educated group of young people ready to enter the workforce and contribute to their countries’ development.

UNFPA and the Least Developed Countries

Through giving priority in programme budgets to the least developed countries, UNFPA expresses its deep commitment to provide support to these countries’ efforts to ensure a better future for their people.

The ICPD Programme of Action constitutes the framework for our work. Accordingly, we at UNFPA fully respect national sovereignty and take into consideration cultural values and religious beliefs. It is my personal belief that all cultures of the world have values that act as energizers of the people and that propel them to work to develop their societies. We should work together in each country to identify these cultural values and to use them to move the society forward.

Therefore, in assisting governments to lead the process of programme development, we ensure that UNFPA’s programmes are carefully designed to respond to national priorities and settings; thus realizing national ownership.

Most LDCs have high levels of maternal mortality and morbidity. Making the reduction of maternal mortality a high priority is a human rights imperative. Women’s needs have not traditionally been high on the list of development priorities in many communities. In the last decade, however, countries and communities have made great progress in their approaches to gender questions, including women’s health and well-being. UNFPA has strongly supported these moves, helping countries to improve reproductive health services; working to end harmful traditional practices and all forms of violence against women; to support community-based organizations, to improve information and services; to remind countries of the global agreements on women’s empowerment and gender equity and equality.

You have all heard the Secretary-General’s Call to Action against HIV/AIDS. In recent years, very high rates of HIV prevalence and a rapidly increasing number of deaths from AIDS have threatened the prospects of development in countries affected by the pandemic most of them are LDCs. Some countries have tackled the crisis with great determination, in spite of pressing yet conflicting priorities. Participating in the struggle to end the pandemic is a priority for UNFPA. To that effect UNFPA, along with its UNAIDS partners, promotes a comprehensive approach, including prevention, curative services and the creating the necessary structures and institutions to deal with its social and economic consequences. However, we all know that while it is essential to make treatment universally available, the pandemic will never stop unless the spread of infection stops. The solution is prevention and the adoption of a wide spectrum strategy that takes into consideration national and community specificities in programme design and implementation. UNFPA’s strategy calls for abstinence, fidelity, delaying the age of sexual relations among young people, changing the behaviour of men and women; empowering women to say NO and making men understand and respect women’s position. It also includes the most immediate and least costly response, that is the use of condoms. The implementation of this multiple pronged preventive activities is the responsibility of all men and women, and of governments and civil society everywhere.

We must ensure that our young people are safe. We must take special care to ensure that young people have the information and the means to protect themselves. During the Abuja African Summit on Infectious diseases, including TB, malaria and HIV/AIDS, a group of adolescents told me in private that they feel that their cry is lost in the wilderness of the adults. They know what they need and what they must do and they would like the adults to support them- basically to believe in them and to take them seriously; to hear their ideas and discuss with them their problems. They want to be consulted in decisions related to them and included in programme design. I carry their voices today to all of you so that they will find their place in the national dialogue of each country.

Planning and programming adequate responses to the problems facing the LDCs, especially the designs of programmes to reduce maternal mortality and HIV/AIDS, require up-to-date and comprehensive data. Support to the development and maintenance of decentralised population statistical information systems, as part of national statistical systems, is imperative. Adequate responses cannot be programmed without adequate data, nor can programmes be properly monitored and assessed. After all, statistics contribute to transparency and good governance.

International Co-operation

As many of you know, UNFPA adopted national execution as a modality for programme implementation; thus they partner with national institutions and civil society organizations. It thus tries to ensure that the resources are best used by the countries themselves. In 1994, ICPD agreed on resource needs to meet the development benchmarks adopted by consensus. I regret to say that these goals are not likely to be met unless all countries, especially developed countries, make a renewed commitment. These resources are truly modest given the importance of the goals to least developed countries and the vast wealth which has been created in the world during recent years.

We are very much aware of the importance of grants by the private sector, especially the United Nations Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and by and array of older-established private grant-making bodies. They have enabled a new spirit of co-operation, notably in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

Yet public-sector co-operation is the heart of development assistance and will remain so. It is one of the cornerstones of the system of international relations and will remain so in the 21st century. We greatly appreciate the generosity of donor governments, notably the UK, the Netherlands and Canada, which have provided funds in addition to their regular annual contributionto meet the gap in reproductive health commodities & equipment that are faced by our programmes in 2001. We are also acutely aware that the need for international assistance is very urgent, and that many donor countries have not yet been so generous. I appeal to all donors, traditional and new alike, to meet the goals of 0.7 per cent for international assistance and to make special efforts at this conference to renew its commitment to provide resources for the development needs of the LDCs.

Thank you.

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