Speech of Mr. Cheick Sidi Diarra, United Nations Under-Secretary-General, Special Adviser on Africa and High Representative for the Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing States at a Dinner at Manhattanville University, New York, 2 April 2008.

Mr. President,
My colleague and dear friend Ambassador Ahmad Kamal,
Faculty and Students of ManhattanvilleUniversity, Distinguished guests,
Ladies and gentlemen.

It is a great honour and privilege to be invited to speak to you this evening. The topic you have asked me to speak about tonight: Mali – a Landlocked Country in Africa and in the World” is one that is very close to my heart, from both a personal and professional perspective.

Not only am I a national of Mali, but I have also spent much of my professional life serving the country in various capacities. Most notably, I was honoured to play a part in Mali’s national reconciliation efforts that paved the way to peace and democracy in the country. I have also been privileged to represent the country as ambassador at the United Nations.

Mr. President,

If there is one country that can provide a snapshot of the groups of countries that I represent today – the Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries, Small Island Developing States, and Africa, that country is Mali. Not only is Mali one of the 49 Least Developed Countries in the world, which are described as the “poorest and weakest segment of the international community” by the United Nations, but it is also one of the 31 Landlocked Developing Countries. It is therefore not surprising that Mali suffers from almost every development challenge you can imagine.

Allow me to give some figures to illustrate the point. Nearly half of Mali‘s 13.5 million people live in absolute poverty, defined as less than one dollar a day. According to UNDP’s Human Development Index, Mali has the fifth lowest level of human development in the world, just ahead of Sierra Leone, Burkina Faso, Guinea Bissau and Niger. Human development is measured in terms of income, life expectancy and level of education.  Only 24 percent of adult Malians can read and write, and nearly 40 percent of children who should be in primary school are out of school. Mali, which is almost twice the size of Texas, is vulnerable to drought and faces further desertification. Already, 60 percent of the country is a desert. With such daunting problems, it is quite unlikely that Mali will achieve the Millennium Development Goals which include reducing by half the proportion of people in absolute poverty and those suffering from hunger by 2015.

Mr. President, ladies and gentlemen,

As I mentioned before, the problems of Mali are the problems of most Least Developed Countries. These countries are characterized by rampant poverty, lack of basic infrastructure and services, weak institutions, heavy dependence on primary commodities for exports and limited technical skills. A good number of them are saddled with high rates of HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases, hunger, conflict, unsustainable rates of population growth, and a heavy debt burden. Despite recent efforts by the international community to provide preferential treatment to their exports, the role of LDCs in international trade remains negligible. Although they account for 12 percent of the world’s population, the LDCs’ share of world trade is under 1 percent, comprising mostly a few agricultural and mineral primary commodities. In Mali, for example, cotton, gold and livestock make up almost 90% of total export earnings.

For the Least Developed Countries that are also landlocked such as Mali, remoteness from international markets compounds these development challenges. The lack of territorial access to the sea means that imports and exports have to go through other countries, making them exceptionally costly. It is not merely a question of long distances to the sea, but also poor transport infrastructure and often cumbersome customs procedures. It takes the Landlocked Developing Countries 20 to 25 days more to import or export goods than it takes transit developing countries. This represents additional costs, with each additional day costing 0.5 per cent of the value of goods. Up to 75 percent of these delays are caused by pre-arrival documents, customs and inspections, which means that with the right policies and technology, the costs of transport for Landlocked Developing Countries can be reduced significantly.

In most Landlocked Developing Countries, road transport is the primary mode of moving goods. Not only is it more expensive, but it is often slower than rail or water transport would be due to the sorry state of the roads. In Africa, for example, less than one third of the already limited road network is paved. No wonder, Africa has some of the highest transport costs in the world. Indeed, for some African landlocked countries, transport costs can be as high as 77 % of the value of exports. It is not possible to be competitive in the global market with such high transport costs. 

As a result, Landlocked Developing Countries are among the poorest developing countries. They suffer from economic stagnation, which, naturally, results in increased poverty. It is not by coincidence that of the 15 countries with the lowest level of human development, 9 are landlocked. Just like the Least Developed Countries, many of the Landlocked Developing Countries will not be able to meet the Millennium Development Goals.

Mr. President, ladies and gentlemen,

With these kinds of problems which Africa, the Least Developed Countries and Landlocked Developing Countries face, you might be surprised to hear that I am quite optimistic about their development prospects. I am convinced that these countries can progress, take their rightful place in the international economy, and prosper. What is the source of my optimism?

Again, Mali provides a very good example of the kind of progress that can be made in these countries, given the right domestic policies and the necessary international support. Despite all the daunting challenges I have described, Mali has, in fact, managed an average economic growth rate of about 5% per annum since the early 2000s. As a result, the share of the population living on less than one dollar a day reduced from 56 percent to 47 percent between 2001 and 2006. This, of course, is not good enough, as it would take at least 25 more years to meet the Millennium Development Goal of cutting by half the proportion of people in extreme poverty. But it is a source of encouragement upon which the country, and indeed the international community, can build.

Mali has also made very significant progress towards peace and democratic governance, contradicting the view that it is not possible to achieve peace, stability and good governance in the face of extreme poverty.   Since 1992, when multiparty elections were held after years of military and one-party rule, there have been three successful general elections, which have been hailed both in Mali and internationally as true reflection of the popular will. As one would expect, there were certainly some shortcomings. But all the problems were resolved through constitutional and judicial means.

In general, this modest progress is shared by the majority of Least Developed Countries and African countries. The least developed and African countries are more democratic than they were 20 years ago. Though it has not yet had the desired impact on poverty reduction, a good number of African countries and Least Developed Countries have enjoyed reasonable rates of economic growth since the beginning of the decade, thanks to internal economic reforms and liberalization. It must be acknowledged, however, that rising commodity prices in the international market has been a significant factor in the good economic fortunes of recent years in these countries. It is also true that this relatively impressive economic growth has not been shared by all least developed and African countries. It has tended to concentrate in the mineral-rich countries.

What all this means is that there is a good basis for promoting and achieving sustainable economic development in these countries. While economic reforms and liberalization have had some positive results, it is necessary to go a step further and tackle the fundamental constraints that continue to hold these countries back. These structural constraints are both internal and external. Internally, the lack of adequate physical infrastructure, especially transport, energy and communications, as well as skilled workers continue to hamper the productive capacities of these countries. These are not challenges that are easily overcome through economic liberalization. There is a need for massive public investment in roads, railways, schools, hospitals, power generation, and communication infrastructure. Obviously, the required investments in these areas are way beyond the means of a country like Mali. International support is therefore crucial.

Mr. President,

The international community has recognized the critical need for providing support to these countries if they are to pull themselves out of poverty. Thus the eighth Millennium Development Goal talks of “developing a global partnership for development.” For the Least Developed Countries and LandlockedDevelopingStates, the international community has established specific programmes of action, with specific targets, to translate these partnerships into concrete actions. For the Least Developed Countries, there is the Programme of Action for the decade 2001 – 2010 adopted in Brussels in 2001 and for the Landlocked Developing Countries, there is the Almaty Programme of Action adopted in Kazakhstan in 2003. And of course for Africa, there is Africa’s own initiative, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, which has been fully endorsed by the international community.

Unfortunately, this show of international solidarity has not always been matched with action. While significant progress has been made in recent years in the areas of foreign aid, debt cancellation and trade preferences, it remains well below the targets set in the programmes I have mentioned.  A recent report of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which comprises the world’s most powerful economies, has indicated that that while aid to the world’s poorest countries is increasing, it remains below the level of agreed commitments. Similarly, despite commendable initiatives like the African Growth and Opportunity Act of the United States, and Everything But Arms of the European Union, the Least Developed Countries still don’t have full duty-free and quota-free access to the markets of the developed countries as agreed in their Programme of Action.

What is more, it is in the areas where the Least Developed Countries are most competitive, such as textiles and agricultural products, that their access to the markets of developed countries is most hindered. Granting LDCs duty-free and quota-free market access to export computers, for example, doesn’t do much for them, because they don’t manufacture computers. By contrast, limiting their ability to export agricultural products, through tariffs, other non-tariff barriers, or domestic subsidies condemns millions of farmers to perpetual poverty.

According to the World Bank, agricultural subsidies and support in developed countries add up to about $350 billion annually, more than the GDP of Africa and five times the level of overseas aid. For the poor countries, this is income lost. Consider cotton, for example. Mali, Benin, Burkina Faso and Chad earn a very significant percentage of their export income from cotton, accounting for 17% of the world’s export market. But the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of farmers, who are mostly small holder farmers, are threatened because of depressed cotton prices resulting from the dumping of cheap, subsidized cotton on the world market.

In 2003 for example, the US was exporting cotton at 47% below the cost of production. It is estimated that West African countries lose $250 million each year as a result of US cotton dumping. A World Bank study has shown that removing cotton subsidies would expand cotton exports from Sub-Saharan Africa by 75 percent. The developing countries’ share of global cotton exports would rise from the current 56 percent to 85 percent by 2015. You can imagine the difference this would make to the poor farmers in these countries. Probably, not as much as 60% of children who are supposed to be in school in Mali would be out of school.

Mr. President, ladies and gentlemen,

Mali and the rest of the world’s poor countries are not condemned to poverty by fate. They have demonstrated their potential to overcome the odds and not only share, but also contribute to the world’s wealth.  What is needed is for the international community to live up to its promises and help these countries to get on their feet. A world free of poverty is a better world for all citizens of the world.

Thank you for your kind attention.