UN official: Decades of development progress now reversed

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The head of the U.N. body promoting development is warning that the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change and the war in Ukraine have led to “an unprecedented reversal” of decades of progress in combatting global poverty and hunger and ensuring quality education for children everywhere.

Collen Kelapile, who is president of the Economic and Social Council known as ECOSOC, said there is growing concern that funding for critical U.N. development goals including ending extreme poverty and hunger by 2030 might be neglected by Western donor nations supporting Ukraine militarily and financially in its war against Russia.

ECOSOC’s message is: “Please, let’s not forgot other pre-existing challenges. … We need to finance development. We need to finance climate. We need to finance many other conflicts around the world,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Making a mistake and sidelining these issues, Kelapile warned, could lead to higher costs in the future if they escalate “because there is no longer attention to them.”

ECOSOC, one of the six main organs of the United Nations, is focused on advancing development on three fronts — economic, social and environmental — and on coordinating efforts to achieve the 17 goals for 2030 that the 193 U.N. member nations agreed to in 2015. The U.N. body has 54 member nations and over 1,600 non-governmental organizations with consultative status.

Kelapile said that because of decades of development progress being wiped out, climate change causing a lot of damage, and new geopolitical tensions from the war in Ukraine leading to widespread food insecurity and an energy crisis, ECOSOC’s mandate “has never been as important as it is today.”

“It can leverage its convening power,” he said, and bring together people from diverse backgrounds from inside and outside the United Nations with “creative and transformative ideas that can really move us forward.”

A high-level ECOSOC meeting on advancing the U.N.’s 2030 goals and building back better from the COVID-19 pandemic ended Monday with the adoption of a 32-page ministerial declaration.

The ministers and representatives, noting that they were meeting “against the backdrop of a fragile and highly uncertain global socio-economic outlook,” committed “to accelerate action” to implement the 2030 goals. In addition to eliminating extreme poverty and hunger, they include ensuring good health for people of all ages, quality education for all children, and gender equality.

The ministers also expressed great concern that the pandemic has widened inequalities and created new obstacles to achieving the U.N. goals and stressed the urgency to address the impact, underlying causes and challenges exacerbated by COVID-19.

Kelapile, who is Botswana’s U.N. ambassador, said in the interview last Friday that for him, “the fight against poverty and inequality is very key.”

There is a saying that “a hungry man is an angry man,” he said, citing people recently venting their anger of the lack of food and gasoline, including in Sri Lanka.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic began in early 2020, Kelapile said, financing to advance development was declining, and access to technologies for people in the developing world, especially computers and Internet access, was lacking.

The ECOSOC president said the world’s richer nations also need to look at another impact of the pandemic — rising indebtedness of poor countries and how to alleviate it.

There are highly indebted countries whose borrowing worsened during the pandemic, Kelapile said.

“Is it fair to continue to require them to invest in controlling the pandemic and recovery, and at the same time expect them to service their debts?” he asked. “I don’t think it’s possible.”

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