New Approach Urged to fight on Poverty.Economists give rich nations a message they would rather not listen to. Victoria Brittain reports

GLOBAL poverty threatens every country with terrorism, disease, drugs, crime, and pollution, says a report from UnitedNations economists. Unless rich nations spend money to address the the problem they will find their own future jeopardised, say the economists.

The report, by a team led by Dr Mahbub Al Huq, will set the agenda for next year’s Social Summit in Belgium celebrating the 50th anniversary of the UN.

“The challenge of the 21st century is to move away from the concept of national security to that of human security . . . Its greatest threat comes from poverty,” says Dr Al Huq.

The Human Development Report produced for the UN Development Programme by Dr Al Huq’s team has become an annual exercise in giving world leaders, and particularly the rich nations’ leaders, news they would rather not hear. The UNDP has a new head, James Speth, who is bent on giving this arm of the UN an advocacy role which will push the Human Development Report’s conclusions.Mr. Speth used a speech on Africa last week to call for the phasing out within three years of the arms trade and military assistance to the continent.

“A large part of the blame for this trading in death rests with the industrialised countries who, while giving aid in the order of $60 billion ( pounds 40 billion) a year, earn in compensation $ 125 billion from military expenditure in the developing world,” he said.

he report calculates that 86 per cent of weapons exports to developing countries come from Russia, the US, France, China or Britain.”Of course, the defence industry will be unhappy about these ideas and will put pressure on politicians, but they have to be confronted,” says Dr Al Huq. He points to the effects of arms buying on development spending by showing that India, the largest importer of arms in the Third World, bought 20MiG29 fighter airplanes for a sum which could have sent 15 million girls to school.

Nigeria, another big spender, bought 80 tanks for a sum which could have immunised two million children and brought family planning to 17 million couples.

Arms sales are nevertheless declining, mainly as a consequence of the end of the Cold War, and the report calculates that the peace dividend – $ 935 billion over the past eight years – will yield $ 500 billion in the next six years if the current decline of 3.6 per cent a year continues.

“We’ve let it slip through our fingers until now, but we have to harness it for global poverty,” says Dr Al Huq.

He is trying to create a new motivation for aid, revisiting the Brandt report of a decade ago but with more force, in his warnings of the perils poverty poses for the security of the rich.

For potential donors dreading being put on the spot at the Social Summit, Dr Al Huq is anxious to stress that a big impact can be made on poverty, and therefore on world human security, without spending much more money.

The report proposes a global compact for 10 years of rapid development by raising $ 30 billion to $ 40 billion a year through the restructuring of established budgets.

The formula proposed is that developing countries would double their social spending to 20 per cent of their budget, by reducing military expenditure and cutting wasteful prestige projects, while donors would raise their allocations of foreign aid aimed at human development from 7 per cent to 20 per cent.

The report suggests a world income tax of 0.1 per cent to be levied on countries with a per capita income above $ 10,000, which would raise $ 20 billion a year as a social safety net for the poorest countries.

This idea, like the tax on international currency transactions, first proposed nearly a decade ago by James Tobin, the Nobel Prize winner for economics, and which could yield $ 1.5 trillion a year to be used to combat poverty, may still be too far ahead of the thinking of today’s politicians.

Debt cancellation for the poorest countries, however, long proposed in Dr Al Huq’s reports, has become a mainstream idea, though the political will to implement it has yet to be found.

Changes within aid budgets to make them more effective should be less controversial terrain. For instance, more than 90 per cent of the $ 12 billion a year for technical assistance goes to foreign consultants. In Africa, 100,000 such foreigners were employed over five years, while 60,000 senior and middle-level African cadres left the continent.

The Human Development Report has devised an early warning system to signal countries which are close to exploding, and which last year warned of impending revolt in the Mexican state of Chiapas, nine months before it exploded. High military spending, deteriorating food consumption, high unemployment, declining wages, ethnic or regional disparities and tensions, and state violations of human rights, are, the report says, the signs which no one can afford to ignore.

Among those countries already in deep crisis the report lists, Afghanistan, Angola, Haiti, Iraq, Burma, Mozambique, Sudan, and Zaire. Not far behind come Algeria, Burundi, Ivory Coast, Egypt, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria.

The collapse of Rwanda was easy to forecast by these criteria and UNDP warned the donors six months before the killing began that demilitarisation and resettlement could not wait.

“The UN is overwhelmed by emergencies and the tendency is to squeeze development, but the less development you have the more emergencies there will be,” says Dr Al Huq.

Against the growing calls for a UN police force, he urges a UN peace corps, saying: “Doctors, engineers, agriculturalists are what these societies need. Look at Somalia – it needs soldiers like a hole in the head.”