Over the past five decades there has been more progress in reducing global poverty than in the past five centuries. Malnutrition has been reduced by one-third and child death rates have been halved.

These are some of the stunning statistics presented in the United Nations Development Program’s 1997 Human Development Report. And Japan has had much to do with this progress, according to Gus Speth, who heads the UNDP.

“While many other nations have been pouring funds into building up their armies, Japan has been putting its money into assisting developing nations and protecting the global environment,” Speth said. Japan has donated an average of $105 million per year since 1994 to the UNDP and is the agency’s largest contributor, he said.

“The people of Japan should appreciate more fully the degree to which Japan is recognized for its leadership in development cooperation worldwide,” Speth said. “I’m worried that the current budget will not sustain this support, which is badly needed.”

The UNDP is the coordinating body for many U.N. agencies, including UNICEF, the United Nations Development Fund for Women and the World Health Organization, which aid the development of poor countries. The UNDP focuses on programs to eradicate poverty, strengthen governance, elevate women’s status, improve livelihoods and protect the environment in 130 developing nations.

According to Speth, the past practice of providing financial assistance alone is not enough to continue progress in the eradication of mass poverty. “There is a myth out there that all you need is the right economic policies to bring countries out of poverty,” he said. “But this is not how poverty is eliminated,” Speth explained. “In fact, lots of countries have succeeded in increasing economic growth but have not reduced poverty. And some of them have even increased poverty with economic growth.”

The UNDP strongly disagrees with the concept of “trickle down” economic growth as a way to decrease poverty. “The countries which have been successful in reducing poverty, like Malaysia, Indonesia, Costa Rica and China, have taken tough stands on poverty reduction and made major investments in the health and education of the poor, not just businesses,” he said.

Many of these countries have also demonstrated a concern for gender issues, as the majority of the poor are women. China in particular has shown marked improvement in the status of women, he said.

“The countries who have made the biggest strides in women’s equality, namely the Nordic countries, have had very determined gender policies,” he said. “It didn’t just happen because they were ‘nice’ countries with ‘nice’ people and a relatively high standard of living. The women organized themselves and pushed for a period of decades.” This kind of focus and commitment is what all development programs need to eliminate poverty worldwide, he said.

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