19 March, 2002
On New Year's Day 1994, Mexico was headline news not because the Zapatista uprising in state of Chiapas started that day, but because it was that same day that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between Mexico, USA, and Canada was launched.
Eight years later, Mexico is headline news - at least in the UN & NGO community - because it is hosting the United Nations first-ever conference on Financing for Development in Monterrey. According to Alan Beattie & John Authers writing in the Financial Times, the Mexicans chose Monterrey because it was an example of successful development, and because it has a far more efficient transport infrastructure than Mexico city.
One person who would definitely be quick to agree to this is Mexico's Foreign Secretary, Jorge Castaneda. Writing also in the Financial Times, he predicated the reason for Mexico's hosting on what he called "a more active role" that the country would like to assume on the international stage. He maintained that "this drive to move beyond the labyrinth of solitude is also at the heart of [Mexico's] desire to establish a new relationship with the US and Canada", which Castaneda considers to be his country's "closest and most important partners." It is therefore somewhat of a pity that this putative partnership is not being consolidated by one of the members - the United States.
According to The Guardian's editorial, entitled "America's shame", the leader calls for the US to become interested in prosecuting a war on poverty. The crux of the article resides with a US leadership that has gone horribly wrong - if it is not obdurately maintaining a protectionist stance over its steel imports, it is engaging itself in a battle with Iraq "over oil and geopolitics". In the Guardian's eyes, foreign aid should be America's priority. This remonstration, in fact, is not without reason, for looking at OECD statistics on development assistance, out of the 22 countries within that organisation, the US scores the lowest, providing only 0.1% of its GDP to aid.
Where the Guardian concurs with America is its questioning over what happens with money that is given to countries: "aid works, although its track record is patchy." It maintains that "development money should be allocated not just on need, but also ensuring that it can be spent effectively." It cites corruption and the subsidising of "unwanted infrastructure projects" as factors that serve to stymie the intentions of ODA donors.
As regards USA's inadequate foreign aid policy, the paper presents three points for this. The first, it argues, has to do with the fact that the US spends far too little on aid, maintaining that "even the new cash [it has pledged recently] barely raises the development budget above 0.1% of its national income."
Secondly, Washington "sees aid as a tool of foreign policy", in the sense that large sums of US development money serve to "prop up client states such as Egypt or the cash is 'tied' so that the poor are forced to buy American goods. Finally, "only 17% of American aid goes to the 48 least-developed countries."
This is not, ofcourse, to apportion all the blame to the United States, but there is no denying that it has played a considerable role in thwarting attempts to make constructive contributions to the war on poverty, by relegating astronomical amounts to military adventures.
This is why this conference remains so fundamental to establishing a new axis. This new axis would be one predicated on development. It would bring together the World Food Summit, scheduled for June; and the World Summit on Sustainable Development, in August, to an apogee where commitments outlined in previous UN conferences can finally lived up to. The base would be Monterrey, hence the "high hopes" of Jorge Castaneda.
The eponymous title of his article in the FT could help to consolidate the position of the ardent critic of such UN conferences. High hopes, indeed, they would scoff. Nonetheless, it is heart-warming to see that a diplomat is keen to promote his country for such important conferences.
In his article, he outlines how early efforts by the international community to actually commit to such issues have proved elusive and ineffective but how, in his view, Monterrey is different for two reasons.
The first is that it is action-oriented, with mutually agreed follow-up mechanisms - thanks to the Monterrey consensus endorsed by 50 member states. Also, inherent in these commitments are the sets of shared commitments that "will tackle common problems with common sense."
Secondly, as illustrated above, "after Monterrey, this process will move to a new stage during the World Summit on Sustainable Development..., which will focus on the environmental aspects of the current development drive."
Sadly, Castaneda fails to mention the food summit in Rome, which the Guardian, thankfully but implicitly brings to the fore: "almost 40 'low-income countries' rely on agriculture for half of their export earnings, yet the richest countries spend $1bn a day supporting their farmers to undercut produce from poor nations."
If Monterrey is, as the Guardian calls it, a 'show me the money' conference for poor nations, and "America is largely the reason why they have seen so little cash", perhaps it goes without saying that it is now crunch-time for all the stakeholders to live up to their rhetoric.
Monterrey needs to see action.
References: High Hopes in Monterrey, Monday March 18 2002, Financial Times; Aid agencies start to believe it could happen in Monterrey, March 18, 2002, Financial Times; America's Shame March 18, 2002. The Guardian, n#48370.
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