World's rich say to fight poverty, boost health

The world's richest countries and the most powerful multilateral financiers on Sunday threw their weight behind behind huge poverty reduction and health improvement schemes for developing nations.

"What we can achieve together, developing countries and developed countries, IMF and World Bank is so much greater than we can achieve on our own," Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown told a news conference.

Brown, who chairs the International Monetary Fund's policy-making committee, said world leaders had pledged to create "a virtuous circle of debt reduction, poverty reduction and sustainable development."

The IMF policy panel, dubbed the International Monetary and Financial Committee, and the World Bank's Development Committee said in a joint communique released at the news conference that the two global lenders had renewed cooperation to battle poverty and promote growth in the world's poorest nations.

Under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries initiative, the bank and fund aim to help 22 of the poorest countries reduce debt service costs by $34 billion, and relief could climb to $53 billion as governments forgive bilateral debts.

Brown said the two institutions are determined to extend the HIPC initiative beyond the first 22 nations to 11 other so-called "conflict countries" currently excluded from the debt-relief scheme.

The committee said conflict "remains a major obstacle to improving the lives of millions, especially in Africa."

Critics like UK-based Drop the Debt say the HIPC measures fall far short of what is needed to end the debt crisis of the world's poorest countries and that the majority of the 22 HIPC nations would still spend more on debt than on health.

The communique released by the IMF and World Bank committees said that debt sustainability could only be achieved if underlying causes of poverty, including poor education and health care, were addressed.

World Bank President James Wolfensohn said his institution was ready to step in and administer a new trust fund being proposed by Italy to help boost health in the world's least-developed nations.

"The bank has said it is ready to administer the fund and work with the other organizations," he told the news conference, adding that the World Health Organization and United Nations would also be involved.

While Wolfensohn said it was premature to say how large the trust fund would be, it is expected to be worth at least $1 billion, with contributions from a variety of donors. It would have a special focus on fighting tuberculosis and malaria - diseases Brown said caused four million avoidable deaths every year.


But earlier on Sunday, the World Bank conceded that many developing countries, particularly in Africa, will miss targets for halving poverty by 2015 unless urgent action is taken.

While some countries, especially in East Asia, may reach the targets, others will not do so without concerted international cooperation, the bank's 2001 World Development Indicators report said.

Nearly 1.2 billion of the world's six billion people live on less than a dollar a day, according to the report.

Last September, heads of state from 149 nations endorsed a set of development targets that called for cutting in half the proportion of the world's population living in extreme poverty between 1990 and 2015.

The bank reported that between 1990 and 1998 the number of people living in extreme poverty fell by about 100 million, but that progress was mostly due to an improvement in East Asia largely attributable to economic growth in China.

By contrast, sub-Saharan Africa had lagged in many areas, including school enrollment, infant and child mortality and maternal mortality.

The region also had the highest level of HIV/AIDS infections, accounting for 70 percent of all people in the world with the disease, the report said.

The IMF and World Bank committees said boosting trade and access to global markets for the world's least-developed nations would also be major factors in cutting poverty and improving health.

"There is a recognition that just as prosperity is indivisible, the reduction of poverty is a duty of us all," Brown said.

(With additional reporting by Anna Willard).