The Istanbul Programme of Action for the LDCs - Browsing through

4 November 2011

The Fourth United Nations Conference on the Least Developed Countries (UN LDC IV) concluded on 13 May 2011. The governments, international agencies and civil society representatives gathered in Istanbul, Turkey and adopted the Istanbul Programme of Action (IPoA) setting out a strategy in favour of the LDCs for the coming decade.

This article browses through the IPoA, investigating where the IPoA adds value compared to its predecessor, the Brussels Programme of Action (BPoA), and whether on the whole it offers a shift in thinking about the design of development cooperation, thereby reflecting a decade of profound changes in the international arena - the recalibration of the global economy and the shift in wealth towards the Southern hemisphere.

Review of the Brussels Programme of Action

The UN LDC Conference has a four-decade tradition but, for the first time ever, the programme of action begins with an attempt to review the performance of its predecessor. The BPoA was very much centred on human development and governance. The IPoA contains a general assessment of the BPoA, recognising some, albeit modest, progress made in these as well as other areas, but correctly points out to the shortcomings in the implementation of the BPoA, especially in what concerns its impact on the LDC's structural transformation, employment creation and share in global trade. Overall, in the three decades since the first UNLDC conference in 1981, the number of LDCs has almost doubled from 25 to 48. Only three countries have graduated from the LDC status: Botswana, Cap Verde and the Maldives.

It is widely believed that the failure of the BPoA stemmed from the fact that the special support measures for the LDCs did not work or existed only theoretically. In this spirit, the IPoA calls for the scaling up and re-scoping of LDC support mechanisms, while maintaining consistency and policy coherence. It attempts, although in my opinion too shyly, to refocus in the correct direction the interest of development partners in facilitating the graduation of LDCs, namely by underscoring that graduated LDCs could be less dependent on aid, as well as that they could provide a major market for exports from the developed world, acting as stimulus to the global recovery, promoting peace and stability. It is to this end that the timely enforcement of practical support measures is necessary; however such and similar messages should be spelled out more clearly, to have impact.

Priority areas for action 2011-2020

The IPoA proposes a very ambitious set of targets and actions. It stipulates a renewed and strengthened partnership for development, earmarking five goals and eight priority areas (see the Table). The total number of actions envisaged under these goals and targets exceeds 250, and the highest number of actions enters under financial resource mobilisation. To support the LDCs, for the first time in the history of UN LDC programmes, a number of joint actions are to be implemented by LDCs and their development partners.

Unlike the BPoA, the IPoA stresses the need to build productive capacity in LDCs, as they face binding supply side constraints preventing them from meaningfully integrating into the global economy, creating gainful employment and fostering social development. The new partnership is encouraged to focus on actions that increase the value addition of LDC products, especially in natural resource-based industries, diversify production and enhance export capacity in agriculture, manufacturing and services (including tourism). For this purpose, the IPoA does not fail to mention the "it" word of development community nowadays - infrastructure. Investment in infrastructure - especially transport, telecommunication and energy - stands as the first priority for action. The IPoA then predictably urges LDCs to invest in institutional reforms and capacity building, and to remove obstacles to doing business. Development partners, on the other hand, are tasked with providing effective market access, access to technology, concessional foreign aid, policy support for foreign direct investment, and remittances inflows.

Source: UNDESA, CDP Secretariat.

In contrast to the previous programmes of actions, where it stood as the first priority, human and social development enters into the document later, and is preceded by actions in the domains of agriculture, trade and commodities; good governance is placed last. Given the systemic concerns of the LDCs regarding the global economic environment and other new risks (e.g. climate change), the IPoA stipulates measures to mitigate these crises. The above indicate that the Conference decided to adopt a more structural approach to development, reflecting lessons learnt in the last decade. However, the IPoA is still a far cry from emulating the desired and promised "paradigm shift" in development thinking. A large part of the document encompasses prescriptions for resource mobilisation, although in the months of "difficult and strenuous" deliberations, the Conference failed to arrive at binding commitments from the traditional and emerging development partners.

Interesting developments have also taken place within specific chapters. The chapter on enhancing the role of trade in development prescribed more than 50 actions in the BPoA. These were sorted into categories including market access, special and differential treatment, WTO accession, standard-setting, regional trading arrangements and the like. On the other hand, the treatment of trade in the IPoA has become much more succinct, focused and up to the point, which given the fact that trade is one of the more contentious issues between the LDCs and their development partners, might be a seen as progress. If only the five joint actions under the trade priority were thoroughly implemented in the next decade, meeting the LDC graduation target would pose no problems. On the downside, a section dedicated to services was removed, and there is hardly any mention of migration in the IPoA.

What role for South-South cooperation?

A fiercely debated "new" issue throughout the negotiations was the role to be played by "new partners" in the LDC strategy. The document settles for a chapter on the complementarity between the South-South and the more traditional North-South cooperation. The IPoA recognises the importance of new partners in areas ranging from capacity building and technical assistance to trade, investment and technology. South-South cooperation is framed not as official development assistance (ODA), but rather as partnership of solidarity that should be guided by respect for national sovereignty, accountability and transparency. Southern partners are encouraged to support the regional development efforts and the exchange of know-how with the developing countries.

Implementation and monitoring

The monitoring mechanism of the BPoA left much to be desired. It rested predominantly in the hands of the UN agencies, remaining at an official and administrative level, but it was not the lack of monitoring per se that caused the failure of the BPoA. After all, just to mention one, ODA flows are continuously and very closely monitored by the Development Assistance Committee (DAC), and its secretariat. It was rather the lack of political will and momentum that proved a stumbling block. The IPoA now proposes bi-annual and mid-term reviews of the progress made (as opposed to mid-term only in the last decade). Similarly to the BPoA, it stipulates actions at the national, regional and global levels. It calls for the whole of the UN system, Bretton Woods institutions and development partners to fully engage in the process. But it also invites parliamentarians, civil society and business community to partake in the implementation and monitoring of the programme. It is doubtful that this new opening would prove a panacea to faulty implementation so far, but those non-traditional stakeholders could be instrumental in bringing more awareness about LDC issues to the international community, thus helping actual implementation.

Last but not least, the changing international climate gives birth to new powerful initiatives. International platforms such as G20 could play an important role in lending voice and momentum to LDC-oriented policies, especially as they have already put development in the spotlight. G20 Multi-year Action Plan on Development is one such mechanism. One of nine pillars of the plan is knowledge sharing, and the OECD has been tasked to contribute to it with its expertise acquired during 50 years of knowledge generation and knowledge sharing. Currently repositioning itself as a knowledge broker between the established and emerging powers, already reaching out to the developing countries via the OECD Development Centre and the Working Party on Aid Effectiveness, just to mention two, the OECD could use its forthcoming Strategy on Development (2)to further the messages from the UN LDC IV to the international players whose actions matter most as far as LDCs are concerned.

Anna Batyra is former coordinator of the OECD Development Finance Network, OECD Development Centre. Views expressed are that of the author and not necessarily of the Organisation.

1 Lin, J.Y. (2011): "New Structural Economics: A Framework for Rethinking Development." The World Bank Observer, 26 (2): 193-221.
2 OECD (2011): "Framework for an OECD Strategy on Development." Available at

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