Gus Speth, Administrator, United Nations Development Programme
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MARY GRAY DAVIDSON, producer: This is Common Ground.
GUS SPETH, Administrator, United Nations Development Programme: The 70% of the people in
absolute poverty are women, not 50%. Women need special initiatives to changing legal systems,
changing the status of women, own inheritance, and marriage, and a host of other things. Very
difficult social issues in many societies.
DAVIDSON: The UN’s campaign to eradicate poverty, on this edition of Common
Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It’s produced
by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Mary Gray Davidson.
The United Nations has declared 1996 as the international year for the eradication of poverty.
The agency in charge of this lofty goal is the United Nations Development Programme. Gus Speth is
the top administrator of UNDP, and I asked him if completely eradicating poverty isn’t
SPETH: Well, a great many countries have done it. Not too many, but some in the
developing world have. Malaysia, being very close. Indonesia has eliminated a great percentage of
its poverty. There are examples of countries that are not that wealthy, that have had very
equitable patterns of development, and seen their poverty levels decline dramatically.
We now have about a fifth of the people in the world in absolute poverty with incomes of less
than a dollar a day. There is no technological, human, institutional, or other barrier to
assisting those people through economic growth, through development cooperation, through people
centered actions to find their way out of poverty. And it can be done. It can be done within the
lifetimes of today’s children.
DAVIDSON: Now one-fifth of the world’s population lives in absolute poverty you said.
That’s actually an improvement though, isn’t it from previous times? Even in this century.
SPETH: Well, people are generally speaking, of course better off. There’s been fabulously
large amounts of economic growth in recent decades. But in the recent period the proportion of
people in poverty has held fairly constant. Because poverty is growing just about as fast as
DAVIDSON: And you obviously don’t buy the idea that the poor will always be with us.
SPETH: Well, there will be poor always with us. What we’re talking about in this
international year for the eradication of poverty and in our work at UNDP, is eliminating what
you would call large scale poverty or mass poverty. Where you have a fifth of humanity living in
total destitution. Obviously there will always be pockets of poverty, unless we change even more
dramatically than the changes that will be called for for eliminating mass poverty.
DAVIDSON: Now, eliminating poverty has always been the United Nations Development
Programme’s goal, has it not?
SPETH: Yes, its been our top priority since 1990 actually, when we had a sort of
reprioritization of our objectives. But we now have elevated it to be the central theme, the main
objective, and we’re allocating now 90% of our main resources to countries with incomes of less
than $750 per capita. And 60% of our resources to countries with incomes of less than $350 per
capita, on the average. So we’re extraordinary skewed in our allocations towards the poorest
DAVIDSON: Now how do you wade through all the complex factors that combined lead to
poverty in order to create a plan of attack. And here in the US we tend to think of terms of job
creation to eliminate poverty. But is that a rather simplistic way of looking at poverty
worldwide, that it’s just a matter of creating more jobs?
SPETH: Creating more jobs would certainly help. We see a five-pronged approach. First,
basic social services. We have got to have a global commitment to education of children and
particularly women. And we have got to have basic health care services. And there’s basic social
services that have got to be provided. And the UN has been very strong in this and very active in
this area. It’s probably the most successful area of the UN’s work.
Secondly, sustainable livelihoods. We know a lot about how to help countries create programs that
do create jobs, that do provide livelihoods for the poor.
DAVIDSON: What do you mean, when you said sustainable livelihoods? You’re talking
environmentally—ones that will continue to exist?
SPETH: Well, it’s partly an environmental concept, but it’s also larger. Basically the
message is that it doesn’t do to create temporary types of livelihoods. You have to empower
people with skills, with credit, with access to productive assets. So they can take advantage of
other opportunities if their immediate job opportunity or income generating opportunity
Thirdly, we need to focus on the resource base, the natural resource base that so many people
depend on. Particularly the poor. The environmental resources are deteriorating at alarming rates
throughout much of the developing world. Continues to do so in spite of all the talk.
DAVIDSON: And that destroys a lot of livelihoods.
SPETH: And when your land is disappearing, your fish is disappearing, your water’s
disappearing it does undermine livelihoods and it undermines the opportunities available to the
The fourth dimension is the advancement of women. The 70% of the people in absolute poverty is
women, not 50%.
DAVIDSON: But 70%.
SPETH: Startling. And so it’s not just that all of these programs have to be geared
disproportionately, but women need special initiatives to changing legal systems. Changing the
status of women to own an inheritance, and marriage, and a host of other things. Very difficult
social issues in many societies.
DAVIDSON: And it’s also been documented that when women are targeted they often have a
more sustainable livelihood and also will work towards the advancement of the family.
SPETH: Absolutely. And the last area, in many ways, is the most difficult because, so far
we’ve been talking about things that we can do within the country and that focus directly on
people. But there’s another area, which is this broad economic framework, the enabling
environment for poverty eradication for social development. All of the projects that we can mount
won’t overcome the problems of trade barriers. Won’t overcome the problems of a an
extraordinarily large debt burden, almost two trillion dollars of international debt saddled
today on the developing countries.
So we need to create an enabling environment that helps the poorest countries benefit from
globalization, benefit from trade, benefit from modern technology. Benefit from foreign
investment, that really helps them to take advantage of a vital, creative private sector,
market-based world. Many of these countries are simply not capable today of coping with this
global economy that they’re thrown in to. And many are still struggling to come out from a
history of being planned economies and closed societies.
DAVIDSON: I was going to ask about UNDP’s focus on governments and how that affects the
ability to bring people out of poverty.
SPETH: Well, we believe very strongly that governance is essential. None of these
successes can be achieved without effective, good government. And governance also that include
not just governments, but civil society and NGOs and universities.
DAVIDSON: The nongovernmental organizations.
SPETH: The whole array of nongovernmental institutions. And so we’re now spending over a
third of our resources at UNDP on building up the capacities of government for sustainable human
development. For development that puts priority on the poor, on the environment, on women, on
DAVIDSON: On the topic of governance, do democratic societies fare better in terms of
bring the poor out of poverty? Is there a link between a type of governance and how the people
fare in general?
SPETH: Well, in the long run there certainly is, because in the long run when the people
are really in control the government is going to be more responsive to their needs. In the short
run, we had some fledgling democratic institutions, some of which have been grafted from a
Western model on to traditional African systems. And there’s not a particularly good fit. And we
have a situation in which some of these fledgling democratic institutions are having a hard time
taking root and having a hard time succeeding. But still they’re on the right track in many
We, at UNDP have supported 33 elections in Africa in recent years.
DAVIDSON: You mean actually worked in the structure of carrying them out?
SPETH: We have advised on how to carry out open, free, and fair elections. And we have
provided support to the electoral process in those countries. And we are, do deeply believe that
in the future only democratic governments will have the legitimacy to rule and to carry out
policies. And that popularly elected governments will have the interest of their electorates in
mind. But it’s not a simple issue either. I mean, this is not a simple one-to-one correlation
that always works. You have cases like Chile, where you had a nondemocratic regime and very high
levels of economic growth for a sustained period. And so it’s not a simple matter.
DAVIDSON: I was just wondering how much good the UN can do if a country’s government is
not really committed to ending poverty in its own country?
SPETH: Well we find that there’s a broad commitment to the goals that we are promoting.
And we also find that there’s opportunities to work with nongovernmental institutions and
directly with villages and people where there’s a regime that, for example, we have decided that
in, with the support of our board, that we should work directly with the people, villagers in
We’re working there on issues of malaria control, leprosy, village water supply, to contain
diseases and provide fresh water, and we’re not supporting the government.
DAVIDSON: We’ll take a short break. I’m talking with Gus Speth, the Administrator of the
United Nations Development Programme. The UN’s antipoverty agency.
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Tell me about the poverty clock which UNDP has created. What does that represent?
SPETH: Well it presents in graphic form the startling rate at which the number of people
are born into poverty. The rate at which poverty is increasing. And as I said earlier, poverty is
increasing at a, the number of poor people are increasing at just about the same ratio as the
number of people overall. And we have an unprecedented level of population growth today.
And it’s a, for example, we estimate that in sub-Saharan, Africa, in just a few years, the turn
of the century, half of the people will be in absolute poverty.
DAVIDSON: But does it stand to reason that simply because poverty is growing at the same
rate as population, that population is the cause of poverty?
SPETH: No, I don’t think. No, we weren’t trying to make a simple, simplistic correlation
of that type. I think the relationship, the tremendous population growth that many societies are
experiencing certainly inhibits their ability to successfully deal with poverty. It puts
tremendous pressure on resources, it puts tremendous pressure on schools, tremendous pressure on
health care systems, and other things. And the societies, and job opportunities cannot not be
created fast enough. So there are linkages the other way too, because if we can succeed in
providing education for all children, particularly girls, if we can succeed in lifting families
out of poverty and providing incomes then all of the studies show that the way to, that you get
your large reductions in fertility rates by a combination of family planning services, on the one
hand, and social development and education on the other hand. And when these come together you do
see population growth rates declining.
DAVIDSON: And I guess there wouldn’t be an obvious, I mean there wouldn’t be a direct
correlation either, just from this statement in one of the development program’s reports that
says that in 1960 about 73% of the world’s population was ranked as having low human development
and that figure has shrunk to 35%. Well obviously, the population has, I don’t know if it’s quite
doubled in that time…
SPETH: No, but there has been… what you’re raising is a rather, I think, impressive
thing, because despite the human development index to which you referred, is a combination of
educational attainment in the society, health care attainment and purchasing power. Despite the
fact that purchasing power has been going up very slowly in a lot of these countries—indeed over
a hundred countries are worse off today in income levels than they were 15 years ago—despite
that, the investments in education and in health care have been paying off and even in some
countries which have grown rather slowly and have very modest levels of income, you find that
health and educational attainments are indeed improving and that’s why the number of people with
higher standards under our human development index has been going up. What we’ve found in recent
reports, however, was that you can’t sustain this growth in human development unless you are
backing it up with economic growth, and that sooner or later the bubble is going to pop. And
you’ll have some… human development will start turning down because governments that don’t have
resources, countries that don’t have incomes, can’t sustain these investments in human
DAVIDSON: I wanted to turn to the whole theory of development and you face a rather
difficult challenge I would imagine as head of the UN’s Development Programme at a time when
there seems to be a lot of skepticism about the effectiveness of development. How do you respond
to charges such as development assistance only fattens the pockets of political elites or
SPETH: Well, our assistance is too modest to fatten anybody’s pockets very much. I think
the reality of this is that people understand that development assistance is needed and they
understand that it works.
DAVIDSON: That message, I think, sometimes gets lost.
SPETH: Well but I’ll tell you it doesn’t get lost when people really want to see
something done and I’ll give you just two examples. The United States has had a huge long term
interest in peace in the Middle East. And when the peace agreement between Israel and the PLO was
signed in Washington, hardly a moment passed after that before the U.S. and other governments
pledged $2 billion to support the development of the Palestinian territories. And we now have one
of our largest programs in the Palestinian territories. And the reason is quite simple: people
know, people understand, that if you’re going to build peace in this region, you’re going to have
to offer hope, you’re going to have to provide opportunities and the way to do that is through
development programs. And in a region that’s as poor as that one, the only chance of that
happening is development assistance.
And I can give you another example. When the peace agreement in Bosnia was signed and the U.S.
troops were sent there, the Pentagon started thinking about, well, what is really needed here and
are we going to get our boys home by Christmas? And they started doing some studies of what the
situation, of what was required and even the Pentagon concluded that massive development
assistance was going to be needed to solidify the peace process in Bosnia Herzegovina, and called
for a huge increase in development cooperation in the region. So I think we’ve got the Pentagon
on our side on development cooperation, and what we do have to understand is that the world is
full of situations that need development assistance, full of countries that need development
cooperation. It’s not just Gaza, it’s not just Bosnia.
DAVIDSON: What do you think is motivating people who charge that living standards in poor
countries have not been improved by development assistance.
SPETH: Well, it’s a very complicated situation. Nobody would ever claim that the more
development assistance you pour into a country, regardless of other factors, the better, the more
the country grows. But we have to remember that after the Korean War, South Korea was declared a
basket case. However, it started receiving about 13-15% of its GNP in development cooperation.
And development assistance in all of the Asian Tigers, all of the new industrializing states in
East Asia, and now in Southeast Asia, were countries which benefited tremendously from
international development cooperation—it was used properly, it was well spent, and it played a
very, very important role in the economic recovery of these countries. Now we have to get Africa
on that track.
DAVIDSON: I was going to say that there are people who are writing Africa off as a basket
SPETH: Well, that’s premature. We have countries in Africa now which have sustained 6%
growth rates, a dozen of them, in the last year. And we have a larger number of countries which
have come out of the slump of the 80s and are having positive growth rates in Africa. Yes,
tremendous problems—almost all of the least developed countries are in Africa and as I
mentioned, half of Africa is below the poverty line or soon will be. But Afro-pessimism isn’t
called for. This is a continent with tremendous resources—perhaps the richest continent in terms
of natural resources. But it’s been treated very, very badly historically and so you know it’s
time for us to give our best to Africa, for the international community to give its best to
Africa. And we’re committing half of our resources.
DAVIDSON: To Africa?
DAVIDSON: There is a new approach though, isn’t there, in working on development from the
past projects, which have been widely criticized, huge projects, huge sums of money given to
governments. Isn’t there now more of a bottom-up approach toward development?
SPETH: Well, there are many different… we’ve learned a lot from mistakes in development
cooperation. It’s a hard business and there have been mistakes and we don’t need to repeat them.
We need more development assistance today. We need to reverse the decline in development that’s
occurring today, particularly in the United States, but at the same time we need to reform
development assistance and be sure that we approach it in the right way. That means that you
don’t impose your vision of development on the country. You have to work with the people, with
the government, to help them realize their vision of development and that is the only thing that
will work because that’s the only thing that assures ownership by the country and ownership is
necessary for sustainability and for long term success. UNDP, by the way, has always been a
technical assistance agency, so we have never… what that means…
DAVIDSON: Which means exactly?
SPETH: Yeah, what that means is that we help strengthen capacities in countries, the
people and institutions, sometimes by assisting them to find external advisers, sometimes by
strengthening their own internal advisers and capacities and universities and institutions and
government agencies. And we don’t do big investment projects in roads and highways and dams and
airports, and so that’s never been our business.
DAVIDSON: I’m wondering how the U.S. cuts in its contributions to UNDP, which was about
50% in this last year, how that has affected the program?
SPETH: Well, it’s reduced our resources so it means that we’ve been able to do less
everywhere. I think it caused a 5% drop in our overall funding for poverty alleviation. It’s had
a more serious effect, really, in setting a poor example. The U.S. has always been the largest
contributor to our program and it’s by far the largest economy in the world, and when the U.S.
backs off, cuts back, like this, it sets a very bad example for the rest of the world. There are
economies in Europe which are doing much worse than the U.S. economically and they are giving in
the Nordic countries, $17 per capita to UNDP. In the U.S., I get twenty five cents per capita.
This stuff about the United States being the most generous country in the world has got to be
thought about in a soul searching way because we are in the basement, we are last among the
contributors to development cooperation today. We are in the basement. We contribute less as a
percentage of our gross national product than any other country in the OECD.
DAVIDSON: Gus Speth has been my guest on Common Ground. He’s the administrator of
the United Nations Development Programme. The UN General Assembly has declared 1996 the
International Year for the Eradication of Poverty. For Common Ground, I’m Mary Gray
Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.
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