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    Press Release No: UNIS/SG/2623
    Release Date: 31 July 2000
    Secretary-General Calls for Action to Accelerate
    Debt Relief for Poor Countries

    NEW YORK, 28 July (UN Headquarters) -- Following is the text of Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s closing statement today to the Economic and Social Council substantive session:

    Let me start by paying tribute to the remarkable leadership you have given this Council since you became its President.  I think everyone will agree that during this session, the Economic and Social Council has shown itself to be a vibrant body, open as never before to new ideas and initiatives.  

    In particular, the impressive roster of participants in the High-level Segment on Information Technology for Development showed that, when the United Nations takes the lead in discussing current pressing issues, stakeholders at the highest level are eager to come and contribute.  And there is no doubt, Mr. President, that this success was in large part your personal achievement.  I only regret that I was unable to be here myself at that time.

    The High-level Segment and the very interesting information technology exhibition which accompanied it, have helped raise awareness of the tremendous potential which the digital revolution holds for economic growth, poverty eradication and development.  However, access is crucial.  Countries in which most people don't have access to information technology cannot play a full part in the new global economy.  And the longer they remain outside the global economy, the harder and costlier it will be to catch up.  The "digital divide" must be bridged before it is too late.

    We must not let the new information technologies become another resource that divides rich and poor nations.  So you did well to adopt a Ministerial Declaration focusing on the actions that are needed, at both the national and international levels, to spread information technology and its benefits to the developing world.  If we succeed in this task, we will ensure that poor countries can join the knowledge-based global economy.  We will do so by giving their people a powerful tool with which to make their voices heard and to combat ignorance and disease. 

    Bridging the digital divide will not be easy.  But the commitments made during this Council's debate and at the G-8 Summit of the most industrialized nations last week-end in Japan give us hope that it can be narrowed in the next few years if we all remain committed to this goal.  

    With help from civil society organizations and the private sector, we can connect even the remotest corners of the globe to the new economy and ensure that the rural poor are not left out.  Investment in basic infrastructure is one key factor.  But helpful government policies, and transparent and consistent laws and regulations, are also essential.  In many developing countries, personal computers will remain out of reach for most individuals in the immediate future.  But communal solutions can be found.  One way or another, information technology costs must be reduced and made affordable for all. 

    Still, let us be realistic:  what is the value of Internet connection to those who cannot read or write?  The first step towards technological literacy is basic education.  We must remain focused on our goal of ensuring primary education for all -- girls and boys alike. 

    Similarly, promoting information technology can complement, but not replace efforts to develop human capital and health services, and to strengthen democratic institutions and the rule of law.  Only healthy people, living in free, open and transparent democracies which provide for their basic needs, will be able to take full advantage of information technology.
      
    Another major obstacle to the emergence of a real World Wide Web is content.  Today, 80 per cent of the material available on the Web is in English.  And most of it is aimed primarily at well-heeled and well-educated people.  Naturally, it reflects their interests.  We must encourage automatic translation, and the creation of local content, to ensure that the Internet revolution brings real benefits to all.

    Information technology can give many poor countries the chance to leapfrog some long and painful stages in the development process.  But today, only 5 per cent of the world's population is connected and half does not even have access to a telephone.  In my Millennium Report, I announced concrete initiatives to help bridge the digital divide.  But we can do much more.  The United Nations can play a key role in expanding the impact of information technology on development and in promoting digital opportunities.  The Ministerial declaration contains specific recommendations to that end.  

    What we need now is to translate these recommendations into concrete and efficient strategies that will make a tangible difference in the lives of real people.  This will require a major commitment of resources, intensified cooperation, and strong partnerships between all stakeholders, including the private sector.  I expect that the Millennium Assembly will further advance the vital work that the Economic and Social Council has begun.

    Of course, it is not only information technology that needs resources.  

    We need them to implement all the development goals agreed at the United Nations conferences of the 1990s.  Last month, at its "Beijing-plus-five" and "Copenhagen-plus-five" special sessions, the General Assembly reaffirmed those goals.  It also identified ways to accelerate progress and overcome new challenges.  This Council too has given important guidance to help the international community and the United Nations system achieve greater coherence and impact in following up the decisions of those conferences.  We must abide by the commitments made, and truly demonstrate global solidarity.  Next year's meeting on  Finance for Development will give us an excellent opportunity to do that.  I urge you to seize it.  

    If we truly want to make headway, however, we must take action to accelerate debt relief for poor countries.  Pledges are no longer enough, we need concrete and immediate measures.  So once again I urge the donor countries and the international financial institutions to cancel the official debts of poor countries that are committed to poverty reduction, and to expand the number of countries eligible for the so-called Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) Debt Initiative by allowing them to qualify on grounds of poverty alone.  

    It seems desperately wrong, for instance, that Nigeria under its new democratic government should now be struggling to service all the debts contracted under military dictatorships in the 1980s and 1990s, and that it should be expected to devote a much larger share of its gross national product to this than to health, education and poverty reduction.  Here is surely a case where debt relief would also be a form of conflict prevention. 

    Similarly, debts owed by countries that have suffered major conflicts or natural disasters should be cancelled.  These countries go through terrible hardships.  And international humanitarian aid, even when it flows generously, is in itself not enough to help them recover.  As you rightly underlined during your Humanitarian Segment, we must reinforce our prevention efforts and improve our response to complex emergencies.  We must also built on the preventive and response capacities of these countries.  But if we decide, as a principle, to wipe off the debt of those countries, we will give them a real chance to rebuild their society and start again.  

    People in poor and devastated countries place great hopes in the international community to help them live a decent life.  We have heard again in the course of this session how much is expected of the United Nations work.  To live up to those expectations, we need adequate, stable and predictable funding.  I hope that recent trends of stagnation and declining resources will be reversed, so that the United Nations is able to maintain its capacity to help countries make real progress towards the eradication of poverty, the overriding goal we all share.

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