Recent columns by Barbara Crossette:

When Peacekeeping Turns to Despair (June 14, 2004)
"A new and disturbing book is getting a lot of attention around the United Nations—so much that two of its three authors fear they will be dismissed."

McAskie One of UN's Few Women Special Representatives (June 7, 2004)
"Women, few as they are in this line of work, seem to get the toughest assignments."

Low-Tech Solutions Often Key to Third World Problems (May 31, 2004)
"Creativity born of necessity can help make life longer and better in the poorest countries."

A University in a Class by Itself (May 24, 2004)
"Not many people know that the UN has a university of its own. It has no basketball team nor even a traditional campus. It is a research institution that serves as a think tank for the United Nations."

Millions of People Worldwide on the Move (May 17, 2004)
"Migrations, particularly illegal movements of people, are cause for concern in every region. There has never been a migration study this big or ambitious. The topic has some built-in tensions, and opening it up for world scrutiny risks some hazards."

No Simple Place to Pin Blame for Iraq Oil-For-Food Problems (May 10, 2004)
"The U.S. General Accounting Office is documenting what a shambles the U.S. made of the oil-for-food program after it took over in November, and warning that the new Iraq must be watched closely or history will repeat itself."

More from U.N. Notebook.

U.N. Notebook | June 21, 2004
from U. N. Wire Changing Mindsets and Fortunes in the Poorest Nations

by Barbara Crossette

UNITED NATIONS—One of the most popular pastimes in Ghana is listening to talk radio. All day, in several languages and with a galaxy of hosts to choose from, radio seems to touch all aspects of life, or so it seems to a visitor. Sometimes the call-in shows wade into serious debates about public policy. Among questions now being aired is what Ghana, one of 16 countries eligible to compete for a boost in U.S. aid through the Bush administration's Millennium Challenge Account, needs to do to take advantage of the potential largesse.

Ghana is struggling to develop but it is not among the poorest countries in the world. Under U.N. guidelines, the category of "least developed countries" is applied to 50 states in far worse shape. But both the level of public debate heard in Ghana (and elsewhere in Africa and Latin America) and the recent news that the LDCs have begun to experience significant economic growth are hopeful signals.

They suggest that despite all the problems still out there—not least of which are AIDS and civil wars—some countries are not doing too badly in an age of economic globalization. Furthermore, changing attitudes toward the industrial nations may be underpinning some of this.

New poll results last week from a leading American opinion sampler on international issues show that Africans are in favor of globalization and have a positive view of the United States—as high as 82 percent in Ghana, an attitude that was evident among people I encountered there recently. The poll, conducted earlier this year by GlobesScan in conjunction with the Program on International Policy Attitudes, also shows Africans committed to democracy but distressed by slow progress in reducing corruption.

The economist Jagdish Bhagwati notes in his newest book, In Defense of Globalization, that it is remarkable how views of globalization have been reversed since the 1960s, when the anti-globalizers were in poorer, often ex-colonial countries and the advocates of a more integrated world economy in the richer places. Now the anti-globalizers, it is widely recognized, seem to be in the industrial North and the people most eager to get a slice of the action are in the developing world.

Better communications—satellite or cable television, the Internet, the mobile phone and the hugely important function of e-mail—really have brought unlikely people closer together, and into some genuine international debates. People everywhere, I recently noticed on a trip to three continents, are able to talk the same language of development—whether or not they are on the same side of any debate.

Those reporting from the United Nations in the late 1990s saw this trend developing, at least in the case of Africa, as leaders began tackling many of their own development shortcomings frankly, sometimes in open meetings of the Security Council, an exercise encouraged by Richard C. Holbrooke when he was the Clinton administration's ambassador to the world body. There was also the example of the world's most prominent Ghanaian, Kofi Annan, and his often tough talk to fellow African leaders about keys to development and investment like credible, transparent government and the rule of law.

Presidents such as Paul Kagame of Rwanda, Aboulaye Wade of Senegal and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, among others, began to seek out the international media to lay out their policies and pledges in areas as diverse as trade, women's rights and campaigns against AIDS and genital mutilation of girls. Bolstered by networking born of big international conferences and often funded by U.S. foundations, thousands of local nongovernmental organizations around the world began to play larger roles in national policy debates.

It will take a few more years to determine whether attitude and policy changes—and the increasing self-confidence at national level about how development should proceed from within and not be directed by outsiders—relate to the new statistics about economic growth in the least developed countries. But the figures are impressive.

During the period from 2000 to 2002, the poorest countries—50 out of 191 U.N. members—grew economically an average of nearly 5 percent, better than a lot of industrial nations. They also outpaced the better-off developing nations.

The reasons for the growth, according to a report by the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development from which these numbers are drawn, are "significant increases in capital inflows in the form of official development assistance and foreign direct investment." Money flowing into those countries jumped by 43 percent between 2000 and 2002. Exports of merchandise rose 45 percent between 1998 and 2002.

Is the worst over for the least developed countries? Certainly not, the UNCTAD report points out. It says that 87 percent of all foreign direct investment went to only 10 countries, not surprisingly the oil exporters among them. That doesn't translate into help for struggling social services.

African and Asian least developed countries are spending, on average, only $4.60 a person annually on health, for example, well below what the World Health Organization recommends. Other low-income and middle-income countries spend $73; developed nations spend $1,456 on average. Because of AIDS, UNCTAD says, life expectancy for those born between 2010 and 2015 in the least developed countries will be more than 12 years shorter—46.1 years rather than the projected 58.7 had the epidemic not occurred.

Civil conflict continues to take a terrible toll not only in life but also in development, and a manmade catastrophe like that now unfolding in western Sudan adds to the daily tragedies faced by Africa. UNCTAD also warned about unstable commodity prices (apart from oil) as well as still-growing debts and too much dependence on outside financing.

Still, the positive new figures from UNCTAD send some powerful messages. To potential investors and aid agencies, the stirrings of hope say: Don't stop now. And to the people of any number of nations willing to give it a try, the tentative signs of progress say: It can be done.

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More on foreign affairs in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Barbara Crossette, a writer on foreign affairs and columnist for U.N. Wire, was The New York Times bureau chief at the United Nations from 1994 to 2001. U.N. Wire is a free daily online news service covering news about and related to the United Nations. It is sponsored by the U.N. Foundation and appears on the foundation site, but is produced independently by The National Journal Group. For information on National Journal Group publications, see

Copyright © 2004 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.