UNDP Chief: Building resilience for sustainable development

May 10, 2011

Remarks by Helen Clark
Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme

Side Event at the Fourth United Nations Conference on the Least Developed Countries
Building Resilience for Sustainable Development:
International Co-operation and National Strategies

It is a pleasure to join this high-level panel discussion on an issue of fundamental importance to the Least Developed Countries (LDCs): how to build resilience for sustainable development.

LDCs are among the most vulnerable countries in the world. The data speaks for itself: in 2007, over 50 percent of people in LDCs lived on under US$1.25 per day, and around 80 percent lived on under $2 per day. As well, the number of people living in extreme poverty in LDCs has continued to increase over the last 30 years.

LDCs vulnerabilities are particularly reflected in a lack of resilience to external shocks. The global recession hit the LDCs hard, and many had a decline in GDP per capita and an increase in poverty. Now, the resurgence in global food prices threatens to undermine human development achievements, hitting the most vulnerable the hardest. The effects of climate change and of other non-climate-related disasters add even further to these challenges.

Yet, notwithstanding the difficult circumstances, many LDCs are making significant development progress. Among many examples:

  • Ethiopia has tripled its net primary school enrollment ratio since 1990;
  • Bangladesh, Madagascar, Nepal, and Timor-Leste reduced their under-five mortality level by more than 60 percent between 1990 and 2007; and
  • Bhutan and Rwanda reduced their maternal mortality ratio by more than half within the last decade.

The LDCs’ vulnerabilities, however, can make development progress fragile and hard to sustain. The number of countries meeting the criteria of “least developed” has increased since the 1970s, but the “graduation” rate has been marginal. Of the 51 countries which have held this designation at some point, only three have “graduated”.This reinforces the need to strengthen resilience in LDCs.

Resilience can be strengthened through a range of policy measures. I will focus here on two principles which could guide those measures: the promotion of inclusive growth and the need to address climate vulnerabilities.

Promoting inclusive growth

Last year UNDP produced an International Assessment of what it will take to achieve the Millennium Development Goals.

Among the many key factors identified was the importance of promoting economic growth which is inclusive and has its proceeds widely shared.

After a period of prolonged slow growth, LDCs accelerated their economic growth to about seven percent per annum on average over the period 2000 – 2007.

In many of the LDCs, however, that positive economic performance was not reflected in commensurate drops in poverty or in the development of substantial productive capacities.

The reason for that can be found, at least in part, in the nature of the growth. So often where it has been driven by capital intensive, extractive sectors, it has had a limited impact on the creation of decent work and livelihoods.

Furthermore, agriculture –which provides the main source of livelihoods for the majority of the labor force in LDCs– suffered from a lack of attention in many places with productivity remaining largely stagnant from the 1980s.

Adopting more inclusive growth models is about bringing the poor and marginalized into the picture, and empowering all to reach their economic, social, and political potential.

It is about targeting the sectors, activities, and regions where poor people live and work. In LDCs, measures to boost agriculture are especially important, as success there underpins economic development, poverty reduction, food security, and livelihoods for all.

Young people’s needs for decent work are a priority too. The world’s largest ever generation of youth has dreams and aspirations, along with energy and talent to be mobilized for the development of their countries.

Fundamentally inclusive growth is also equitable growth. Paradoxical as it may seem, poverty reduction may be accompanied by greater inequality. That puts strains on social cohesion and stability. Inclusive growth contributes to the dual goals of reduction of absolute poverty and inequality.

Investments in health, education, and physical infrastructure can enable more people to participate in and benefit from growth, and social protection can be helpful in ensuring that citizens enjoy a minimum level of well-being.

For all these reasons, widely shared and inclusive growth will help whole nations move forward and increase the resilience of families and communities to external shocks.

Addressing climate vulnerabilities

Rising climate vulnerabilities need to be addressed for many LDCs to be able to make sustained development progress.

Although the LDCs as a group contribute relatively little to global warming –accounting for under one percent of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions — their economic weaknesses, geographical locations, and high dependence on local natural resources for food and other basics render them particularly vulnerable to climate change.

By some estimates, 40 percent of all casualties related to natural disasters of all kinds during the period 2000–2010 were in LDCs. A large number of the casualties and damage occurred in the Asia-Pacific region.

Recovering from disasters can take years, and is a big drain on already scarce resources. During the period 2000–2010, LDCs recorded economic losses from disasters totaling USD$14.1 billion, with Bangladesh and Myanmar suffering the greatest economic losses.

Increasing cyclones and droughts, rising sea levels, and melting glaciers tell us that climate change is no longer a distant threat. The recent climate-related tragedies give us an insight into what lies ahead, and into how important both adaptation and mitigation are.

A wide range of approaches is required to address climate vulnerabilities, in order to sustain and advance MDG achievement.

  • First, investing in disaster risk reduction and preparedness pays off.

A good example can be found in Bangladesh where, after the huge loss of life experienced in the1991 cyclone, the country invested significantly in disaster risk reduction. When the equally strong Cyclone Sidr hit in 2007, the loss of life was a small fraction of the 1991 death toll.

  • Second, without greater financial support and technology transfer, LDCs will not be able to do enough to adapt to and mitigate a changing climate.

It is important that the climate finance pledged for developing countries in Copenhagen for 2010-12 materialises, and that it is additional to official development assistance.

The new climate finance mechanisms need to be designed so that they are genuinely accessible to all developing countries. UNDP is strongly advocating for their design to incorporate capacity-building support for developing countries.

  • Third, by building on the synergies between the fight against both poverty and climate change, LDCs can promote climate-resilient development.
Win-win strategies are needed, to achieve and sustain progress on the MDGs and tackle climate change. In Nepal UNDP has been working with the government, the local community and the World Bank to build a micro-hydro power plant in the small village of Lukla in the Everest region. The plant has changed the lives of the residents, especially women, and has contributed significantly to a rise in the local economy and a boost to the tourism industry. It provides significant environmental benefits, through both the production of renewable energy and the reduction of the use of wood as fuel.


Looking ahead, strengthening resilience must be integral to development policy and planning in all LDCs.

By focusing on inclusive growth and addressing climate vulnerabilities, a strong foundation can be laid for empowering people and building resilient societies. Other areas are also of fundamental importance, including strengthening productive capacities, the capacity to trade, and economic diversification, to name but a few.

Strong support from the international community is important, including through partnerships with the traditional donors and multilateral agencies, and through the fast growing South-South and triangular cooperation.

I hope that this week’s LDC conference is a milestone in strengthening these partnerships. UNDP is committed to its partnerships with each LDC, and to helping each build the resilience needed for sustainable development.

UNDP Around the world