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UN Poverty Conference Opens with Calls for Increased Development Aid - 2002-03-22

The plenary session of the United Nations Conference on Financing Development began Thursday in the northern Mexico city of Monterrey with calls for substantial increases in development aid. The divide between what is being offered by rich nations and what is being demanded by poor nations may have narrowed somewhat as a result of this conference.

United Nations officials acknowledge that this conference will not produce the amount of aid necessary to meet their poverty reduction goals over the next decade. However, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said the commitment that is being made by industrialized nations represents a major step forward. "Apart from the money, there has been a major shift in policy in some capitals, which I think, over time, is going to have an important impact on the work that we are trying to do," he said.

World Bank President James Wolfensohn stuck to the same theme, saying that leaders of rich nations now understand that poverty is not an issue confined to poor nations. As he put it in his plenary speech: "poverty anywhere is poverty everywhere."

Speaking to reporters later, Mr. Wolfensohn said the Monterrey conference had brought rich nations and poor nations together in a mutual effort to address the issue of poverty. "There is now a unity of purpose between the leaders of the developed countries and the developing countries that we should treat this as a joint issue," he said. "I think what is coming out in the comunique and in the consensus is that this partnership is not only recognized, but that we are going to act on it."

But the depth of the consensus was challenged in a speech to the plenary by Cuban President Fidel Castro. He described the world economy of today as "a huge casino" in which much money is lost in speculation while people in poor nations suffer from starvation and wretched living conditions. Mr. Castro said the fact that people in rich nations live, on average, 30 years longer than people in sub-Saharan Africa represents in his words "a true genocide."

To rousing applause, the Cuban communist leader called for rich countries to forgive the debt of impoverished nations and provide new funds to finance their development. After speaking, Mr. Castro left the hall and returned to Cuba, leading to speculation that he had left in order to avoid a possible confrontation with President Bush, who arrived later in the day.

Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda denied there had been any suggestion on the part of the Mexican government that Mr. Castro should leave. President Bush is scheduled to address the plenary session on Friday.