ISTANBUL – The acute problems of the world's poorest countries form the agenda of a U.N.-backed conference this week in Turkey, which has sought to balance its traditional Western alliances with growing ties to Africa, the Middle East and other developing regions.
The conference of "least-developed countries" lists 48 members, including Afghanistan, where a U.S.-led coalition is fighting Taliban insurgents, and Yemen, where at least 140 protesters have died during months of demonstrations aimed at ousting the president.
Up to 10,000 delegates are expected to attend the five-day forum, which starts Monday. Among them are U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose oil-rich country is not in the list of poorest countries.
The goal of the meeting is to promote ways to reduce poverty and hunger in impoverished countries, in coordination with international partners. Social issues such as gender equality will also be discussed.
Turkey's role as host highlights its strategic position linking the European and Asian continents, as well as its expanding regional profile and robust economic growth. Turkey donates about $1 billion a year in aid to poor nations in the Balkans, South and Central Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, a tenfold increase over the last decade, according to the Turkish government.
Turkey is paying for up to 11 delegates from each of the 48 poor nations to travel to Istanbul for the conference, which will also attract aid organizations, parliamentarians and academics. Hundreds of business executives will attend, based on the view that least-developed countries, or LDCs, offer high potential for investment despite their vulnerability to civil unrest, disease and other grave challenges.
Ban, the U.N. chief, said at an international meeting on women's issues in Istanbul on Saturday that the economies of some of the poorest countries were among the fastest-growing in the world.
"By helping these next-wave economies increase their productive capacities, we can create tangible opportunities for businesses across a spectrum of industries, sectors and issues," he said.
Thirty-three of the least-developed countries are in Africa, 14 are in Asia and one — Haiti — is in the Americas. Since the United Nations introduced the category decades ago, only Botswana, Cape Verde and Maldives have developed enough to be removed from the list.
Qualification for the list includes a per-capita annual income of less than $905, and assessments of malnutrition, child mortality and education levels, as well as an "economic vulnerability" rating based on population size, remoteness and instability in exports and production. The category does not include large economies, and the populations of its members must be below 75 million.
The last such conference was hosted by the European Union in Brussels in 2001. France hosted the two previous ones in 1990 and 1981.