Davos, Switzerland: The world’s poor didn’t have seats at the elite World Economic Forum, but the political and corporate leaders heard fervent appeals on their behalf to not forget the “bottom billion” even as governments strain budgets to bail out their financial systems.
“Last year, we gathered here to declare 2008 the year of the bottom billion,” U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon said at the meeting in Davos, Switzerland on Friday. “These are the poorest people who live on less than a dollar a day, who are vulnerable to every shock that comes.”
“As we struggle to cover these and other challenges we must not waiver in our commitment to the poorest of the poor. We must stand by those who are most vulnerable.”
It was an appeal repeated throughout the third day of the elite gathering of 2,500 business and political leaders in this well-heeled mountain resort.
The global meltdown has already sapped the developed world of some of its generosity: forecasts calculate a precipitous drop in international investments in poor and developing nations, while charities are resizing their own operations as donations drop.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said lending to emerging countries would drop from $1 trillion two years ago to $150 billion next year. “This is a breach of the promise of global prosperity,” Brown exhorted.
German chancellor Angela Merkel, who is proposing a U.N. Economic Council out of the ashes of this crisis, similar to the U.N. Security Council formed after the destruction of World War II, said the rights of the poor must be enshrined in the new economic order.
“We must not lose sight of fighting poverty,” Merkel said in a speech. “Letting funds slip now would mean reneging on responsibilities and the chasm between us and the developing world would only increase.”
Ban urged governments to consider earmarking money for the poor in their stimulus packages.
“To be sure the economic crisis reduces our resources,” the U.N. secretary-general told a news conference. “It threatens to deflect attention from other global problems: climate change, issues of water and the environment and economic development.”
Repairing the world’s shattered financial system with taxpayer-funded bailouts should not be allowed to derail those efforts, he said.
The concerns were echoed by two of the world’s most famous philanthropists, Bill and Melinda Gates, who said investment to improve health and development in poor countries must be kept up especially during the global financial crisis.
“No one knows how long the crisis is going to last,” Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft Corp., told The Associated Press. “I feel pretty confident that if you look out five or 10 years we’ll be back on a very strong positive economic growth track. But that still leaves a number of years here that are going to be tumultuous. And the world should feel good if it’s able to maintain the needs of the poorest during this time.”
Brown will host a meeting of the group of 20 richest nations in London in April which will aim to find broad agreement on mechanisms to confront the current crisis and deflect future ones. Brown and other leaders believe an international early alert system of some sort might have prevented the rapid spread of contagion in the world financial markets.
“We cannot continue with a situation when we have global financial markets and no form of global supervision,” Brown said.
Brown said the solutions to the crisis are to support banks, get real help to businesses and families, and resume lending.