Midterm review of the Istanbul Programme of Action

Midterm review of the Istanbul Programme of Action
Photo credit: UN-OHRLLS

09 May 2016

The Istanbul Programme of Action (IPoA) adopted at the Fourth UN Conference on Least Developed Countries (LDCs) in Istanbul, Turkey in May 2011, constitutes an ambitious policy agenda agreed by the international community to address the challenges faced by the LDCs, based on the fundamental tenets of mutual accountability and enhanced international cooperation.

The overarching goal of the IPoA is to overcome the structural challenges faced by the LDCs in order to eradicate poverty, achieve internationally agreed development goals and enable graduation from the LDC category. It also recognizes that the LDCs represent an enormous potential for world economic growth, stability and prosperity.

As the midpoint of the decade-long programme of action draws near, the UN General Assembly has decided to hold the comprehensive High-level Midterm Review of the implementation of the Istanbul Programme of Action for Least Developed Countries from 27 to 29 May, 2016, in Antalya, Turkey.

Participation will be at the highest possible political level and will bring together all stakeholders of the IPoA; representatives from governments, the private sector, multilateral organizations, civil society, academia. The High-level Midterm Review will result in an inter-governmentally negotiated and agreed outcome in the form of a political declaration.

The review will undertake an assessment of the implementation of the Istanbul Programme of Action by the LDCs and their development partners. It will share best practices and lessons learned and identify obstacles, constraints and actions and initiatives needed to overcome them, as well as new challenges and emerging issues.

The midterm review will also serve to reaffirm the global commitment to address the special needs of the LDCs countries made at the Fourth UN Conference on the Least Developed Countries and to further strengthen the global partnership for development for LDCs in all priority areas of the Istanbul Programme of Action in order to ensure its timely and effective implementation during the remainder of the Decade, while taking into account the post-2015 development agenda as it relates to the LDCs.

About LDCs

The Least Developed Countries represent the poorest and weakest segment of the international community. They comprise more than 880 million people (about 12 per cent of world population), but account for less than 2 percent of world GDP and about 1 percent of global trade in goods.

Their low level of socio-economic development is characterized by weak human and institutional capacities, low and unequally distributed income and scarcity of domestic financial resources. They often suffer from governance crisis, political instability and, in some cases, internal and external conflicts. Their largely agrarian economies are affected by a vicious cycle of low productivity and low investment. They rely on the export of few primary commodities as major source of export and fiscal earnings, which makes them highly vulnerable to external terms-of-trade shocks. Only a handful has been able to diversify into the manufacturing sector, though with a limited range of products in labour-intensive industries, i.e. textiles and clothing. These constraints are responsible for insufficient domestic resource mobilization, low economic management capacity, weaknesses in programme design and implementation, chronic external deficits, high debt burdens and heavy dependence on external financing that have kept LDCs in a poverty trap.

The category of LDCs was officially established in 1971 by the UN General Assembly with a view to attracting special international support for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged members of the UN family. The current list of LDCs includes 48 countries (the newest member being South Sudan); 34 in Africa, 13 in Asia and the Pacific and 1 in Latin America. For LDC country profiles, click here.

Lessons from the UNCTAD 2011-2015 implementation activities, and the way forward

UNCTAD supports LDCs in their efforts to achieve the goals of the Istanbul Programme of Action. Its work is organized under three broad pillars, namely research and policy analysis, consensus-building and intergovernmental support, and technical cooperation and capacity-building. UNCTAD contributions to the implementation, follow-up and monitoring of progress towards the goals and targets of the Programme, in areas within its competence and mandates, include reviews by the annual sessions of the Trade and Development Board. The outcomes of the Board’s reviews, in the form of decisions and agreed conclusions, are included in its annual report to the General Assembly. These reviews are in addition to the substantive and technical contributions of UNCTAD to advancing the development objectives of the 48 LDCs.

This report is not intended to cover all UNCTAD actions in support of LDCs and implementation of the Istanbul Programme of Action. Instead, it highlights some of the more consequential activities and events undertaken and publications prepared by the secretariat in the last five years. It provides a summary of UNCTAD implementation activities in support of LDCs since the adoption of the Istanbul Programme of Action and, midway through the term of the Programme, contains a succinct assessment of where LDCs stand in achieving some of the quantitative and qualitative targets therein. Building on UNCTAD experience in the implementation of the Programme, this report also provides policy conclusions and a way forward for improving implementation of the agreed priorities in the years ahead.

This report aims to assist the high-level midterm review of progress in implementing the Istanbul Programme of Action, to be conducted in Antalya, Turkey, from 27 to 29 May 2016, and will also serve as a background document for the review of progress by the Trade and Development Board at its next annual session.


Periodic assessments and analyses by UNCTAD of the socioeconomic progress of LDCs indicate that, while the growth performance demonstrated by many LDCs is impressive, improvements in their human and social development aspects to the level envisaged in the Istanbul Programme of Action have not yet been achieved. Progress made to date towards the goals and targets of the Programme have been weak and have varied between countries and regions and across sectors. The sluggish socioeconomic performance of LDCs is a reflection of structural weaknesses inherent in their economies and the resulting vulnerability to shocks of various forms and magnitudes, whether economic, social, political or environmental. UNCTAD has stressed that, to reach the targets set in the Sustainable Development Goals and the Programme, LDCs and their international development partners must continue to build the productive capacities of LDCs and work towards genuine structural economic transformation as a way to build resilience. Without the economic transformation of LDCs from low-productivity to high-productivity economies, sustainable development and decent employment outcomes for their populations will be difficult to realize.

The Istanbul Programme of Action is an internationally developed framework to enhance the development partnership between LDCs and the international community. The Programme contains eight priority areas for action, as follows:

(a) Productive capacities

(b) Agriculture, food security and rural development

(c) Trade

(d) Commodities

(e) Human and social development

(f) Multiple crises and other development challenges

(g) Mobilizing financial resources for development and capacity-building

(h) Good governance at all levels

Each priority area includes commitments, specific goals and targets, in a number of different areas.

UNCTAD, whose seminal work led to the establishment of the LDC category in 1971, has been consistently advancing the trade and development interests of LDCs since the first session of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD I), held in 1964. Since the adoption of the Programme, UNCTAD has incorporated the priority areas, goals and targets into its ongoing work, in addition to instituting new projects to fulfil the Programme objectives, as detailed in chapter II of this report. UNCTAD will continue to address the trade and development challenges facing LDCs in all of the Programme’s priority areas, within its competence and mandates. Paragraph 156 of the Programme and paragraph 18(g) of the Doha Mandate provide UNCTAD with a mandate to assist LDCs through intergovernmental consensus-building and technical assistance.

From 2011 to 2014 (the most recent year of available data), the average annual real growth rate of gross domestic product for LDCs as a group was 4.9 per cent. This level of growth falls short of the 7 per cent target committed to in the Istanbul Programme of Action. Only nine countries grew at a rate above the target over this period. Despite economic growth not being the sole objective of sustainable development, strong growth can support opportunities to improve material conditions for growing populations and provide a foundation for improvement in human and social development indicators. Targets in health, education and employment may all be supported by continuing growth, as long as the growth is broad based and sustainable. As such, the international community, in addition to LDCs themselves, must redouble efforts to boost growth in LDCs in order to bring about increased living standards for the world’s poorest people.

A key goal of the Istanbul Programme of Action is to enable half of LDCs to meet the graduation criteria by 2020. To date, progress on this target has been inadequate. Only four countries have graduated from LDC status, namely Botswana (1994), Cabo Verde (2007), Maldives (2011) and Samoa (2014). Three additional countries are slated for graduation, namely Angola, Equatorial Guinea and Vanuatu, and seven further countries have been found pre-eligible for graduation, namely Bhutan, Kiribati, Nepal, Sao Tome and Principe, Solomon Islands, Timor-Leste and Tuvalu. A more complete discussion of the progress of LDCs and development partners against the targets set by the Programme is provided in chapter III of this report.

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Date 09 May 2016
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