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Monday, 14 January, 2002, 12:49 GMT
Poverty conference opens in Washington
IMF Headquarters, Washington DC
The IMF is hosting the conference in Washington, DC
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David Schepp
BBC News Online's North America Business Reporter

A conference on strategies for helping the world's poorest countries is set to begin on Monday in Washington, DC, amid hopes that the 11 September attacks will give the talks fresh impetus.

The confab is jointly sponsored by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, organisations whose mission is to help developing countries through loan programmes and other financial assistance.

World Bank President James Wolfensohn
World Bank chief James Wolfensohn: "Look to Ground Zero"

IMF director Horst Koehler and World Bank president James Wolfensohn are playing host to delegates, including 200 representatives from developing countries, during the four-day meeting.

Focus on the poor

"We can no longer afford to turn our backs on the world's poorest," said Mr Wolfensohn in opening remarks at IMF headquarters in the US capital.

Mr Wolfensohn said the devastation caused by the 11 September attacks on New York - as well as Washington - provide a unique window onto the plight of the poor.

"To those who still believe that we can ignore or merely pay lip-service to the plight of 20% of the world's population living in direst poverty, I say, 'go to Ground Zero'", he said.

Conference participants as well as World Bank and IMF staff will be examining poverty-reduction strategies (PRSP), instituted two years ago.

Greater flexibility

The lending institutions have come under heavy criticism in recent years for their inflexible approach to assisting poor countries during the past few years.

International Monetary Fund
IMF: Financier to poorer nations
However, signalling a shift in what were perceived as rigid policies, leaders of five African nations have said the IMF and the World Bank are now showing greater willingness to adapt programmes to particular local needs.

Speaking during the world finance organisations' spring meetings, Niger's Minister of Finance Ali Badjo Gamatie, said: "Things are changing, and there is hope."

Other leaders, however, renewed calls for the IMF and World Bank to cancel the debts of poor countries crippled by hefty monthly servicing costs.

Source of protest

It has been the rallying cry and the source of protest for many groups who oppose IMF and World Bank policies, who are expected to demonstrate outside the IMF's headquarters, where the meeting is being held.

But Mr Wolfensohn has said that large-scale debt cancellation is not feasible as it would put the viability of global lending institutions at risk.

The poverty meeting is the first such conference since the 11 September attacks, which forced the IMF and World Bank to cancel their annual meeting.

The development committee of the World Bank and the IMF, as well as the International Monetary and Financial Committee (IMFC) of the IMF held meetings last November in Ottawa, Canada, amid heavy protests.

UN hopes

Separately, the United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan has urged rich countries to double the aid they give to developing countries.

He wants an extra $50bn to be raised each year by 2005 at the latest.

He was speaking to delegates gathered in New York ahead of the International Conference on Financing for Development, which will take place in Mexico in March.

The BBC's Oliver Woods
outlines the UN's concerns about falling aid levels
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