"The World Needs to Pay More Attention to Poor Nations"
More than 630 million people live in the 49 nations that belong to the category of ''least developed countries.'' One of these countries - the Congo, formerly known as Zaire - was the scene of one of the most memorable landmarks of my career in the boxing ring.
In that nation, and in others where I have traveled as an athlete and on a variety of humanitarian and peace-keeping missions, I have been met with an incredible outpouring of kindness and love. This is despite the fact that many of these fellow human beings are besieged by the daily struggle to feed their children, find warmth and shelter, and earn even a subsistence income.
Yet their human spirit is undeterred, and they embrace me as a brother, one who shares with them their humanity and dignity.
I am honored to be in their presence and buoyed in my belief in the goodness of mankind and the resiliency of the human spirit.
Statistics on the least developed countries tell a sad tale. More than half of the people live on less than one dollar a day. Their average life expectancy is 51 years, compared with more than 70 in richer countries. Forty-three percent have no access to safe drinking water; 50 percent are illiterate.
As the developed countries increase their standards of living, the number of countries that are desperately poor is on the rise. During the past 30 years the number of least developed countries has nearly doubled, from 25 to 49. Thirty-four of these countries are in Africa.
There are many individuals in these countries, as well as staff of international organizations and UN agencies, who labor tirelessly to improve the conditions for these hundreds of millions of people. Yet all too often the plight of the people of these countries is overlooked. Occasionally an event occurs - a civil war, a drought - that catches our attention and results in an outpouring of outrage and short-term action. Then the least developed countries again disappear from view.
The United Nations recently held a conference on the least developed countries in Brussels. Their representatives went to the conference with pledges and plans for national improvement. The rest of the world will be asked to do its share as well - to lower trade barriers to products that are exported by these countries, to reverse the fall in foreign aid to them, and to lighten debt burdens that have built up since unwise lending and borrowing decisions were made in the 1980s.
Most of all, we the citizens of the world are being asked to help these countries fight the toughest opponents on the planet today: disease, discrimination, ignorance, hunger, and poverty.
Most of these countries are far from American shores. Their peoples are often seen as different from us: different color, different religion, different culture.
While these external differences are real, they mask the fact that in our hearts and souls we share far more with them than the things that set us apart.
We all want our children to go to bed with food in their stomachs and a roof over their heads. We all want to live in peace. We all want a chance to earn a decent living. We all want a chance.
Originally published in The Boston Globe, May 26 2001.