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Poverty Summit Falters in Giving A Map of Future

Latest UN global meeting reveals breakup of North-South, East-West negotiating blocs

IF you are a believer in incremental change, the earth shook slightly yesterday when more than 120 leaders signed the final declaration of the United Nation World Summit for Social Development.

But according to critics, $30 million has been wasted on yet another UN global extravaganza that produced far more pablum than specific commitments to eradicate poverty.

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''We are not satisfied. We hoped that the industrial countries would give us more,'' says Haman Adama, a delegate from Cameroon.

''Before I came to Copenhagen, I hoped this summit would be the best thing for my country in 20 years, but now I'm disappointed,'' Ms. Adama adds.

Observers say the lack of bold action and specific commitments in the summit's final declaration is one of the clearest examples yet of the confused state of international relations. The continuing reluctance of the United States to take a leadership position, as well as the steady dissolution of traditional East-West and North-South negotiating blocs, is leading to diplomatic stalemates here and in other areas.

''I'm surprised by the degree to which the world is having a very difficult time adjusting to the end of the bipolar world,'' says John Sewell, president of the Washington-based Overseas Development Council and an organizer of the conference.

''The idea that there is this set of old industrial countries and a group of poor countries doesn't exist anymore,'' Mr. Sewell adds.

After a week of at times bitter debate, no clear winner emerged at the summit. A US-led push by rich countries to require that 20 percent of development aid and 20 percent of poor countries' national budgets go to social and educational programs was thwarted by opposition from the unlikely alliance of Britain, Sweden, and several poor countries.

A push by the world's poorest countries to get rich nations to write off large amounts of debt was stymied by opposition from rich nations and surprisingly lukewarm support from quickly developing countries in Asia and Latin America.

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''[This summit] may turn out to be the leading indicator of what we're going to see in the future,'' says Paul Altesman, a UNICEF official. ''No one has a sense what the landscape will look like at the end of this period.''

The conference is the fourth in a series of global UN summits that some critics are beginning to call ineffective. A 1990 summit on children held in New York kicked off the process and was relatively successful at outlining and achieving specific goals.

But the 1992 UN environment conference held in Rio de Janeiro is largely considered a failure, and last fall's Cairo population conference was nearly derailed by a bitter split between the Vatican and abortion-rights advocates.

UN officials and development groups say the final document at least did not back-track on hard-fought commitments to eradicate poverty and increase women's equality from past summits. But all of the specific timetables in the final document -- such as having 80 percent of the world's children completing primary school by the year 2000 -- are voluntary.

''We've got old specifics and new vague language,'' says one UN official. ''There are a few nuggets and the rest is [junk].''

NGOs and governments called for large reforms in UN, World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and rich and poor nations' development programs.

''The real failure of the conference is that these things aren't mandatory,'' Sewell says. ''Are they going to seize this opportunity .... I think if the UN goes back to business as usual, it's a real missed opportunity.''

US Vice President Al Gore announced at the summit that the US would direct 40 percent of its development aid through humanitarian aid groups -- also known as nongovernmental organizations or NGOs. The announcement reinforces a trend of private agencies -- which are generally viewed as more efficient and effective than host governments -- handling development aid.

''We ... have begun to abandon the old strategies to eradicate poverty with massive government bureaucracies,'' Mr. Gore says, echoing the current welfare debate in the US. ''We cannot succeed if the poor are passive recipients. We have to find new ways that produce results.''

With no clear leadership from the UN, the absent West, or the divided South, NGOs may have emerged as the clearest winner of the summit. NGOs enjoyed unprecedented success in getting the language they wanted inserted into the final document.

''We went down the document, wrote our own line-by-line amendments, and then lobbied for our language,'' says Bella Abzug, a US feminist who headed the powerful women's NGO lobby at the summit. ''We actually moved the agenda quite well.''

President Clinton's decision not to attend the summit was also a major blow to organizers, who complained his no-show helped contribute to relatively little media coverage of the summit in the US. Organizers had hoped the conference would raise the profile of poverty and development in the US -- where foreign aid is under attack -- as the Rio summit did with the environment.

Whether the diplomatic stalemate will continue, whether the influence of NGOs will continue to grow exponentially, and whether critics' claims that the international community is becoming UN Global-summited-out are correct, may be made clear in September. A UN summit on women will be held in Beijing and critics and NGOs are promising to hold the UN's and national governments' feet to the fire.

''[Copenhagen] was kind of like the opening curtain of a three-act play,'' says Ms. Abzug, the former congresswoman from New York City. ''I want to see the three acts ... I want action.''


*We commit ourselves to the goal of eradicating poverty in the world...

*We commit ourselves to promoting the goal of full employment as a basic priority...

*We commit ourselves to accelerating the economic, social, and human resource development of Africa and the least developed nations.

*We commit ourselves to ensuring that when structural adjustment programs are agreed to, they should include social and developmental goals, in particular, of eradicating poverty, promoting full and productive employment, and enhancing social integration.

*We commit ourselves to increase significantly and/or utilize more efficiently the resources allocated to social development...

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