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Life on the Fringe Of Poverty Summit

Sky-high prices mock the title of UN summit on poverty but provide ammunition for critics, protesters

WHATEVER it lacked in direction, the United Nations World Summit for Social Development made up for in scope.

As you pass by the TV studio, one of the dozens of reporters hovering outside explains that South African President Nelson Mandela is being interviewed inside. Heads of state with massive entourages and dangerous-looking security men keep passing by, but you have no idea which country they're from. And the soft-spoken older gentleman with the famous accent standing in the cafeteria is Jacques Cousteau.

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The largest gathering of world leaders ever is a gargantuan logistics problem, a magnet for protesters, and at times a surreal experience.

A city-within-a-city teeming with Danish policemen has sprung up in the sprawling Bella Center outside Copenhagen. Security has been so tight that several UN staffers whose names were not placed on the correct list had to masquerade as journalists or nongovernment organization (NGO) staffers to get in.

A half-dozen cafes and impromptu banks and travel service agencies have been set up to serve the summit's 20,000 visitors. Eight hundred desks, dozens of TV-editing suites, and hundreds of telephone lines have been set up for the 2,000 reporters covering the conference. Outside, protesters from Chechnya and Bosnia-Herzegovina are kept safely across the street, and signs posted inside regarding a hunger strike seems to attract little press attention.

Prices for everything are high, since a 25 percent value added tax is charged on all goods. ''This is a social summit, but everything is expensive,'' complains Haman Adama, a delegate from Cameroon. ''The hotels are expensive, the restaurants are expensive. It is not a summit for poor people.''

Across town in a former naval base, NGOs are holding their alternative to the UN summit -- the NGO Summit '95. More than 2,000 private, humanitarian-aid groups attended the alternative meeting and promptly produced their own final summit declaration calling the official summit vacuous and a waste of money.

At the NGO summit, volunteers in purple windbreakers guide thousands of visitors streaming through the complex. Danish Marxists sell copies of books by Che Guevara and Vladimir Lenin.

Inside, the NGO summit's main attraction -- a cavernous hall called the Global Village -- dozens of NGOs have set up booths to sell their wares and promote their causes.

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Antislavery groups, antitorture groups, environmental groups, natural-childbirth groups, and demining groups pack the building. A group of young students returning from aid work in Africa quietly sings songs in different African dialects.

High trees line the main walkway. In the auditorium, trade unionists say the free market is the cause of the developing world's problems, not the answer. Impressive interactive-computer programs introduce visitors to the problems of the world's poor, and a large clock -- reading 541,000 -- ticks off the number of people born into poverty since the summit began six days ago. Smaller NGOs have come to network and make contacts.

Florence Aya of Sudanese Women Unity Action - an NGO trying to export handcrafts made by Sudanese women - says the official summit has been disappointing, but the NGO summit surprisingly valuable. ''It's gone very well,'' Ms. Aya said as she put the finishing touches on a basket, and she greeted Danish shoppers crowding around her booth. ''We've sold nearly everything and we have made contacts to sell more from home.''

In another building, a church group sings folk songs as a young Dane in an orange turban silently meditates in a booth advocating Yoga. Across the aisle from him, the Worker's Communist Party of Iran hands out pamphlets. And a banner over a Danish social-service agency booth seemed to sum up the perils of global summiteering. The sign, in bright yellow letters, warned visitors they were entering ''The Socio-Political Minefield.''

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