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A Blurry 'Social Summit'

IN the best of times a meaningful global summit on such world problems as economic disparity, poverty, unemployment, and social dislocation would be difficult. The causes of poverty and hatred, and the problems of power and public opinion, are complex, to put it mildly.

But in 1995 the task is especially hard -- as the somewhat ineffectual United Nations ''social summit'' in Copenhagen this past week showed.

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During the meeting, which was increasingly cast as a ''poverty summit'' rather than a broader ''social summit,'' some 190 nations agreed to a 10-point plan that none of them are required to fulfill. The most significant aspects of the plan seem to be debt forgiveness -- and a formula by which donor nations earmark 20 percent of their foreign aid to social programs, and recipient nations spend 20 percent of their national budgets on education, food, health, and other areas of social improvement.

Certainly it is important to remind people of the enormous debt carried by less developed nations -- which spend $43 dollars per person on debt servicing, compared with $35 on needs. Denmark and Austria are to be commended for forgiving $300 billion in debts. Moreover, the North-South aspect of the summit avoided the arrogant tone from the North that does so much to harm these relations.

Still, it is questionable whether the summit will take hold any more than other UN summits have. Confidence in the UN is not high; richer nations are reluctant to spend tight money and resources on an organization with such diffuse authority and so dubious a track record.

Yet the very lack of clarity in Copenhagen challenges democratic nations proud of their own ''civil societies.'' Poverty, corruption, and social disintegration will not be addressed within old frameworks of thinking. Merely to feed a person for a day does not touch these deeper issues. Copenhagen's loudest cheers were not for US Vice President Al Gore, but for Fidel Castro, who talked about the ''blind and savage laws of the market.'' Believers in the kind of civil society Castro doesn't understand must make their case better.

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