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SUMMIT FATIGUE OR TRYING PEOPLES’ PATIENCE?

by Someshwar Singh

Geneva,30 June 2000 -- Like a moving target in the dark, the hopes of peoples in the ‘global village’ are being pushed to new frontiers. From the Rio Summit in 1992 to Copenhagen in 1995 and now in Geneva, the promises and commitments, finely crafted as they are, have acquired a habit of leaving performance far behind.

But why the Geneva Special UN General Assembly session was called a Summit remains a puzzle. Only 19 heads of state or governments actually took part - the rest of the world leaders choosing to abstain. Of course, the rest of the world did send very senior and high-level representation. But then it could have been called by that name and not “World Summit for Social Development  and Beyond - Achieving Social Development for All in a Globalizing World.”

Denmark, the host of the first Social Summit, and Norway certainly were the only countries of the developed North that were represented at the level of heads of state and government. Not only are these countries among the few who have actually been honouring their commitments towards meeting the 0.70% of their GDP as Official Development Assistance, they have lived up to, in effect, the cause of promoting international development cooperation.

On the last day of the Geneva Summit Friday, at the mid-day briefing by the United Nations spokespersons, journalists had a hard time swallowing the claims of “significant advance” made during the last five days. This was despite some issues still being thrashed out by negotiators after late-night negotiations Thursday that did not produce a ‘total’ agreement.

“In Copenhagen we promised to eradicate absolute poverty,”  Mr Jan Troborg, the Danish Minister for Development Cooperation told the Special Session. “Five years later, the number of poor in the world is the same. We have not made major progress in the fight against poverty.  The testimony to our failure is overwhelming. 1.2 billion human beings have to cope with less than $1 a day. Yet, we promised these people real, tangible progress.”

But despite these frank admissions of failure, the outcome of the Geneva Summit appears to be clearly chipping away at some of the 10 important goals that were set in Copenhagen. This is evident, for instance, in one of the most crucial goals relating to poverty. While the Copenhagen commitment number two talked of eradication, the ‘highlights of the outcome document’ presented by the UN’s John Langmore Friday has “set a target of 2015 to reduce the proportion of people living in extreme poverty.”

Instead of firming up international resolve by coughing up for more resources, governments have now decided that since the challenge is so daunting, they might as well reduce the target - just make it smaller because ‘absolute poverty’ makes a much larger set - and a proportion of people living in extreme poverty could perhaps be manageable.

Not just that; but the target date for this scaled-down achievement - it is 15 years from now. Who knows, how many millions of people waging a daily battle for existence may actually live to see ‘tangible progress’ in their lifetime.

It is possible to read into that “proportion” of the poor whose numbers the international community would like to reduce. The clue is provided in goal number two of the already much discredited new report launched Monday 26 June. The report, “Better World For All” has been forged together by the heads of the World Bank, IMF, the Organization for Economic Cooperation (OECD - the club of the rich nations) and the United Nations.

Goal two of the BWA report seeks to “halve the proportion of people living in extreme poverty.”

Though globalisation came in for a fair amount of criticism, there appears to be no direct moves to make it acquire a “human face.” High-level voices continue to talk about how important it is to do so - without really spelling out how and by when.

“Markets must serve human beings,” said Mr. Troborg. “A vibrant market economy is the engine of long-term sustainable development. Market forces must be guided to maximise welfare and avoid social distress.  Economic growth must go hand in hand with the full recognition of collective labour rights, respect for the environment, and investment in education for all is a fundamental prerequisite in all aspects of development.”

But, in explaining the achievements of the outcome of the Geneva Session, Mr Langmore noted, “Some of the new measures are major, such as new campaigns to eradicate poverty and promote employment, while others are highly technical, such as increasing assistance to developing countries so that they can negotiate and defend their interests in international trade and economic negotiations.”

That, in essence, captures the inability of the governments that call the shots in these international gatherings to provide the right enabling environment for the realization of any of the social priorities that were made in Copenhagen. Because, the bottom line is that the fundamental division of power and all the structures that sustain them - are just not open to change. If anything, change must come from within and through the system.

That is what comes out through that idea of trying to provide some assistance to developing countries “so that they can negotiate and defend their interests.” Not really different from piecemeal attempts being made in that direction by the World Trade Organization.

Many high-level delegates to the Special Session did not really mince their words in stating that globalization had by now done enough damage and it was high time that problems it had posed by way of inequality, unemployment, and social insecurities - should begin to be addressed by some ‘radical’ measures.

The representative of Guyana in an apt reference to the issue, in his address to the Special Session, said ,”But this forum would be a sad disappointment and we would have failed to meaningfully use the five years since Copenhagen if major forces do not take their heads out of the sand in  order to recognise that the main impediments to achieve social progress are structural in nature - deeply rooted in the massive inequality and unjust relations between States.”

Most of the agreed outcomes, until late Friday afternoon, in fact, do not attempt to change any of those fundamental flaws. Most new initiatives either call for preparation of new strategies or more studies.

What is also notable is that on the crucial issue of debt, the outcome of the Geneva session calls for “encouraging creditor countries to implement.....” - a language that approximates so closely to another “achievement” shown by Mr Langmore. And this relates to the responsibility of business and industry - which are the market forces.

“Encourage corporate social responsibility by promoting awareness about the relationship between social development and growth, and provide a legal, economic, and social policy framework to promote corporate social responsibility.”

It is difficult to understand how governments are to encourage themselves, nor why, even now, when the corporate sector already has the benefit of the “global compact” by the United Nations, it still needs to be made aware of some rather basic relationships! It also sounds much like the whole purpose of writing that “Better World For All” report - to “sensitize” no other than the seven most powerful and richest countries in the world, the G-7.

But the best of wordsmiths and ace diplomats cannot hide the reality - which had already manifested itself in massive public demonstrations against the Bretton Woods institutions and the WTO in Seattle, Washington and Davos.

Steering globalization on the right course must be done, said many eminent speakers during the Geneva conference. The Prime Minister of Denmark, Mr. Poul Nyrup Rasmussen said, “But one thing is for sure: by themselves, the global forces leading to economic expansion and better standards of living are not sufficient to create a harmonious world community. Their contribution to the improvement of human conditions will remain limited to a few - individuals, social classes and countries - unless controlled and directed to the benefit of all by appropriate public authorities and institutions.”

Assuming that responsibility will remain an unfulfilled challenge until the collectivity of the rich and the powerful nations, firms and groups give a jolt to their moral conscience. Failing that would be an invitation to violence that may know no boundaries in this supposedly global village.

But there is hope - there is the Millennium Summit coming up in New York in September 2000 and then the Financing of Development conference the year after.

The whimper with which the Geneva Summit has ended made many observers and delegates and media wonder what the UN Secretary General, Mr Kofi Annan meant when he said in his inaugural address to the session - that the Copenhagen Summit was a “little ahead of its time.” Was it that, 117 heads of state and governments were too ambitious in their collective vision?-SUNS4699

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