Bum deal at the summit

Bum deal at the summit ONLY the pathologically optimistic expected the recently-concluded un World Summit for Social Development to trumpet to a momentous, pathbreaking climax.

"Anything that we developing countries wanted, they (the industrialised nations) voted as a bloc against us," said a disgusted Mercedes Arzu Wilson, a Guatemalan government delegate, at the end of the week-long extravaganza at the Bela Centre in Copenhagen. The collective developmental frolic reportedly cost the Danish government US $25 million.

Adding rebellious character to the event was an "alternative summit" set up at the former Holmen naval base in another part of the city jointly by ngos, including hundreds of aid groups, charities and human rights organisations. The official verbiage was several decibels lower. In his inaugural speech, UN secretary-general Boutros Boutros Ghali told the 13,000-odd delegates from 190 nations that the summit would try to "mobilise international public opinion on the social development issues", focusing specifically on poverty, unemployment and social breakdown. "But to achieve it, we need many decades of hard work," he concluded.

The meeting degenerated into heated exchanges between sharply-divided interest groups. The developing nations wanted more aid and a reduction in their debts to strengthen what they called their "battle against poverty"; the industrialised countries said no.

The result was a 90-page draft action plan which critics dismiss as a "charter of vague commitments". Lamented Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Bin Mohamad***(check spelling), "We move from one major conference to another pronouncing with lofty intentions global action programmes, but we never make available the means of implementation."

Ideas were randomly shot down in ideological dogfights, including a proposal of a tax on speculative currency transfers, suggested by American economist and 1981 Nobel Prize winner James Tobin. This tax could raise US $50 billion a year for the United Nations for its development programmes. The industrialised nations trashed it, arguing that the tax would be difficult to define and impossible to collect.

The idea of a "20-20 compact", touted with much vigour by Mahbub-ul-Haq, architect of the un's annual Human Development Report and its blueprinter, evoked tepid enthusiasm. The compact proposed that if donors were to agree to direct 20 per cent of their foreign aid towards basic social programmes, receivers would agree to direct at least 20 per cent of their national budget to such programmes. Its supporters contended that the donors would be more willing to loosen their purse strings if they knew how their money would be spent.

Britain fiercely lobbied against the compact, fearing that it would force it to reexamine the controversial aid-and-trade provision under which aid is used to finance the purchase of development-related goods and services from Britain. Some developing countries resented the idea of strings being attached to aid. A majority of the European Community countries were in favour.

The funked-out compromise was that the Summit approved the compact, without making it binding. It is now a bilateral option rather than a mandate. The declaration also commits signatories to promote full employment, gender equality, universal access to education, adequate healthcare, and protection of workers' rights. It urges the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to take social aspects into account when financing development projects.

The issue that dominated proceedings was the structural adjustment programme (SAP), the conditional policy-related lending operations undertaken by the international lending agencies. "saps cause poverty regardless of the safety nets," said Cassim Saloojee, South African member of parliament. Critics demanded that saps be reformed, scrapped or suspended pending reframing in a more people-friendly mould.

The World Bank and the IMF were also urged to be more flexible towards outstanding debts from the developing world, amounting to a staggering US $1 trillion. Many African countries, backed by Indonesia and Cuba, lobbied for a reduction of the burden that they claimed was destroying the world's many faltering economies.

Officials from the Bretton Woods countered that debt cancellation alone could not salvage critically ill economies. "If they (the recipient governments) want aid, they must handle their problems themselves," contended Roberto Brauning Rodriguez, the imf's deputy chief for public affairs.

But the NGOs' "alternative declaration", issued with much fanfare 3 days ahead of its official counterpart, stated, "The Bretton Woods institutions must be made transparent and accountable to civil society, and policy-based lending and the interference of the World Bank and the IMF in the internal affairs of the sovereign states should be discontinued."

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