Globalisation at heart of UN poverty summit in Geneva

Around 4,000 people protest against globalisation in Geneva ahead of the UN social summit Keystone

Five years after world leaders pledged to combat poverty at a special summit in Denmark, they are holding a follow-up meeting in Geneva to assess how close they have come to meeting their targets.

This content was published on June 26, 2000 - 12:18

In 1995, the World Summit for Social Development in Copenhagen ended with United Nations member states promising to tackle poverty, unemployment and social exclusion.

While not legally binding, it was felt the Copenhagen commitments carried a strong moral and political weight, especially as there was such a strong global consensus.

Now, the UN General Assembly is holding a special session in Geneva, the capital of the world's humanitarian conscience, to assess how much progress has been made in meeting those lofty goals, and how to move the social development agenda forward.

The special session, attended by all 188 UN member states, will be opened by the Swiss president, Adolf Ogi and the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan. Annan has in the past warned of a backlash against globalisation if the needs of people in the developing world are not addressed.

"Every country that has reported on what they've done since Copenhagen highlights changes in policies or changes in priorities, improvements in education, health, social security or employment policy," says John Langmore, head of the UN's social policy division.

"But of course, it's true that major problems remain. Poverty has not fallen globally. Unemployment remains high. The problems are almost as severe as they were five years ago," he told swissinfo.

The statistics make for sobering reading: 1.3 billion people live on less than a dollar a day, the wealth of the three richest men on earth is greater than the accumulated gross national product of the 48 poorest countries, 1.2 billion people do not have access to drinking water and 100 million people live in poverty in industrialised countries.

The world has changed since the Copenhagen conference. Not only has it been beset by financial crises and new conflicts, but the pace of globalisation has accelerated, prompting a vociferous and often violent response from some sectors of civil society. It comes as no surprise, then, that the subtitle of the Geneva summit is "social development for all in a time of globalisation".

As a UN paper on social development puts it: "As globalisation brings ever-greater profits to those who are in the loop, there is a growing realisation that this prosperity train is passing most of the world's people by. As the pace of globalisation has quickened, the growing gap between rich and poor, between and within countries, has grown."

There is a strong feeling that the Geneva summit will witness attempts to persuade international financial institutions, such as the World Trade Organisation and the International Monetary Fund to incorporate a social element into their policies.

Switzerland is one country that believes globalisation is a force for good - a way of dragging developing countries out of debt and dependence - but that it must be accompanied by certain safeguards.

The Swiss invitation to hold the special General Assembly session in Geneva said that "while open markets have a central role to play in safeguarding prosperity and democracy, accelerating globalisation may hinder the well-ordered adjustment of our societies and endanger the social contract." Switzerland believes the United Nations has a central role to play.

"I think global trade rules are not sufficiently well developed at this stage," said Daniel Stauffacher, who is heading the Swiss delegation to the conference.

"I think the role of every international organisation has to be reviewed. The role of the UN has to be strengthened to tackle some of these questions and to establish new rules that will help reduce the negative effects of globalisation," he told swissinfo.

Switzerland is well aware of the growing polarisation in the debate over globalisation. In an attempt to foster dialogue, it is organising a parallel forum, Geneva 2000, to allow civil society to have its say.

The Swiss will be trying to promote their notion of a multilateral initiative - getting different international organisations, such as the WTO, the IMF, World Bank, the International Labour Organisation and UNCTAD, to overcome their mutual mistrust and devise joint programmes.

No fewer than 117 heads of state and government attended the Copenhagen summit. Only 30 will be in Geneva. But the UN says that as many as 40 initiatives could be approved by the special session. One will envisage halving the number of people living in absolute poverty by 2015. But negotiations on drafting these proposals have been tricky.

"Of course there have been plenty of stumbling blocks," said John Langmore.

"For example, what access should be given in developed countries to exports from developing countries? Migration has caused a great deal of debate, as have issues of revenue and taxation and questions of aid and debt reduction. The social responsibilities of the private sector is another subject that still hasn't been resolved yet. There is a whole series of issues, a few of which are well on the way to being resolved, but others which will only be resolved right at the end of the special session itself," he said.

With preparatory work going on in Geneva right up to the opening of the summit, it is clear that very big differences remain between some countries, especially on a future plan of action. While everyone agrees on the eventual goal - reducing poverty by half over the next 15 years - there is no consensus on how to achieve it.

"The delegations will have a lot of work to do," said UN spokeswoman, Marie Heuzé.

No one is foolish enough to believe that Geneva will solve all the world's social ills. Its main purpose is to identify the obstacles that have prevented the Copenhagen commitments from being implemented.

"It's been a very mixed picture since Copenhagen. Clearly, a lot still needs to be done," said Stauffacher.

"We have to be modest. The major event of the 1990s was the Copenhagen Conference, where, for the first time, these complicated issues were brought together and formulated in a series of commitments and a plan of action. Geneva 2000 is just the next step. There will have to be a lot more steps in this debate."

Langmore added: "The most important outcome will be to put social development at the heart of the international political agenda."

"It's generally recognised that there's been a growth in inequality and inadequate attention to poverty. This is an opportunity to focus that attention. We have to maintain the political momentum by getting agreements on concrete actions and strategies," he said.

Switzerland is sending a 28-member delegation to the special session. It includes the economics minister, Pascal Couchepin, the foreign minister, Joseph Deiss and the interior minister, Ruth Dreifuss, who led the Swiss delegation in Copenhagen.

After the paralysis that followed the WTO meeting in Seattle last December, the Swiss officials will be hoping that a "Geneva Consensus" will emerge in which economic, labour, social and environment policies can be integrated so that everyone can enjoy the fruits of globalisation.

by Roy Probert

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