Future UN Social Summit Hopes to Measure Progress By Human Scale, Not GNP

The summit's focus: poverty, unemployment, integration

IS there more to development than a rising gross national product (GNP) and a dazzling set of trade statistics?

A resounding ``yes'' is coming from basement conference rooms of the United Nations where delegates of more than 150 nations, with input from 500 grass-roots groups worldwide, are negotiating a program for the 1995 World Summit for Social Development in Copenhagen in March.

The delegates, taking part in a two-week preparatory session that ends Sept. 2, are united in their conviction that the human side of development - social progress - has been ignored for too long. A country can produce impressive economic growth figures, they say, even as its poorer citizens slide deeper into poverty and face new barriers to basic services, such as education and health care.

``If you have growth that doesn't take social development into account, you end up with polarization,'' insists Juan Somavia, Chile's ambassador to the UN and chairman of the preparatory committee of the summit. ``The profit drive in a society is extremely important in terms of creating wealth, but nonprofit values are essential to a balanced society.... We need to reestablish the balance.''

UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali says the issue directly affects UN peace efforts. He told conference delegates that social and economic problems now pose a larger threat to world peace than conflicts between states. ``Territorial security has been largely guaranteed, but human security is in crisis,'' he says.

The Copenhagen summit is the idea of former Chilean president Patricio Aylwin Azocar and one of seven world conferences organized by the UN so far in the 1990s. To date, conferences have focused on children, the environment, and human rights. Population will take the spotlight next week in Cairo. The fourth World Conference on Women will be held in Beijing in September 1995 and the UN Conference on Human Settlements - Habitat II - will take place in Istanbul in 1996.

The social development summit will zero in on three issues: poverty, unemployment, and social integration. Conferees want to reduce the first two and enhance the latter through new approaches.

Taking an especially hard beating in discussions are the so-called structural adjustment policies set as loan conditions by such institutions as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. In the interests of reduced inflation and a growing economy, nations often are required to reduce or abolish price and trade controls, devalue local currency, and cut public- service spending.

Developing nations and third world grass-roots groups say such policies ignore the needs of poorer citizens. Lilia Rodriquez, director of the nonprofit Center of Promotion and Action for Women in Ecuador, says two-thirds of all Ecuadoran citizens live in poverty, while almost 40 percent of the government's budget is allocated to debt repayment. Less than 25 percent goes to social services such as education. ``We believe education is the best weapon against poverty,'' says Winifred Sekkade, head of a group of women lawyers in Uganda.

Fixed financial rules on loans have deepened social inequities, failed to create jobs, and must be radically revised, argues Yao Graham, an attorney with the Integrated Social Development Center in Ghana. ``Development must be about improving the human condition,'' he says.

MONEY is sure to be a major issue at the Copenhagen summit. A UN Development Program (UNDP) study released in August endorses a ``20-20 proposal,'' which calls on aid donors and developing nations to devote at least 20 percent of what they give or spend to essential social services. The most enthusiastic support for the idea is coming from third world governments and grass-roots groups. Some are pressing for an even higher 50 percent share of development aid for social spending. Some donors, such as Germany and Japan, say the idea needs further study.

The summit's draft action program calls on developed nations to follow the longstanding UN goal of giving as aid the equivalent of 0.7 percent of their GNP. The hope is that donors will come to view the obligation as fair and in their own self interest. ``What is missing in the international community is not charity, but justice,'' insists Mahbub al-Haq, special adviser to the UNDP administrator.

``We are seeing an aggressive affirmation of so-called free market forces today,'' says Martin Khor, a Philippine economist. ``The strong have to recognize that they are part of the problem. We need a new basis for a north-south partnership.''

Many speakers at the summit's preparatory meetings say social development often relates to a sense of national cohesion and unity. ``Virulent ethnicity and virulent fundamentalism flourish in conditions of declining opportunity,'' says Gustaf Edgren, assistant administrator of UNDP.

Just as ``ethnic entrepreneurs'' can inflame racial, religious, or tribal hatreds, says University of Wisconsin political scientist Crawford Young, so can a creative leader such as Nelson Mandela find ways to evoke greater tolerance and solidarity among citizens.

A recent UNDP survey of world mayors found unemployment rated as the No. 1 urban problem. Many nonprofit group representatives at the UN meetings say improved training and access to credit, particularly for women who account for the majority of the world's poor and two-thirds of its illiterates, are vital.

``This summit is very much about values,'' insists Ambassador Somavia.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Future UN Social Summit Hopes to Measure Progress By Human Scale, Not GNP
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today