A UN Summit Aims for a New Deal on World Poverty

Skeptics say meeting will be a battle for scarce Western funds

WORLD leaders expect to set an ambitious goal for the 21st century: the eradication of extreme poverty.

``This is the first time in history that we have reached a consensus that poverty is morally and politically intolerable,'' says Juan Somavia, Chile's ambassador to the UN. He chaired the preparatory meetings setting the agenda for the March 6 to 12 World Summit on Social Development to be held in Copenhagen.

The UN summit will focus on poverty, unemployment, and social disintegration. Its ambitious reach has made it controversial among developed nations, since first suggested by Chilean President Patricio Alwin Azocar in 1991.

The summit's declaration and program of action, hammered out at the preparatory meetings, commit governments to work toward full employment and to improve access for all citizens to food, water, shelter, health care, and education. Each nation will set its own target date and strategy for eliminating absolute poverty.

Ambassador Somavia says the summit is mostly about new directions, priorities, and giving the poor (most of whom are women and children) more of a voice in decisions affecting them.

Few diplomats expect this summit to have any immediate effect. But most agree that ordinary people and their basic needs have been ignored in the steady push for greater economic development.

``I think it is the very mission of the UN to put these big issues [before] the international community and try to have governments develop coherent attitudes about them,'' says Jean-Bernard Merimee, France's ambassador to the UN. The effect over time, he says, is to make it more difficult for nations to pass laws that counter goals agreed upon at such meetings.

Yet wealthier nations are concerned that the summit's war on poverty could turn into a war over scarce funds.

That concern is widely considered a factor in the reluctance of most G-7 industrialized countries to send top leaders to the summit. So far only France and Germany are on the list. The White House said in January that President Clinton would not attend and has not announced who will lead the United States delegation. But conference organizers say more than 100 heads of state plan to attend.

UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali argues that development is crucial to world stability and is the UN's most important mission. Political and economic stability, in his view, are interdependent.

Developed nations say their already tight budgets face sharp cutbacks and that no new money is available.

``Governments aren't spending any more money anywhere, whether it's in the developed or the developing world,'' says US Undersecretary of State Timothy Wirth. ``The focus is on existing resources and how you target them.''

NOT everyone agrees. ``The summit is about better use of resources ... but it's about more resources as well,'' says Lata Singh, India's Secretary of State for Women and Child Development.

``The developing countries are saying, `OK, we have primary responsibility for our development, but alone we can't reach all the targets,' '' says Kheireddine Ra-moul, an Algerian delegate to the most recent summit planning session. ``[We're] not asking for assistance for everything but ... we need some help to reach some of these goals.''

One hotly debated issue is a proposal to reserve 20 percent of the aid given to developing countries by donor nations and 20 percent of the budgets of poorer nations for social projects such as improved access to education and health care. By UN estimates, as much as $30 to $40 billion could be set aside.

The US normally opposes such formulas, but backs this one as a useful approach to reducing absolute poverty. But some poorer nations, which would have to cut arms and defense spending, want no such curbs.

Many developing nations want some easing of their collective $1.4 trillion debt. It is a tough issue that summit delegates also are unlikely to agree on.

One proposal with widespread backing calls on the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to focus more of its attention on the need for social progress.

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