In about seven months, if things go according to plan, we will witness a remarkable and possibly surreal sight.
World leaders will gather in Copenhagen and promise to battle as one against unemployment, poverty and violence. They will each commit themselves to change their national budgets to reflect a new strategy for increasing public works spending, reducing military budgets and directing more of their resources into programs that guarantee a basic level of health care, housing and job creation.
Who, you might think, could possibly resist the opportunity to participate in such a soul-inspiring exercise? The indications are that few leaders will.
Some 26 presidents and prime ministers (though so far, at this writing, Jean Chretien has not committed himself) have already agreed to attend the United Nations World Summit for Social Development.
But anyone who thinks the U.N. Population and Development conference opening in Cairo tomorrow will be controversial should spare a thought for the World Summit.
Scheduled for March 6-12, 1995, it’s the next major global event on the horizon. And it may turn out to be the most crucial one before the century is up.
Preparatory discussions for the Copenhagen meeting have been going on with little fanfare. The latest one, drawing teams of delegates from around the world including Canada, wraps up this week in New York.
What prevents the “human security summit,” as some people are calling it, from becoming windy political verbiage – of interest only to diplomats and international aid groups – is that it marks a change of direction in global affairs.
“In the past, challenges to international peace and security resulted mainly from conflicts,” U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali told delegates to the New York meeting last month. “States joined (the United Nations) to protect themselves from aggression from other states.
“. . . (Now) territorial security has been largely guaranteed. But human security is in crisis.”
Ghali gave some figures to prove his point. Of the 82 armed conflicts between 1989 and 1992, only three were between states. The remainder, ranging from Tajikistan to Rwanda, have usually been called “tribal or ethnic” disputes.
But the real causes, he noted, are “political, social and economic.”
The organizers of the World Summit argue that the sharp increase in poverty, hunger and social dislocation over the past decade therefore represents the principal threat to world stability.
This is a dramatic change in approach. Until now, thinking about subjects like underdevelopment or foreign aid has been divided into North-South or East-West frameworks.
The summit is intended to erase the old lines by treating social development issues as “trans-national” in much the same way economic and trade issues are.
And this is where the potential for controversy emerges. Countries will not only be asked to draw up individual “anti-poverty” strategies; they will be expected to pledge changes in the way they compete with each other.
Developing countries are to agree to channel their high spending on arms and armies into things like credit banks for farmers and programs ending discrimination against women and minorities.
Former Communist nations will have to make stronger commitments to linking economic development with social progress than they might have anticipated.
Developed countries will have to open their markets wider to cheaper goods, and play a more aggressive role in controlling the activities of multinational enterprises.
“Economic growth is essential but not sufficient to ensure social development, and strategies should focus on ‘societies’ and not just ‘economies,’ ” says the draft declaration which leaders are expected to sign at the summit.
This, when you think about it, is the stuff of a small revolution.
Despite the outward display of support – who could be against social progress? – some of the fine print in the 71-page draft is already the subject of hot debate.
Some Third World countries are resisting the idea of making their budgets transparent to potential enemies. They also see the “globalization” rhetoric as a cover for first-world nations to find a way of cutting back on foreign aid while imposing their ideas on the rest.
A proposal called “20-20,” for instance, would require recipient countries to divert 20 per cent of their budgets to “people-oriented” programs like health care and housing while donor nations would earmark 20 per cent of their overseas assistance to the same thing.
But the donor nations are not asked to commit any new money. Considering that the pledges made years ago in the last burst of North-South rhetoric to devote .07 per cent of GNP to foreign aid are still unfulfilled (average aid comes to about .03 per cent), this is probably realistic.
Nevertheless, donors don’t get off the hook. Industrial societies are required to make a commitment to deal with their internal problems, ranging from crime to treatment of migrants and indigenous peoples, with equal seriousness. And the hoary institutions of the Cold War such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund will be nudged towards change.
Anyone can promise anything, of course. No one will punish countries who don’t live up to their pledges. But this summit, in essence, marks a change in the direction of the U.N. itself.
Beneath the brave rhetoric is a gnawing sense of the U.N.’s failure, and a more general sense of the failure of the world community. U.N. social and economic development agencies have until now been subsidiary to the job of keeping the peace. Governments are cutting back on even their modest commitments to overseas help, now that the Cold War pressure is gone.
We are going back into our private rooms, emerging only under the pressure of crises we can’t ignore.
The summit will try to break down the doors before they are dangerously slammed shut once and for all. No one expects it to be easy.
Stephen Handelman writes every Sunday on world affairs.