Playing dice with development

Like all such meetings before, the UN World Summit in Copenhagen had to address the needs of the commoner, the bedrock of all nations

-- THE trappings of power were all there, and so were the traps. The United Nation's World Summit on Social Development, held in Copenhagen between March 6-12, had been projected as a potential washout. The preparatory committees and rounds of meetings, the charting of highly charged agenda, the government delegations and the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) -- all came together with priorities and proclivities of their own, often exclusively their own.

Little has changed. Since 1948, the UN has been holding such summits on various issues of what it considers are of urgent, global importance. Although most of the declarations have been important, many commitments have been junked by the member states. Of those that survived, the crucial ones include the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948); the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1965); the Declaration on Social Progress and Development (1969); the Universal Declaration on the Eradication of Hunger and Malnutrition (1973); the Declaration on Rights to Development (1986); the Convention on the Rights of the Child, UNICEF (1990); and the World Population Congress (1993).

Increasingly, these international gatherings have had a single purpose: that of cajoling member countries to stick to their commitments on consensually agreed upon global issues. But commitments, unfortunately, are slave to realpolitik: they vary with the contents of the recommendations, the political philosophy of particular governments, and the availability of resources to implement them.

The gestation period between promise and parturition is often so long that the original purpose is lost. Even the preparatory process has to be hammered out. The organisational session of the Preparatory Committee (Prepcom) for this summit had taken place in New York in April 1993. Each one of the decisions there had less to do with the summit than to the methodology and organisation of the Prepcom's work.

The Bureau of the Prepcom is composed of representatives from Cameroon and Zimbabwe from Africa, Poland and Latvia from Eastern Europe, the Netherlands and Australia representing the West, and Mexico from Latin America. Denmark, the host country, is an ex officio member.

Each summit rams home the fact that governments everywhere have failed to respond to the real needs of their peoples. Given this governmental welshing, it was in the order of things that a large number of NGOs gather at these fora to lobby for pro-people programmes.

What this social summit set out to achieve was a tall order. At the vortex of deliberations, as usual, was the commoner, the bedrock of all nations. At all summits, what is given is that the commoner's needs are the key to development and international cooperation, and the layperson's participation in planning and development is sacrosanct, to be ensured through the implementation of effective and efficient social policies and strategies.

What has also to be ensured is interaction between the self-appointed social functions of the state, the market response to social demands, and the imperatives of sustainable development. The other goals are identifying the problems of socially marginalised and disadvantaged groups; the promotion of programmes on legal protection, social welfare, education and training; more effective delivery of social services; the mobilisation of resources for social development; and more power to the UN's elbow.

The general assembly decided that the core issues for the summit are the enhancement of social and class integration, particularly of the more disadvantaged and marginalised groups; the reduction of poverty; and the expansion of productive employment. But notwithstanding their ostensible pro-people hue, the core issues seem to be caught in a confusing web of meanings and standards.

The first objective, for instance, is social integration as an essential criterion for societal development. However, recent political developments have given this imperative a severe knocking. The disintegration of the erstwhile USSR, wildfire religious fundamentalism and rabid nationalism, and spiralling caste, class and ethnic strife have virtually knotted up the role of social integration as a centripetal force binding nation-states.

In fact, social integration is likely to become a battered if not moribund concept if the rights of minority ethnic groups are jackbooted. Their demands for equal rights and access to developmental opportunities at par with the inordinate power of the majority have to be met with.

Poverty alleviation, the next crucial target, is a historically intractable problem. Although the new fangled notions of interdependent market economies -- without social objectives to control fiscal fascism -- have opened up the issue of poverty in even developed countries, acute poverty remains predominantly a Third World problem.

The developed nations have taken an opportunistic stand. While maintaining their own high levels of consumption of natural resources, there is a singular perversity in their emphasising ad hoc measures of poverty alleviation for the underdeveloped countries. It is clear that they have no intentions of sharing the world's resources or of ensuring the equitable distribution of development's benefits.

What is being gratuitiously ignored is that poverty in the developing countries is a manifestation of the paucity, or absence, of access to educational facilities for all children, lack of technical and professional training for the youth to enable them to get down to productive employment, and inadequate health and nutritional facilities.

Similarly, rock bottom literacy rates, poor healthcare and abysmal standards of living render the social developmental goal of attaining a high level of productive employment seem like a Third World pipedream. The issue of productive employment also turns on technological advancement, or a lack of it -- which is why solutions for the developing and the developed countries will be vastly different.

What is certain is that the goal of sustainable development cannot be achieved without population control. But the notion of aborting a demographic explosion merely by distributing condoms free of cost is hugely erroneous. The real target should be to reach the threshold of family planning as soon as possible, which would include educating women, raising the marriageable age and status of women, continuous non-formal education of youth on family affairs, limiting infant mortality -- and ensuring that contraceptives are available easily and without attendant embarrassment.

At the apex of all such philanthropic issues is the fact that sustainable social development can be achieved only through the universal promotion of social security. And here, too, definitions and standards of social security vary according to the countries' development charts.

In most poor countries, social security is limited to ad hoc health services, shambling poverty alleviation programmes, and geriatric care. The benefits to industrial labour are marginal. An universal system of social security in the developing countries is a constant headache at every UN summit.

Standards differ, too, in the key area of human rights, which has now become a fashionable Western conditionality for the granting of aid to poorer nations. For the West, the concept has expanded to mean today the ensuring of a decent standard of living -- which is quite different from the definition prevalent in the developing nations, where human rights remains a struggle against arbitrary arrests, "encounter killings", tortures and detention without trial in jails under subhuman conditions.

Whither, social development
These factors contributed to the final outcome of the summit, but several grey areas demanded more attention. In fact, the very concept and definition of social development has to be based on the negative effects of economic development.

It would be presumptuous to say that a homogenous market economy system will be globalised, and to base social development on that context. In varying degrees, capitalism, mixed economy and socialism still exist at complete variance with each other.

The embracing of the free market economy by the erstwhile East Bloc countries has, in fact, engendered a further search for a meaningful new economic philosophy. While ad hoc alleviation measures attempted in the Third World have proved largely ineffective, the universalisation of the market economy is resulting in the universalisation of poverty.

Thus, the constant basic question before summits has been poverty: how to alleviate it or, better still, abolish it, and how much resources could be made available to meet the challenge. The present formula is that both developing and developed countries should contribute an equal percentage of their Gross National Products towards social development. But this formula is open to debate. Why shouldn't the richer nations contribute more?

Clearly, however, social movement has to be in the direction of sustainable levels and standards of consumption, while the extreme disparities which exist between and within countries must be diminished. These are difficult issues to question, and more difficult besides to implement. It's time that all future summits addressed them.

---Meher C Nanavatty is a consultant on social welfare and development.

Subscribe to Weekly Newsletter :
Scroll To Top