Copenhagen Summit Aims to Ease Poverty

Article excerpt

COPENHAGEN, Denmark -- None of the 1.3 billion persons who live in abject poverty attended the U.N. Social Development Summit staged in this pricey European capital March 6-12. If the declaration proclaiming its intentions and accomplishments makes it back to their huts, tenements, cardboard or corrugated shacks, most of them would not be able to read it or would be too hungry, weary or ill to try.

Still the United Nations put the daily life issues and the security of the planet's poorest on the table of its 185 member states. Kings, presidents, premiers and foreign ministers from 121 nations signed on to the summit's three aims:

* Eradication of absolute poverty;

* Efforts to find work for the 120 million unemployed, about 30 percent of the world's work force;

* Narrowing the equality gap so that those marginalized by poverty, gender, race, age, disability, religion and ethnicity are allowed to take their place in society.

Taking its turn in a cycle of U.N. summits -- children (1990), earth (1992), human rights and population (1994) -- "this is a summit that dares to tackle the most important politics of our times," said Juan Somavia, Chile's ambassador to the United States and the passionate chairman of the social summit. Somavia holds a law degree from Chile's Catholic University.

Still, this summit has no mechanism for enforcement save the cry of the poor for justice and the insistence by their advocates in government, the media and nongovermnental organizations that something must be done.

At a closing news conference Somavia spoke to the cynics -- the many who termed Copenhagen "another U.N. talk show" -- and the realists, those ministers and budgeters carving an ever smaller economic pie. "Don't let anyone tell you there are no resources," he said. "If you add public and private resources, they're there. Government must set priorities."

Somavia compared Copenhagen to the 1972 Stockholm, Sweden, environmental conference and the first U.N. women's meeting in Bucharest, Romania, in 1974. He said the world lacked an environmental or woman's consciousness then, but today no global policy can be undertaken without regarding these new constituencies.

Real progress on issues was scarce. Early in the summit, Denmark forgave the debts of six Latin American and African nations from whom it had been unable to collect a krone in a decade. Austria erased $115 million owed by its poorest borrowers, and representatives from other countries promised to push for such measures back home.

A sign for Hillary

First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton used International Women's Day, March 8, to announce what she called an "ambitious initiative" to end female illiteracy on the three poorest continents. But a Danish policeman attending the NGO Forum, a few miles from Bella Center where the summit met, posted a reply that drew approval from many of the tens of thousands who visited the forum. It read:

"Hillary! You gave the Third World $100 million in 10 years. Denmark gives approximately $200 million each year and their population is only 5 million. I'm proud to be a Dane."

Many U.S. nongovernmental organizations, representing scores of development, women's, religious, environmental and grassroots groups, felt that Washington undervalued the summit. Instead of President Clinton, Vice President Gore attended for a few hours. Britain's John Major, Russia's Boris Yeltsin and Canada's Prime Minister Jacques Christien were notably absent.

But France's Francois Mitterrand, looking wan from his cancer treatment and making his last hurrah on the global stage before his 14-year presidency ends in May, made sure that the summit will not be lost on his colleagues from the rich G-7-- the seven most powerful economic countries in the world -- when they meet in Halifax in June.

Mitterrand surprised and delighted many in the G-77, the group that now numbers some 140 less-developed nations, when he supported the idea of a global tax on short-term money transfers. …