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Essential Matter: The Copenhagen Commitments and Geneva 2000

1 Sep 1999

  • Author(s): Julien Disney

The World Summit for Social Development (WSSD) in Copenhagen in 1995 focused on three core problems—poverty, unemployment and social exclusion. It was an exceptionally high-level, worldwide gathering of government leaders on social issues and it adopted an extensive array of ambitious commitments. Yet almost five years later the core problems remain generally as severe as in 1995. Indeed, factors such as international financial crises, ethnic conflict and HIV/AIDS have led to substantial deterioration in some parts of the world.

It is reasonable to conclude, however, that the Summit contributed to some subsequent initiatives that are likely to produce positive outcomes over the longer term. This applies, for example, to improved debt relief, adoption by donor countries of specific targets for reducing global poverty, and some moderation in the neoliberal ideologies of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF). It applies also to some modest improvements in United Nations processes for influencing economic and social policies at national and international levels.

Civil society organizations (CSOs) have had considerable influence on some of these initiatives and in some cases their advocacy has relied heavily on analysis or commitments arising from the Copenhagen process. In general, however, they have not utilized the UN's specific WSSD follow-up processes involving organizations such as its Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), Commission for Social Development and regional commissions. Instead, they have directed their efforts principally toward the Group of Seven (G-7), World Trade Organization (WTO) and World Bank.

In the year or two after the Copenhagen Summit, relatively few civil society organizations focused explicitly on implementation of its commitments. More recently, however, interest and involvement has become more widespread. This is due partly to factors such as the international financial crises of 1997, which demonstrated so powerfully the correctness of many of the commitments on economic policy and governance. Action has also been stimulated substantially by UN bodies such as the United Nations Development Programme and the Commission for Social Development, an extensive range of global and regional civil society forums convened by the International Council on Social Welfare (ICSW) to discuss WSSD follow-up, and the annual Social Watch review of implementation around the world.

Priorities for Geneva 2000
The United Nations General Assembly will conduct a Special Session in Geneva in the last week of June 2000 to review and facilitate implementation of the Copenhagen commitments. The preparatory process is likely to generate a number of useful reports from the UN system and elsewhere about progress with implementation and possibilities for further action. It is by no means clear, however, that it will produce a list of specific, substantial measures for consideration by the General Assembly in Geneva. The United Nations Secretariat and some CSOs have actively sought such an outcome, but so far there has been little constructive input from the negotiating governments.

When developing strategies for the Geneva 2000 process, it is important to focus on the most distinctive characteristic of the Copenhagen Summit, namely its emphasis on creating political, economic and legal environments that promote social development. The Summit also emphasized that many of the necessary changes in these environments were at the international level and would take a long time to bear fruit. It was a Summit for the long haul rather than the quick fix.

A three-point plan
This article suggests that the Geneva 2000 process could focus on initiatives in three key areas:

establishing an international anti-poverty alliance;
strengthening international principles and standards for social development; and
strengthening the ECOSOC system.
An international anti-poverty alliance
The Copenhagen Summit identified a number of specific anti-poverty targets, but they were not given great prominence in the final agreement. In the following year, however, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, comprising the major donor countries, agreed on seven International Development Targets for achievement throughout the world by 2015. The targets include halving absolute poverty, reducing child mortality by two-thirds and providing universal access to primary education and healthcare.

These goals, unlike more emotionally attractive ones such as total elimination of poverty, could conceivably be achieved by the target date of 2015. The 15-year period is long enough for the necessary initiatives to achieve major improvements but not so long as to condone procrastination. Substantial action must be initiated urgently if the outcomes are to be achieved on time.

There is no prospect of the targets being met without substantial commitment of resources and other support by the wealthier countries and the international financial institutions they control. It is reasonable to conclude that, since they established the targets, they are willing to provide the requisite support. If they do not do so, the targets will rapidly be seen as unfair and unattainable impositions on developing countries rather than realistic and reciprocal commitments by the international community.

This concept of reciprocal commitments could be implemented by establishing an international anti-poverty alliance involving both developed and developing countries, as well as international financial institutions. The alliance would involve commitments to inputs as well as to the outcomes specified in the International Development Targets. The inputs could include specific timetables for improving debt relief, achieving the 0.7 per cent benchmark for official development assistance, increasing support from key international financial institutions, and implementing the 20/20 principle. A coordinated system of national taxes on international financial transactions and some other international services could be adopted and the proceeds earmarked for governments to finance their commitments to the alliance, especially the provision of official development assistance.

CSOs could pursue establishment of this international anti-poverty alliance through the Geneva 2000 process, with its implementation to be coordinated and monitored by ECOSOC. They could also develop a sustained campaign to develop and publicize independent assessments of implementation as the countdown to the target date proceeds. A suitable annual focus for this campaign would be International Poverty Day on 17 October, which has not yet established a high profile worldwide.

Principles and standards for social development
The Copenhagen Summit agreed that there should be greater international cooperation in development and implementation of policies affecting social development. It emphasized that this should include policies in areas ranging from humanitarian assistance, social protection, employment and human rights to taxation, finance, trade and corporate responsibility. The Summit's recognition of the need to ensure that these areas of economic policy also promote social development was one of its most important contributions.

In 1998, the G-7 (comprising the seven wealthiest countries) responded to hardship arising from the international financial crisis by asking the World Bank to prepare principles for good practice in social policy. The Bank's brief draft drew heavily on the 10 key commitments of the Copenhagen Summit. The Bank and the IMF then agreed that the UN should take the lead role in further development of the principles as part of Summit follow-up.

It is very important that the UN system, coordinated by ECOSOC, should undertake this task. It lies squarely within ECOSOC's responsibilities under the United Nations Charter. In doing so, ECOSOC should recognize that many relevant principles have already been agreed through intergovernmental processes and that some agreements have sufficient specificity and normative status to justify being described as standards rather than principles. This applies, for example, to key international human rights treaties and labour standards developed through the International Labour Organization. It should also recognize the need for flexibility in some principles and standards, to reflect differing circumstances and priorities around the world.

ECOSOC should begin the process by identifying the key areas in which important statements of principles or standards have already been agreed within the UN system and, where necessary, endorse or establish processes for improving their content or implementation. More importantly, it should also identify priority areas for development of new statements of principles and standards. Possible areas for new statements could include, for example, aspects of social protection and labour standards, especially in relation to the informal and rural sectors. They should certainly include aspects of taxation, international finance, trade and corporate conduct that have a substantial impact on social development.

ECOSOC should ensure that these principles and standards are developed by organizations that have an appropriate balance of social and economic expertise, and of representatives from wealthier and poorer countries, rather than by narrower bodies such as the IMF, World Bank or WTO. Civil society, of course, should be closely involved.

Geneva 2000 provides an excellent opportunity for pursuing this process. Successful implementation would substantially improve international cooperation for social development, including that related to relevant economic policies. It would provide legal, political and technical benchmarks for good policy and practice throughout the world. It would help to counteract the growing tendency for ill-directed impacts on social development from narrowly economic bodies controlled by the wealthiest countries. CSOs are vigorously espousing these outcomes in other international fora, and they might usefully pursue them through Geneva 2000 as well.

Strengthening the ECOSOC system
The Copenhagen Summit agreed that systems of international cooperation on economic and social issues should be strengthened substantially. In particular, it was proposed that these systems should give sufficient weight to the interests of less economically powerful countries and to so-called social issues and perspectives, rather than granting undue weight to wealthy countries and narrowly economic concerns. International bodies agreed to listen to the knowledge and opinions of civil society, rather than only to those of governments and large businesses.

The Summit's main proposal for achieving these improvements was to strengthen the structures, resources and processes of ECOSOC, including efforts to achieve closer interaction with the World Bank, IMF and WTO. Some progress has been made in this direction since the Summit, but much more remains to be done. The United Nations Charter intended ECOSOC's role in economic and social matters to be of comparable significance to that of the Security Council in matters of peace and security. This will require, among other things, strengthening the size, expertise and standing of the ECOSOC Bureau and increasing the frequency of its meetings, so that it can act vigorously within the parameters set by the full Council at its infrequent and unwieldy sessions.

It is also important for ECOSOC to engage with governments and civil society much more closely at the regional level. This applies not only to ECOSOC's five large regions but also to smaller, neighbourly groupings that more adequately reflect similarities in circumstances, cultures and interests. Examples include the European Union, the Association of South East Asian Nations, Mercosur, the Southern African Development Community and other such groupings that have become more common and influential in recent years. ECOSOC's effectiveness could improve substantially if these groupings were more closely involved in its work and if, for example, they formed the principal basis of blocs for election and negotiation within the Council.

In this and other ways, the Geneva 2000 process could be used to enhance what may be called "constructive regionalism". It would be constructive in the sense of encouraging regions to be positive in their engagement with other parts of the world, rather than merely defensive and exclusive. It would also be constructive in the sense of developing strong regional structures that help to construct a global framework for cooperation which more adequately reflects the interests of all countries and people, rather than mainly the richest, and which strikes an appropriate balance between global uniformity and local autonomy.

CSOs could usefully pursue these directions for reform through more active attendance at ECOSOC meetings. They could also urge the regional groupings of governments to give greater attention to social issues and perspectives, engage more closely with ECOSOC, and build cooperation with other regional groupings (as agreed in the Bali Plan of Action last year by the Group of 77 developing countries). Most of these groupings also need to become much more open to working with CSOs.

It is important to include these three priorities for action in the document that the UN preparatory committee is drafting for endorsement by the Special Session in June 2000. An additional option is to use the Geneva 2000 process to build support for changes that may eventually be agreed elsewhere (for example, at the Millennium Session of the General Assembly later in 2000). The preparatory meetings for the Special Session, and the Special Session itself, provide good opportunities for attracting public and political attention by arranging appropriate parallel events and publications.

It will be essential, of course, to pursue detailed implementation long after the Special Session has finished. That is why strengthening the effectiveness of the ECOSOC system, and the contribution from regional groupings, is of such fundamental importance. ICSW looks forward to working with other CSOs in pursuing these goals through 2000 and beyond.

Julian Disney is President of the International Council on Social Welfare. Visit the ICSW Web site at http://www.icsw.org.