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Essential Matter: Post-Copenhagen: Personal Reflections

1 Jun 1999

  • Author(s): Juan Somavía


I would like to take this opportunity to look ahead to Copenhagen Plus Five and to give eight examples of initiatives that the special session of the General Assembly could foster.

We could launch the preparation of a legally binding convention on the eradication of poverty. This was discussed in the process leading up to the Summit, though it would have been premature to go ahead without first having the political commitment to the eradication of poverty—which the Declaration achieved. This worldwide commitment already represents a watershed. But now we must move on, so that this commitment has some legally binding elements to it, within a realistic time frame.
We could launch an integrated community development initiative. Would it be so impossible to focus our attention on the most disadvantaged 20 per cent of communities in the world, and to take concrete action based on their own definition of need—whether this is the elimination of shanty towns, the generation of employment or the eradication of violence? These are issues that need to be addressed at the local or municipal, as well as national, levels.
A critical issue, which was reinforced at "Rio Plus Five", is the level of subsidy that is required by unsustainable development. We need to examine tax systems, which are currently riddled with loopholes and anomalies in ways that actually encourage unsustainable practices. This means looking more carefully at who benefits and who loses in the existing arrangements, and at what kinds of practices are rewarded or discouraged. Unless we understand the real impacts of prevailing fiscal systems, we cannot gear them to encourage sustainable development.
We need to develop new ways of putting private capital at the service of social needs. It is important to note here that the business sector was involved in the Summit process. Two things emerged from this. First, the idea that private capital can be used to generate goods and services that serve social needs has been quite foreign to most of us, who have been accustomed to thinking of these issues in terms of public expenditure. Second, while the private sector may see good business opportunities in social provisioning, it too has been accustomed to seeing investment in this area as falling within the public sector. I believe that there is great scope here: not in terms of encouraging private companies to dedicate a small proportion of their profits to charitable activities, but in terms of encouraging business activities that produce income while also providing goods and services that can help resolve social problems. More research is needed in this area, and both sides need to be prepared to look at the issue creatively.
There is a clear need to establish some form of global co-operation on employment generation. The creation of jobs must be at the heart of economic policy. Financial resources are available, but the decisive will is lacking. Jobs must be at the centre of the economy if people are at the centre of development, bringing micro-economic and micro-social concerns into harmony. We need to be clear that the national accounts cannot be balanced by unbalancing the lives of people. We have fortunately moved on from the kind of economic adjustments that went on in the mid-1980s, thanks in some measure to widespread critiques from various quarters, including the United Nations agencies and the Social Summit itself. But we have yet to reach global consensus on the fact that it is only through employment that the Summit's objectives will be met: employment has a major impact on the reduction of poverty, and on the promotion of social cohesion.
It is vital to stop the reduction of international co-operation flows. Of course, the richer countries are facing internal problems, both economic and in terms of public opinion, and so cannot be as generous or unconditional in their assistance as they were in the past. It is also true that there have been mistakes, and that aid resources have not always been put to the best use. But this is not the point. The real issue is that given the global political structure, the least developed nations cannot be expected to develop exclusively on the basis of private investment. In certain circumstances, of course, this can be a way forward; but certainly not in all.

What is totally unviable is to reduce international co-operation while increasing protectionism, and still expect global stability. We urgently need to convince public opinion, parliaments and media in the North of this reality, and also to understand their own preoccupations. As the Summit Declaration says, social problems are real in every country. Even so, it is not through introspective policies that the North will find the stability it seeks.

Co-operation is pre-eminently a political issue. It is not just a question of passing resolutions, but also of bringing together those actors who are prepared to take practical steps toward realizing them. While they may not be as much in evidence as the critics of international co-operation, there are many Northern parliamentarians who understand this very well. These and other sympathetic forces need to be brought together—as I have already proposed that "Copenhagen Plus Five" should do.
We urgently need to develop solidarity initiatives among Third World countries. The argument is one of moral consistency: the need to apply to our own actions the values that we hope will orient the actions of others. Here, I would propose that the world's 30 most advantaged Third World nations—however they are defined—begin to develop solidarity initiatives with other developing countries. Nothing would do more to reinforce the prospects for change on an international scale.
Finally, such an initiative could serve to foster the international-level role of civil society organizations, which had a major impact on the Social Summit and other recent global conferences. However, the problem with civil society organizations is that they tend to be organized around sectors, which often leads to minimal joint action. This brings me to the idea of a global civil society movement, some kind of framework that would connect all the different social actors, and that could establish a highly focused common agenda on which they could really act. The issues of the Social Summit—the eradication of poverty, full employment and social integration—are very clearly part of that common agenda.
Juan Somavía is Director-General of the International Labour Organization. He was Chairman of the Preparatory and Main Committees at the 1995 World Summit for Social Development and was Chairman of the UNRISD Board from 1996 until early 1999. This article an excerpt from a speech given at the 1997 UNRISD conference, Advancing the Social Agenda: Two Years After Copenhagen.