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Results of the Special Session on Social Development

14 Mar 2002

  • Author(s): John Langmore
  • Source: UNRISD News No. 22

The results of the Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly on social development (Geneva, 26–30 June 2000) were highly significant. The conference was attended by More than 5,000 people attended the conference, and 2,000 participants were members of delegations, led mostly by ministers, from the 160 attending countries. Nineteen heads of state or government came to Geneva as well. While the heads of delegation were speaking during the five days, or attending the outstanding Geneva Forum, their colleagues were completing negotiation of the Geneva Declaration. This Declaration includes a ringing political statement on the centrality of more equitable, socially just and people-centred societies; an assessment of what has happened since the 1995 Copenhagen Social Summit; and about 160 paragraphs on new initiatives.

Perhaps the most important new initiative is that which calls for “a rigorous analysis of advantages, disadvantages and other implications of proposals for developing new and innovative sources of funding, both public and private, for dedication to social development and poverty eradication programmes”. That is, there is to be a study (authorized without dissent by the member countries of the United Nations), into a currency transaction tax (CTT)—the Tobin tax—and other potential sources of revenue for social development. The Canadian delegation, speaking also for Norway, said at the final plenary that the intention of this paragraph is that a study of the CTT should be made.

It is appropriate to emphasize this decision among many others because it could lead to the start of more effective global public management of the international financial system. The study could lead to proposals for additional means of raising desperately needed financial resources for education and health services, infrastructure and credit to stimulate socioeconomic development. This and other paragraphs also articulate the importance of reducing financial volatility and of managing financial crises better, including through temporary debt repayment standstills when large financial outflows threaten, and by protecting expenditure on social services during crises.

There was agreement for the first time on a global target for poverty reduction: halving the proportion of people living in extreme poverty by 2015. This is implicitly understood to include all people with income of less than $1 per day—an estimated 1.2 billion individuals. A decision to begin a more integrated global campaign to reduce poverty was taken. Preparation of an international employment strategy by the International Labour Organization will begin with a global employment forum next year.

These are among the 40 or so substantial, fresh initiatives or new international agreements for action in the Declaration. Others include: recognition that achievement of the agreed target of access to basic education for all by 2015 will cost around $8 billion a year; a call for all UN agencies to integrate health policies more effectively into their programmes in other areas; action through trade agreements and increased incentives for research to improve access of developing countries to affordable and effective pharmaceuticals; strengthened commitment to basic workers’ rights, and to social protection for the vulnerable; and recommendations for national targets and major new action to reduce infection rates for HIV/AIDS. After extensive debate there was agreement on the importance of “positive or affirmative action” to achieve gender equality. Corporate social responsibility was added to the international agenda for the first time.

There were concrete announcements as well. For example Ireland announced plans to reach the aid target of 0.7 per cent of GNP; Japan announced cancellation of debt for low-income countries; and Italy announced an aid initiative of over a $100 million.

There were enough decisions to feel elated about the outcome. Of course not enough was achieved, much of the wording is too cautious and carefully modulated, and many more issues should have been addressed. But huge tasks were agreed on, and there is plenty for all national governments, parliaments, international agencies, corporations, trade unions, NGOs, and all concerned individuals to do.

Implementation depends principally on governments, but much is also required of the international system. The Social Policy and Development Division of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs has already begun writing to other parts of the system to draw attention to recommendations of relevance to them. Plans are being made for an independent inquiry into new sources of funding. A regionally representative group of authoritative experts is likely to be appointed and asked to report in time for the UN event on Financing for Development in 2001. The group is likely to invite submissions from interested governments and civil society organizations. The United Nations Development Programme and other relevant organizations have begun planning ways of consolidating ongoing initiatives into a global poverty eradication campaign.

Let’s conclude this review by recalling the challenge at the end of the Special Session’s Political Declaration: “At the dawn of the new millennium, aware of our responsibilities towards future generations, we are strongly committed to social development, including social justice, for all in a globalizing world. We invite all people in all countries and in all walks of life, as well as the international community, to join in renewed dedication to our shared vision for a more just and equitable world”.

John Langmore is Director of the Social Policy and Development Division, United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs.



This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.