UN CLUELESS IN COPENHAGEN
by Matthew Habiger, OSB
The United Nations Conference on Social Development took place in
Copenhagen 9-12 March 1995. Was it successful in addressing the
problem of development, or just another monster conference? Cairo
dealt almost exclusively with population, with an emphasis upon
reducing the rate of growth. Copenhagen was meant to address the
issue of real development for the Third World, where two thirds of
the human race live.
There are many dimensions to a UN sponsored conference. I shall
highlight several and emphasize the importance of real economic
development. This was my first experience with a UN conference, and
perhaps my expectations were unrealistically high.
GOALS AND OBJECTIVES
What were the goals and objectives of Copenhagen? Ostensibly they
were to promote real development throughout the Third World.
Realistically, the conference seemed to be merely an opportunity for
every UN agency to push its own agenda under the guise of "social
development." Promoting a higher material standard of living by
reducing poverty, creating more and better jobs and advancing "social
development" are all laudable goals. Who could be against halving the
maternal mortality rate and the infant mortality rate, increasing
opportunities for young girls to receive an education and better
The problem lies elsewhere: the means chosen to achieve these goals.
Is the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMT )
necessarily the best way to help a developing country secure credit?
The Africans and Latinos at the conference expressed serious
reservations. Should USAID and UNFPA be the ones to promote primary
health care, "reproductive health" and family planning in developing
countries? Judging from their record at Cairo, we think not. Is
UNICEF, with its own ideology of children's rights, best suited to
address the needs of children? They do not share the Judeo-Christian
view of the family. Is the UN army the most effective and reliable
way to keep the peace throughout the world? Where is the evidence? If
new sources of funding are found to help with development, can UN
agencies be trusted to administer them objectively?
PAUCITY OF NEWS
Information poured forth from Copenhagen to all parts of the globe,
but was there much real news? Some reporters left early saying that
there was no story to be found. Literally tons of printed material
were made available to the press, from which many composed their
stories. Nonstop half-hour press conferences were held. Everywhere
you turned someone was being interviewed.
The conference site was the Bella Center (not named after Abzug,
though she was there and joked about it), 20 minutes by bus from the
city center. That is where the formal events occurred. At the plenary
sessions the arrangement was typically that of the UN, where seats
were reserved for several delegates from each member country. Short
speeches from spokesmen of each country took place nonstop at the
plenary sessions. The contents were often predictable and tedious.
Occasionally a position paper was given by a UN official.
Delegates to the conference had a specific task. They were to
discuss, line by line, the official document which would become
identified with the summit. The draft contained "commitments," "a
declaration" and "a plan of action." All of this had been assembled
at three preparatory committee sessions held in New York. Intense
lobbying by various groups went into shaping the draft document. The
Women's Caucus learned from Cairo and previous conferences that their
influence could best be felt at this stage of the process. About 10
percent of the contents were in brackets, indicating that there were
objections to the positions, and it was this bracketed material that
was under discussion by the delegates. All together there were 120
On Friday, 121 heads of state and 28 vice presidents arrived. They
would give short speeches in the plenary hall and have photo
opportunities over the next two days. Thus, the typical head of
state would give a five- to seven-minute speech and get an
opportunity to have his/her picture shown back home. The press has
its favorites, however- Nelson Mandela, Al Gore, Fidel Castro -so
very few were among the chosen for front page coverage in major
papers. What planners of the conference really wanted was financial
commitments to their programs from the various countries, and in this
they were mainly disappointed.
The remaining major grouping was the non-governmental organizations
(NGOs). These are third parties who have attained recognition from
the UN, and they are assuming increasing importance by pressuring
local governments to accept UN policy. At Copenhagen the NGOs met at
the Holman deactivated naval base, twenty minutes away from the Bella
Center. During the one visit I paid there, thousands of people were
moving from building to building, and from event to event. Very few
of the NGOs had access to the plenary sessions or to the delegates,
as did the Women's Caucus. The NGOs expressed great displeasure in
being kept away from the "action" of the summit. After Friday they
were allowed some access to these areas.
PRO-LIFE PRESENCE AT COPENHAGEN
There were about 75 people at Copenhagen with a clear pro-life
commitment, and many others who sympathized with our cause. The
Vatican delegation concentrated its efforts on the wording of the
draft document. Had the Vatican not been present, much of the
language excluded from the Cairo document would have found its way
back into the Copenhagan document. The radical feminists among the
delegates remembered the successful battle waged by the Vatican, and
In the evenings we would gather and exchange notes. Only in this way
could one form a complete picture of the day's many events form
effective strategy for the next day. Some of the effective efforts
of the group were gathering information from various UN agencies and
NGOs, attending press conferences and asking questions, supplying
information on specific topics to delegates, and sending out press
releases. One remarkable effort was the "180 Days of Prayer". (See
the article on page 6.) Impressed with how much a small group could
do to influence a major conference, I mentioned to one of us: "Think
how much good this small group accomplished." He replied: "Think how
much bad we prevented."
The main objective of the conference was to propose ways of assisting
developing nations to break out of the stranglehold of poverty. Did
that happen? Not directly. Some relevant facts are helpful here. Two
thirds of the world live in developing countries. The affluent West,
comprising 20 percent of the people, consumes 80 percent of the
world's material goods. It is estimated that the richest fifth
receives 82 percent of total world income, while the poorest fifth
receives 1.4 percent of total world income. The world's military
budget comes to US $800 billion. It is said that this equals the
combined income of the poorest half of humanity. The total debt owed
by the Third World to the First is US $1 trillion. These countries
pay some $150 billion in debt service each year to banks,
governments, the World Bank and the IMF. In some cases, the debtor
country has already paid back three times the amount loaned to it.
But where were the proposals to promote real development, obtain
credit, open access to more markets, create real jobs, and increase
the GNP? A reporter from complained "Nothing
new here," after listening to press conferences by the World Bank and
IMF. Two proposals were frequently heard: absolve debts owed by
developing countries, and reduce military budgets of First World
countries. These are part of the picture, but there is so much more
to the story.
Stable family life demands stable income. If we are advocating strong
family life and large families, then we must take seriously the
economic realities which accompany this. And that is the reason I am
encouraging a closer working relationship between groups like the
Center for Economic and Social Justice (CESJ) and HLI. Periodically
we mention the book ,
which was written by a group of CESJ writers. The book sets out the
economic theory for promoting development and speaks directly to the
major theme of Copenhagen. Too bad this was not the "Plan of Action."
(At our Montreal Conference CESJ will make a presentation on the need
for an economic agenda in the pro-life movement).
Michael Greaney, MBA and CPA, as well as a writer for CESJ, came with
me to Copenhagan. Both he and economist Jacqueline Kasun PhD, who
participated in Cairo and Copenhagen, will be contributing articles
to future issues of and .
Development is everyone' s business. If poor nations ever succeed, it
will be because responsible groups shaped sound policies for the
world and purged programs guaranteed to fail.
Taken from the April 1995 issue of "HLI Reports." To subscribe
contact: HLI Reports 7845 Airpark Road, Suite E Gaithersburg, MD