Eyes down for last great UN gathering of the century

As `conference fatigue' greets the opening of Habitat II in Istanbul, Geoffrey Lean asks: do the summits make anything happen?

It is not a phrase that you would normally find in the dry and diplomatic mouths of bureaucrats, but the complaint of "conference fatigue" was growing among officials here even as the latest great United Nations gathering opened last week.

For the Habitat II conference, examining the escalating crisis of the world's cities, is the seventh of its kind in just six years and it is hard to find anyone here - including the UN officials who have organised them - who do not believe that, for the time being, enough is enough. Indeed the conference organisers hopefully describe it as "the last UN conference of the 20th Century".

Many are voting with their aeroplane tickets. For the conference is far less well attended than its predecessors - on children, the environment, human rights, population, social development and women - though, arguably, its subject is the most urgent of all.

Billed as the "City Summit", it will, at the latest count, only attract 16 heads of state and government, compared to the 110 who attended the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, or the 121 who turned up at the Social Summit in Copenhagen a year ago. None of the major Western leaders are expected and few world figures are scheduled to attend, except for Pakistan's Benazir Bhutto. To be fair, the organisers have not tried as hard to attract leaders as at previous summits, but the number of ordinary politicians and officials - and press - also falls well short of expectations. Delegates are outnumbered by security men assigned to protect them.

The issues at stake remain immensely important. Within the next few years humanity, for the first time, will become an urban rather than a rural species, as the world's cities expand to - and beyond - bursting point. As recently as 1975 only a third of the world's people lived in towns and cities; by 2025 nearly two-thirds of a greatly increased population will do so.

The problems addressed by previous conferences are at their most concentrated in cities. The contrast between wealth and poverty is at its most acute, population pressures and social dislocation are at their greatest, and so is the toll on the environment. Already at least half-a-billion people now live in the third world's teeming slums and every day 50,000 people - mainly women and children - die as a result of poor housing, water or sanitation. In both Europe and the US at least three million are homeless.

Yet on Tuesday Jesse Helms, the powerful chairman of the US Senate foreign relations committee, hit out at UN conferences in general and this one in particular. "No American has heard of Habitat II," he told a congressional hearing. "Frankly I doubt that many Americans have even the vaguest notion as to what role, if any, these conferences play in promoting US interests overseas." Their cost, he said, was "exorbitant".

This is a frequent charge from the right, which sees the meetings as expensive boondoggles, producing little but junkets in exotic cities for professional conference-goers.

Habitat is costing the UN only $1.7m (pounds 1.1m ) and none of the others, except for the Rio Summit, has clocked in at more than double that. The host country pays more. Turkey is forking out $90m for Habitat II: but $75m is for facilities it will use again and again - such as a renovated conference centre, and a new telecoms service - and the remaining $15m is being provided by industrial sponsors. In all, the actual figure is lower than the cost of the first Habitat conference in Vancouver 20 years ago, despite inflation.

Delegates spend their time, far into the evening, in airless rooms, endlessly debating wording in tedious documents. One bulky British commentator wrote during last year's social summit that the main attraction for some African delegates was "the cultural excitement of experimenting with lobster crackers" in the quayside restaurants of Copenhagen. In fact the city's restaurateurs complained loudly at the lack of custom from those working late at the conference centre.

The charge of ineffectiveness has some justice. But previous conferences have still produced impressive results. There has been remarkable progress in achieving specific goals for child welfare laid down at Unicef's 1990 summit: it is estimated that so far these are saving the lives of 2.5 million children each year. The Rio Earth Summit, despite being written off by environmental pressure groups, has resulted in four international treaties -on global warming, wild species, fighting the growth of deserts and regulating fisheries - and agreed an agenda of action now being implemented by 1,200 local authorities worldwide.

The conferences also force governments to focus their attention, however briefly, on long-term issues.UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali says that they are the most effective way the UN has yet found of engaging public opinion behind the "decades of hard work" needed to bring solutions and they have drawn up an agenda for the UN for the next century.

Sir Shridath Ramphal described the conferences as "the high point in our cerebration ... on some of the most critical issues of human survival". But the normally ebullient former Commonwealth secretary general noted that, while history will record that the human species used "its unique power of the mind to think its way to survival", it would not be as positive in recounting what humanity consequently did. Realising how little governments have done following the great conferences, the organisers of Habitat II have deliberately encouraged a less confrontational atmosphere and set a precedent by involving local councils and pressure groups in negotiations. Ismail Serageldin, a vice president of the World Bank, describes this as a "watershed".

Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
Sport
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
football
News
Former Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin, left, with her daughter, Bristol
newsShe's 'proud' of eldest daughter, who 'punched host in the face'
Sport
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
rugby
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
A cabin crew member photographed the devastation after one flight
news
Life and Style
Carol O'Brien, whose son Rob suffered many years of depression
healthOne mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
Life and Style
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
News
Rob Merrick's Lobby Journalists were playing Ed Balls' Labour Party MPs. The match is an annual event which takes place ahead of the opening of the party conference
newsRob Merrick insistes 'Ed will be hurting much more than me'
Voices
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
News
Liam Payne has attacked the media for reporting his tweet of support to Willie Robertson and the subsequent backlash from fans
peopleBut One Direction star insists he is not homophobic
Life and Style
healthFor Pure-O OCD sufferers this is a reality they live in
Life and Style
Sexual health charities have campaigned for the kits to be regulated
healthAmerican woman who did tells parents there is 'nothing to be afraid of'
Life and Style
fashion
Arts and Entertainment
The John Peel Lecture has previously been given by Pete Townshend of The Who, Billy Bragg and Charlotte Church
musicGodfather of punk will speak on 'free music in a capitalist society'
News
peopleAt least it's for a worthwhile cause
News
Shoppers in Covent Garden, London, celebrate after they were the first to buy the iPhone 6, released yesterday
tech
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Pharmaceutical Computer System Validation Specialist

£300 - £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Pharmaceutical Computer ...

High Level Teaching Assistant (HTLA)

£70 - £90 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Higher Level Teaching Assist...

Teaching Assistant

£50 - £80 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Randstad Education is the UK...

Senior Java Developer - API's / Webservices - XML, XSLT

£400 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is currently ...

Day In a Page

A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments