Gales of waffle threaten UN's poverty summit

Weeks of argument over the wording of `eliminating poverty' wore delega tes down
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The Independent Online
Preparations for the United Nations Social Summit - principal goal: "eradicate poverty" on the planet - ended in New York at the weekend with few signs that the meeting will amount to more than a "talk-fest" of world leaders and grass-roots lobbyi sts.

Coinciding with the UN's 50th anniversary this year, the gathering in Copenhagen in March, expected to attract at least 100 heads of state and government, promises to resemble the 1993 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in scale, but with poverty and social inequities as its focus.

The ambition of the summit's agenda may turn out, however, be in inverse proportion to its relevance. Cynics may see the meeting as a reflection of the essence of the UN: a hot-air factory that bursts with well-meaning sentiment but which is quite unconnected to the real world.

The climax will be the signing by leaders of a "solemn declaration" and a legally toothless "plan of action". This will include a commitment to "the goal of eradicating poverty in the world", notably through a so-called 20-20 solution under which rich nations would devote 20 per cent of their overseas aid to projects directly concerned with social welfare and the developing countries would likewise expend 20 per cent of their national budgets.

Those certain to attend include the German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl and Francois Mitterrand, for whom the appearance may be a final international swan-song as French President. John Major has not yet decided to attend but is unlikely to snub the affair. One leader definitely not expected is President Bill Clinton.

The summit will, however, appear like tribal gathering of all the world's non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that are interested in social development. Crowding the corridors of the UN last week were representatives of no fewer than 4,000 such groups.Some of them are well known. Others are less so, including "Housewives in Dialogue" from Clerkenwell, London.This group's aim - successfully achieved - is formal recognition in the Copenhagen declaration of the value of unpaid work at home.

Even some NGO representatives have doubts about the enterprise. "This is the most frustrating summit I have ever been involved in," Rachel Kyte, of the International Women's Health Coalition, said. Many of those involved, she said, were suffering from "summit fatigue", following the Cairo population summit held last summer.

Her group is more interested in the forthcoming World Women's Conference planned for this summer in Peking.

Some diplomats were also displaying signs of impatience. "I think it is worth saying that you should spend more money on people in need," one European delegate said, before conceding that weeks of argument over the wording of the texts, particularly regarding the "eradication of poverty", had worn her down.

"We had this amazing fight over whether it should say "eliminate poverty" or "substantially reduce poverty," she added.

"Really, it is the worst of the UN, where everyone is vying with each other for the most extreme language. The fact that it may be totally impossible to deliver in the real world is totally irrevelent to most of them."