Summit gives poor more hope than help

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The Independent Online

in Copenhagen

Delegates from 184 states reached agreement yesterday on a final declaration on eradicating poverty that is to cap the UN's first social summit. The document, which includes a statement of principles and a plan of action, is to be approved over the weekend by the summit, attended by 115 heads of state and government.

Representatives of developing countries, home to most of the world's 1.3 billion poor, expressed some satisfaction with the summit's work. "It [the summit] will lead to very real steps that will allow us to work together to cut poverty around the world," said Cielito Habito, chairman of the organisation of more than 130 developing countries known as the Group of 77. But as heads of state and government began arriving to sign the declaration tomorrow, Juan Somavia, the main committee chairman, and individual delegations were involved in what one observer from a non-governmental organisation (NGO) dubbed "silver-lining time" - putting the best face on the summit's decidedly limited outcome. The Group of 77 claimed a breakthrough over agreements to consider debt cancellation and to address debt problems in middle- and low-income developing countries. But the wording merely invites creditors to consider cancellation and leaves country-to-country debt to be negotiated under December's Paris Club rules.

The summit's most innovative proposal, under which donor countries would devote 20 per cent of aid to basic social programmes while developing countries spent 20 per cent of their national budgets on the same goal, was made purely voluntary and dubbed "20/20 between consenting adults" by Mr Somavia. With no definition of "basic social programmes", which include primary education and health, and no requirement to implement the proposal, the agreement was seen as almost worthless by some NGOs.

Mr Somavia defended it: "Let it make its way, and those who want to do it show through practice how well it works." His call came as the World Bank publicly acknowledged it had not done enough to protect such social expenditures as countries go through the structural adjustment to market economies.

Baroness Chalker, the overseas aid minister, arrived in John Major's place to make a bullishly free-market speech in which she declared free trade to be "the key to global prosperity". She consciously referred to "poverty reduction" rather than the summit's aim of "eradication". While aid was important, "ultimately every government and society must make this journey [to reducing poverty] through political will and its own efforts". Oxfam, which she praised, attacked her core message, with Patricia Feeney, its policy adviser, saying the free-trade formula "cannot be taken seriously as an answer to Africa's problems when it has 3 per cent of world trade and only 1 per cent of investment. It is not a serious proposition."