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Just hot air in a cold climate?

The World Summit on Social Development in Copenhagen, dedicated to "eradicating" poverty, ended last night - the highest hopes for it dashed, but with the worst fears confounded.

It was easy to be cynical about the exercise - to ask whether the cost of bringing 13,000 delegates, observers, journalists and their guards together, estimated at between £20m and £40m or between two-thirds and almost a half, respectively, of Christian Aid's and Oxfam's annual budgets,was worth it. This was an event during which, amid millions of words, thousands of sheets of unread paper and tales of Arab sheikhs hiring whole castles to debate poverty, tiny groups of demonstrating Kurds and Bosnians were kept on a muddy patch of field, a six-lane highway and massive car park away from the arriving heads of state.

Nevertheless, people do not sit up to the small hours haggling over texts unless they believe the words will eventually matter.

Successful summits are a matter of timing and political will. Rio in 1992, when the environment was a rising concern, caught both. World leaders shamed each other into turning up and then into signing up to targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Copenhagen had no such benefits. An industrialised world not long out of recession is not feeling generous. The United States, the world's richest nation, has a Congress bent on cutting foreign aid and embracing disengagement. Bill Clinton, John Major, Boris Yeltsin and others stayed away.

Yet as the summit ended some of the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as Oxfam and Action Aid, deeply critical at the start, emerged saying it had, in fact, been worthwhile.

For there were gains. There was recognition that structural adjustment programmes must protect social spending on primary education and health, because the countries that have done that have done best. The World Bank, long a target of aid- agency ire, said, "we recognise we must do more" in that direction. The 20/20 proposal, by which 20 per cent of aid and of national budgets would go on basic social programmes, received such an airing that it is hard to believe more countries will not try it.

There was the first UN call for debt cancellation, and a UK delegation official counted the summit's best achievement as the way it had "knocked on the head" the argument that "you have to have economic development before human rights". The real decisions affecting the poor are made not in the UN, but by national governments buying arms rather than literacy, in the G7, the IMF and World Bank, and by multinationals that were the absentees in Copenhagen. But the agreements reached will now be used by development ministers, oppositions and NGOs around the world as benchmarks against which to measure and dispute the performance of governments and international institutions.

Juan Somavia, the Chilean ambassador to the UN who helped to instigate Copenhagen, remained optimistic as the summit ended. The UN, he said, "is a standard-setting institution". It is always a long haul, but "the UN is an instrument for changing direction".

Richard Jolly, Unicef's acting executive director, compares Copenhagen to the 1990 children's conference. Scepticism surrounded that gathering, too, but 100 countries have now put in place programmes that Unicef calculates will have saved the lives of 2.5 million children by 1996.

Even so, Copenhagen seems less promising. Denmark cancelled £120m of foreign debt, but only Austria followed suit, writing off another £80m. Such sums are pennies in the bucket of the $1,300bn of total worldwide debt. But it remains true that Copenhagen could not have happened a decade ago, when the ideological divide of the Cold War would have made any agreement about how to alleviate poverty impossible.

The test will come in the months to follow, starting in Halifax in June, when the G7 meets and the roles and policies of the World Bank and the IMF are up for discussion. The world cannot live without visions, but it needs action if Copenhagen is to be more than hot air in a cold climate.