Just hot air in a cold climate?

Related Topics
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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Service Delivery Manager (Software Development, Testing)

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established software house ba...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The economy expanded by 0.8 per cent in the second quarter of 2014  

British economy: Government hails the latest GDP figures, but there is still room for skepticism over this 'glorious recovery'

Ben Chu
Comedy queen: Miranda Hart has said that she is excited about working on the new film  

There is no such thing as a middle-class laugh

David Lister
Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little