UN Clueless In Copenhagen

Author: Matthew Habiger


by Matthew Habiger, OSB

The United Nations Conference on Social Development took place in Copenhagen 9-12 March 1995. Was it successful in addressing the problem of development, or just another monster conference? Cairo dealt almost exclusively with population, with an emphasis upon reducing the rate of growth. Copenhagen was meant to address the issue of real development for the Third World, where two thirds of the human race live.

There are many dimensions to a UN sponsored conference. I shall highlight several and emphasize the importance of real economic development. This was my first experience with a UN conference, and perhaps my expectations were unrealistically high.


What were the goals and objectives of Copenhagen? Ostensibly they were to promote real development throughout the Third World. Realistically, the conference seemed to be merely an opportunity for every UN agency to push its own agenda under the guise of "social development." Promoting a higher material standard of living by reducing poverty, creating more and better jobs and advancing "social development" are all laudable goals. Who could be against halving the maternal mortality rate and the infant mortality rate, increasing opportunities for young girls to receive an education and better health care?

The problem lies elsewhere: the means chosen to achieve these goals. Is the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMT ) necessarily the best way to help a developing country secure credit? The Africans and Latinos at the conference expressed serious reservations. Should USAID and UNFPA be the ones to promote primary health care, "reproductive health" and family planning in developing countries? Judging from their record at Cairo, we think not. Is UNICEF, with its own ideology of children's rights, best suited to address the needs of children? They do not share the Judeo-Christian view of the family. Is the UN army the most effective and reliable way to keep the peace throughout the world? Where is the evidence? If new sources of funding are found to help with development, can UN agencies be trusted to administer them objectively?


Information poured forth from Copenhagen to all parts of the globe, but was there much real news? Some reporters left early saying that there was no story to be found. Literally tons of printed material were made available to the press, from which many composed their stories. Nonstop half-hour press conferences were held. Everywhere you turned someone was being interviewed.

The conference site was the Bella Center (not named after Abzug, though she was there and joked about it), 20 minutes by bus from the city center. That is where the formal events occurred. At the plenary sessions the arrangement was typically that of the UN, where seats were reserved for several delegates from each member country. Short speeches from spokesmen of each country took place nonstop at the plenary sessions. The contents were often predictable and tedious. Occasionally a position paper was given by a UN official.

Delegates to the conference had a specific task. They were to discuss, line by line, the official document which would become identified with the summit. The draft contained "commitments," "a declaration" and "a plan of action." All of this had been assembled at three preparatory committee sessions held in New York. Intense lobbying by various groups went into shaping the draft document. The Women's Caucus learned from Cairo and previous conferences that their influence could best be felt at this stage of the process. About 10 percent of the contents were in brackets, indicating that there were objections to the positions, and it was this bracketed material that was under discussion by the delegates. All together there were 120 brackets.

On Friday, 121 heads of state and 28 vice presidents arrived. They would give short speeches in the plenary hall and have photo opportunities over the next two days. Thus, the typical head of state would give a five- to seven-minute speech and get an opportunity to have his/her picture shown back home. The press has its favorites, however- Nelson Mandela, Al Gore, Fidel Castro -so very few were among the chosen for front page coverage in major papers. What planners of the conference really wanted was financial commitments to their programs from the various countries, and in this they were mainly disappointed.

The remaining major grouping was the non-governmental organizations (NGOs). These are third parties who have attained recognition from the UN, and they are assuming increasing importance by pressuring local governments to accept UN policy. At Copenhagen the NGOs met at the Holman deactivated naval base, twenty minutes away from the Bella Center. During the one visit I paid there, thousands of people were moving from building to building, and from event to event. Very few of the NGOs had access to the plenary sessions or to the delegates, as did the Women's Caucus. The NGOs expressed great displeasure in being kept away from the "action" of the summit. After Friday they were allowed some access to these areas.


There were about 75 people at Copenhagen with a clear pro-life commitment, and many others who sympathized with our cause. The Vatican delegation concentrated its efforts on the wording of the draft document. Had the Vatican not been present, much of the language excluded from the Cairo document would have found its way back into the Copenhagan document. The radical feminists among the delegates remembered the successful battle waged by the Vatican, and were cautious.

In the evenings we would gather and exchange notes. Only in this way could one form a complete picture of the day's many events form effective strategy for the next day. Some of the effective efforts of the group were gathering information from various UN agencies and NGOs, attending press conferences and asking questions, supplying information on specific topics to delegates, and sending out press releases. One remarkable effort was the "180 Days of Prayer". (See the article on page 6.) Impressed with how much a small group could do to influence a major conference, I mentioned to one of us: "Think how much good this small group accomplished." He replied: "Think how much bad we prevented."


The main objective of the conference was to propose ways of assisting developing nations to break out of the stranglehold of poverty. Did that happen? Not directly. Some relevant facts are helpful here. Two thirds of the world live in developing countries. The affluent West, comprising 20 percent of the people, consumes 80 percent of the world's material goods. It is estimated that the richest fifth receives 82 percent of total world income, while the poorest fifth receives 1.4 percent of total world income. The world's military budget comes to US $800 billion. It is said that this equals the combined income of the poorest half of humanity. The total debt owed by the Third World to the First is US $1 trillion. These countries pay some $150 billion in debt service each year to banks, governments, the World Bank and the IMF. In some cases, the debtor country has already paid back three times the amount loaned to it.

But where were the proposals to promote real development, obtain credit, open access to more markets, create real jobs, and increase the GNP? A reporter from complained "Nothing new here," after listening to press conferences by the World Bank and IMF. Two proposals were frequently heard: absolve debts owed by developing countries, and reduce military budgets of First World countries. These are part of the picture, but there is so much more to the story.

Stable family life demands stable income. If we are advocating strong family life and large families, then we must take seriously the economic realities which accompany this. And that is the reason I am encouraging a closer working relationship between groups like the Center for Economic and Social Justice (CESJ) and HLI. Periodically we mention the book , which was written by a group of CESJ writers. The book sets out the economic theory for promoting development and speaks directly to the major theme of Copenhagen. Too bad this was not the "Plan of Action." (At our Montreal Conference CESJ will make a presentation on the need for an economic agenda in the pro-life movement).

Michael Greaney, MBA and CPA, as well as a writer for CESJ, came with me to Copenhagan. Both he and economist Jacqueline Kasun PhD, who participated in Cairo and Copenhagen, will be contributing articles to future issues of and .

Development is everyone' s business. If poor nations ever succeed, it will be because responsible groups shaped sound policies for the world and purged programs guaranteed to fail.

Taken from the April 1995 issue of "HLI Reports." To subscribe contact: HLI Reports 7845 Airpark Road, Suite E Gaithersburg, MD 20879