Humanity as Commodity: The Hidden Agenda of the World Summit for Social Development, Copenhagen, March, 1995
“Since the Cold War all we’ve done is to replace the nuclear bomb with a social one. . . . Security has always been a national issue. But people don’t realize that you can have a secure state full of insecure people. . . . Poverty, unemployment, and violence are now our security problems, and you can’t apply military concepts to solve them.”
— Juan Somavia, Social Summit Chairperson
The World Summit for Social Development, held in Copenhagen, March 2-12, 1995, was hailed by some as a giant step forward for humanity. By others it was deplored as yet another wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing. Like the Earth Summit in 1992 and the Population Summit of 1994, the Social Summit of 1995 did address issues of global concern. But because of powerful vested interests the Social Summit, like its predecessors, fell short of viable or democratic solutions.
The main concerns at the Social Summit were “poverty, unemployment, and social disintegration.” While the final Declaration of Social Summit sounds beguilingly progressive and egalitarian, many critics feel that it may do more to worsen the hardships of the poor than correct them. In the last analysis, they say, it rubber stamps and legitimizes the same lop-sided development model that has contributed to the pandemic of poverty, unemployment, and social deterioration that it portends to overcome. The following statement by Peggy Antrobus from DAWN, reflects the widespread disillusionment with the Summit.
“The Social Summit in Copenhagen has served mainly to expose the unwillingness of our governments and international institutions to confront . . . current socioeconomic and political structures that are perpetuating poverty, injustice, and environmental degradation everywhere in the world. Some of us dared to dream that this summit might open the door to a recognition that strategies adopted to deal with such problems over the last 30 to 40 years have not worked, and that it is time for a new approach. However . . . we are left with [an official] declaration that— despite progressive rhetoric—promises only a continuation of the neoliberal policies that many of us have come to see as the core of the problem.”
—Peggy Antrobus, General Coordinator, Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN)
The official Summit, hailed as the largest gathering of world leaders in history, was attended by 116 heads of state and thousands of United Nations representatives and govern¬ment officials. (However, it was revealing that the heads of the USA, UK, and Russia—3 of the 5 nations on the UN Security Council—were conspicuous by their absence.)
Simultaneous with the official Summit was held the so-called “people’s summit” or NGO Forum, attended by hundreds of non-government organizations, large and small, from all over the world. By prearrangement, some of the more creditable NGO’s were able to enter into the heavily guarded sanctum of the official Summit. In all, the attendance at the combined functions was around 25,000 (a number which made effective coordination, participation, and communication extremely difficult).
The International People’s Health Council (IPHC) and the Third World Network participated jointly in the Summit. At the NGO Forum the IPHC gave three presentations on the politics of health. More importantly, perhaps, the IPHC helped to lead the initiative for, and helped take part in drafting an alternative declaration for the Social Summit, criticizing the official Declaration, pointing out the contradictions of its underlying agenda, and suggesting more equitable alternatives. The Copenhagen Alternative Declaration warns that although the official Summit Declaration calls eloquently for a global effort to overcome poverty and unemployment, in fact it subscribes to the same strategies for economic development and structural adjustment that are in large part responsible for the widespread poverty and unemployment in the world today. It points out that the official Declaration fails to address the underlying social causes of deepening poverty. The Alternative Declaration, therefore, rather than advocating “safety nets” to rescue those who have suffered disastrous wage cuts and job loss due to inequitable neoliberal policies, calls for fairer, more equitable social and economic policies. And it enumerates hard hitting recommendations for achieving fairer, more people-friendly policies.
The Copenhagen Alternative Declaration rapidly mushroomed into a rallying point for a wide diversity of NGOs at the Forum. A series of meetings to discuss and modify the draft were attended by increasing numbers of participants. Literally hundreds provided input, making the final document a truly democratic process (with consequential strengths and weaknesses). The Alternative Declaration was endorsed by more than 600 non-government organizations from all corners of the globe—and more are still signing up.
The Official Declaration: Putting Greed Before Need
The official Declaration and Programme of Action of the World Summit for Social Development frustrated and angered many Summit participants, especially in the NGO Forum. Many feel that by legitimizing harmful macro-economic policies the official Declaration may do more to perpetuate than to alleviate poverty. One of the greatest weaknesses of the document is that in its very selective and superficial analysis of the causes of poverty, it fails to look at power relations. In essence, the document advocates the same reform policies that in recent years have put top-heavy economic growth before human and environmental needs. Embellished with humanitarian-sounding rhetoric, its recipe for social development basically follows the formula for lop-sided development which the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (the so-called Bretton Woods Institutions) have imposed on poor Third World countries and more recently on Eastern Europe, often with disastrous results.
Some critics suspect that the World Bank and IMF had more than a little influence in determining the underlying agenda of the official Social Summit Declaration. They point out that the Declaration contains the same sort of duplicity of many World Bank documents: the polished art of “double-speak” which methodically promotes the interests of Big Business behind a veil of progressive rhetoric about meeting the needs of the poor on their turf and terms.
Indeed, the international financial institutions, especially the World Bank, had a strong presence in both the official Summit and the NGO Forum. The Bank, slated for at least one major presentation nearly every day of the Forum, expounded on such themes as “The World Bank and Investing in People.” However, the Bank was repeatedly challenged from the floor by well-informed critics. Persons from a range of poor countries gave testimony about how World Bank policies have driven countless poor working people into desperate poverty. In one of its scheduled presentations, the Bank spokespersons were interrupted by a large group of protestors chanting “The World Bank causes poverty!” and “50 years is enough!” This latter was the rallying cry of a campaign to expose the prowealth/anti-people agenda of the Bretton Woods Institutions, which celebrated their 50th anniversary in 1994. Leaders of the 50 Years Is Enough campaign were present at the NGO Forum and played a leading role in drafting the Alternative Declaration. According to the 50 Years Is Enough summit statement:
. . . we are disappointed that the official documents for the … Summit … do not commit to correcting two of the greatest impediments to development around the world, structural adjustment programs and the increasing burden of foreign debt. The Social Summit provides a unique opportunity to address the root causes of poverty, unemployment, and social disintegration, and to make the Bretton Woods Institutions more accountable and effective in achieving sustainable development goals. Instead, the . . . document to be signed in Copenhagen addresses the symptoms of these problems without challenging the policies that have helped create them.
Structural Adjustment: The Solution to Poverty, or a Cause?
At the heart of the World Bank and IMF’s development policy are its socalled Structural Adjustment Programs or SAPs: harsh austerity measures designed to make sure that poor countries in economic straits keep servicing their huge foreign debt. SAPs are imposed on debtor governments as a condition for bailout loans. In order to collect sufficient money to keep up their interests payments, SAPs usually require governments to:
Slash budgets for public services, including health, education, and food subsidies.
Privatize government-run enterprises and public utilities, including hospitals (on the grounds that private, competitive enterprises are more cost effective).
Orient production of food and goods for export rather than for local consumption (to generate dollars for servicing foreign debt, since local currency is unacceptable).
Devaluate local currency (to lower prices on export goods, and thereby increase sales).
Free local prices while freezing wages (to increase profit margins by paying workers less).
Provide incentives (such as low wages and deregulation or restrictions) to stimulate foreign investment, which is thought to boost a poor country’s economy.
These Structural Adjustment Programs were supposed to lead to economic recovery, and eventually the benefits were supposed to trickle down to the poor. In the vast majority of countries where SAPs have been implemented, however, the result has been economic stagnation, massive unemployment, and worsening poverty. In many seminars at the NGO Forum, representatives from Third World countries explained in heart-rending detail how adjustment had affected their lives: how the hardships of falling wages and lost jobs combined with rising costs of health services and foods had brought hunger, despair, and often death, especially to women and children.
Social scientists, in turn, provided evidence on how, in many countries, indicators of a society’s well-being such as child mortality and rates of malnutrition have stopped improving, and in the poorest countries have recently gotten worse. They equated the current resurgence of diseases such as cholera, malaria, and tuberculosis to increased squalor and cutbacks in public health services caused by structural adjustment.
The World Bank and IMF tried hard to counter these argument, often warping facts to do so. As if constant repetition were a form of proof, they kept insisting that, overall, the state of the world and humanity is improving. The Bank’s spokespersons presented elegant graphs showing how health, education, and life expectancy have improved over the last 50 years (since the birth of Bretton Woods institutions). But they failed to mention that in the last decade such improvements have ground to a halt and in several nations been reversed.
When pressed to do so, the World Bank and IMF do concede that their structural reforms may have brought some hardships, but argue that in the long run this is for the common good. The following is from a booklet prepared by the IMF for the Social Summit, titled Social Dimensions of the IMF’s Policy Dialogue:
“In the short term, reform policies can affect certain poor groups in several ways. Removal of generalized price subsidies on basic necessities or exchange rate devaluation can cause real incomes of domestic consumers, including the poor, to decline in the short term. A reduction of budgetary subsidies to state-owned enterprises and their restructuring [i.e. privatization], a lowering of protection following trade liberalization, and a downsizing of the government may result in job losses. Consequently, IMF-supported programs have sought to include social safety net measures to mitigate adverse short-term effects on vulnerable population groups. . .”
At the summit, critics pointed out that for millions of the most “vulnerable population groups” (especially women and children), the“adverse shortterm effects” mean starvation, disease, and death. Clearly, for those who die of the short-term effects, the hypothetical long-term benefits are of little advantage.
Safety Nets as a Replacement for Human Rights
Advocacy of safety nets is part of “Adjustment with a Human Face” as promoted by UNICEF. It has subsequently been espoused by the World Bank, and has also been incorporated into the official Declaration of the Social Summit.
But as is so often the case with IMF and Bank interventions, measures that at first glance appear to favor the poor often conceal a hidden agenda designed to benefit the rich at the expense of the poor. As a case in point, provision of safety nets for high risk groups in fact replaces public services which used to be universal. Thus the “safety nets” form a cloak for the cut-backs in government services. Because privatization and cost recovery schemes place basic services outside the reach of the neediest sector of the population, safety nets (in the form of underfunded selective government services assisted by NGOs) are set up for those whose situation is most desperate.
Thus safety nets form part of a socially regressive strategy that shifts the costs of essential services onto the shoulders of those who can least afford them. In many countries these safety nets are replacing more comprehensive and universal services that were previously covered by progressive taxation (meaning those who have more give more to help meet needs of those who have less). By adopting such sly and regressive policies—along with the whole package of big-business-friendly “modernization” of the global economy— the Social Summit provides a stamp of approval and “social responsibility” to the unhealthy policies of the International Financial Institutions and multinational enterprises it represents.
Despite the claims of the financial institutions, globalization of the economy in ways that favor the affluent has doubtlessly contribute to world poverty. As Xabier Gorostiaga, a Jesuit priest and keynote speaker from Mexico pointed out, the richest 20% of the world’s population now amass 85% of the world’s earnings, up from 70% in 1960. Today the world’s 358 billionaires control as much wealth and the poorest 2 billion people, more than a third of the world’s population. This widening gap between rich and poor is due to what Dr. N. H. Antia, a health activist from India and member of the IPHC, calls “greed-centered development.” This he distinguishes from “need-centered development,” which is what we must work toward. Unfortunately, the official Declaration of the Summit plays into the hands of the potentates of greed.
An Alternative Declaration
Unwilling to endorse the official Declaration of the Social Summit, participants in the NGO Forum drafted and endorsed the Alternative Copenhagen Declaration, which outlines a model of development based on equity and a response to all people’s basic needs. Should the guidelines laid forth in this document be followed by the world’s governments, financial institutions, and the UN, giant strides could be taken toward reducing poverty, restoring peace, and preserving the global environment.
However, short of a global uprising, the alternative declaration is likely to have little impact. Those of us who signed the document know that putting it into action will be an uphill battle. It is unlikely that the more equitable alternatives it recommends will be heeded by those in positions of wealth and power. If social change is to come, it must be spearheaded by a growing global coalition of popular organizations, NGOS and grassroots groups. The NGO forum and the Alternative Copenhagen Declaration are important steps in that direction.
It will be stronger if the Alternative Copenhagen Declaration has a broader base of support. We have printed it in this Newsletter and it is also now on the e-mail network. Further endorsements by NGOS, grassroots groups, and networks, are still being sought. There is talk of a genuine People’s Summit in 1996. Ultimately the global coalition needs to grow until governments, big business, and financial institutions become more truly democratic and accountable, not only to their stock holders, but to humanity.
If your organization or network wants to add its name to those endorsing the Copenhagen Alternative Declaration, please contact us.