United Nations

Rich talk, no action

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 March, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 March, 1995, 12:00am

HANS Christian Andersen might have written a fairytale about it, the story of a wealthy emissary who toured the world protesting about poverty yet all the time grew richer himself.

But of course the Danish spinner of so many wonderful tales would be hard put to find a happy ending to this one because the emissary never got his come-uppance.

He just carried on enjoying the fruits of others' labours until he finally died.

Forgive the cynicism but why is it that at a United Nations summit on social development - the eradication of poverty - the consumption should have been so conspicuous.

Take the group of 16 African and American diplomatic delegates dining in a Copenhagen restaurant on Wednesday night; their total bill came to a cool HK$18,000, that is more than $1,000 each.

They achieved that lofty sum by consuming bottles of Corton Charlemagne Cotes de Beaune burgundy at $1,200 a bottle. Not bad for a poverty summit.

Take the United Arab Emirates delegation. The members refused to stay in any of Copenhagen's top hotels claiming they were not good enough.

So they hired a villa and replaced all its chrome taps with gold at a cost of more than $1 million.

Why is it that the poorest countries always seem to have some of the biggest delegations at beanfeasts like this.

Bangladesh has an astonishing 45 in its team not including spouses and security people. That is 11 more than the delegation from the United States.

The aim has been to try to set up a framework, indeed a programme of action, for eradicating world poverty, doing something about the burgeoning debt that keeps the 'poor' poor and acting on everything from child labour to women's rights.

Of these laudable aims not one has been met to any degree. The Danes - used to their government taking 50 per cent of their basic income in tax and paying 25 per cent VAT - had been phlegmatic about their small country winning the prize of hosting what they have dubbed the biggest ever gathering of heads of state.

The Danes had a lot to lose in terms of face and they organised everything wonderfully. But even they have been dismayed by the summit's failure to really tackle anything.

Local papers ran headlines such as, 'All bark no bite at poverty talks' and 'Summit charade'.

Demonstrators called for more action and less hot air. Big organisations such as Oxfam and Christian Aid threatened to pull out unless they were given more access to the diplomats and politicians they seek to influence.

The 2,000 Non-Governmental Organisations in Copenhagen launched their own alternative summit in an abandoned naval base adjacent to what used to be the biggest hippy commune in Europe in down town Copenhagen.

One Indian charity leader was so angry about lack of action on bonded and child labour that he proposed the NGOs storm the summit meeting place at the Bella Centre, several kilometres outside the city centre on what is known locally as garbage island.

The high life came to a climax last night at a grand dinner hosted by Queen Margrethe. King Hussein of Jordan was due to sit next to her as the longest serving head of state but he has stayed away with earache, albeit nothing to the earache he would have received had he been in Copenhagen.

So Queen Margrethe was instead seated next to Fidel Castro, the next longest serving head of state.

Dr Castro has now given up smoking his huge Havana cigars on doctor's orders and is a zealot for the no smoking cause.

Queen Margrethe likes to all but chain smoke on cheap Greek cigarettes. Plenty of cause for friction there.

That communist Cuba should also have sent along its own 'Non-Governmental Organisations' - state bodies one and all - is hardly surprising.

They used a meeting at the summit centre to call for an end to the US blockade of the island.

No surprises there either.

We should also not be surprised that China also brought several NGOs. With daring independence, these youth, academic and industrial groups all praised the great success of the People's Republic in eradicating poverty. Every representative made a speech and was applauded by his colleagues.

About half a dozen outsiders attended the meeting. Nobody pointed out that these NGOs were in fact very much 'GOs' - but then perhaps nobody needed to.

Li Peng attended as did Francois Mitterrand, Helmut Kohl, Tomiichi Murayama, Boris Yeltsin and Nelson Mandela.

John Major stayed away, concepts such as 'social development' not being common Tory parlance.

In the UN's words the meeting was called with the 'express objective of confronting the issues of poverty, unemployment and social exclusion'.

It had to address a 'social and moral crisis of immense proportions', according to UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali.

But the specific prescriptions of one half of the world for alleviating debt are not the same as the interests of the other half.

At the final reckoning this summit will have done little to narrow the differences between the two worlds on these questions.

You simply cannot expect 180 countries to talk at a meeting like this and agree, especially when the agenda covers everything from access to education, social discrimination, inadequate housing, lack of access to information, low wages and exposure to crime.

Yet the UN believes these meetings achieve something tangible.

Others might argue that they demonstrate the truth of the maxim that the effectiveness of a bureaucracy is in inverse proportion to its size, the triumph of ambition over pragmatism.

With a budget of US$15 billion (about HK$115 billion) a year and a payrole of 50,000 people, the UN has developed into an unfocused monster.

Many countries might send their best people to try and control the beast but thousands of others are failed civil servants that governments in many parts of the world no longer want to have around on home territory.

The very scope of such topics as the 'reduction of world unemployment' are too large to be meaningful.

By all means call a summit to target a specific issue such as child labour but spread your ammunition too wide and you risk hitting nothing. And as they leave tomorrow night every one of the governments in Copenhagen knows that absolutely nothing is legally binding upon it.

Not for nothing either was US Vice-President Al Gore, attending in place of Bill Clinton, expected to call for a thorough review of the role of the UN in his speech.

The world may be divided into north and south, rich and poor. But summits like these are also divided into those here for no better reason than that their government has to be represented, and those for whom a world summit represents the chance, often illusory, to air their grievances.

There were no gold taps for the small pressure group from Guyana in the Caribbean, who turned up with spending money of just $60 a day. Nobody had told them it was cold in Scandinavia this time of year. They spent all their money on clothes and are currently existing on Salvation Army handouts.

The Danes spent US$30 million on the summit. The 15,000 delegates spent possibly that much again.

But the people of Copenhagen haven't been all that much impressed. They have stayed at home in front of their television sets believing their city centre bars are overrun with foreigners dealing in concepts such as the 'post scarcity society'.

They are wrong. Taxi companies, asked to operate a 24-hour day by the government, say business has been disappointing, even 'escort girl' services say trade has been lower than expected, but for those offering 'escort boy' services, yes this is very liberal Scandinavia, report a 20 per cent leap in bookings. There is a story there somewhere.




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