issue 262 - December 1994
and a thousand flowers
Every year the UN holds at least one major conference: we’ve just had population and
next year social development and women will take their turn. Are these gatherings just
talking shops or do they actually achieve something? Maggie Black investigates.
The ruined church of San Francisco in Zacatecas, northern Mexico, bulges with dignitaries, officials and a children’s choir. This magnificent building, now used for state occasions, lost its roof during a decisive battle in the 1914 Mexican Revolution. Today, Governor Arturo Romo de Gutierrez has ‘a new revolution’ to offer. ‘We must build a new world, a society of peace, democracy and progress in which all can live well, especially the children.’ Romo’s new state policy in favour of the child – better health care, more rural schools, more popular participation – is a central plank of his programme.
This language of political commitment to children, and the impulse of Romo’s social reforms, can be easily traced to their source. They come from an international meeting held under UN auspices. President Carlos Salinas de Gortari of Mexico was a prominent backer of the World Summit for Children, held in New York in 1990. At the Summit 71 leaders signed a ‘World Declaration’ and ‘Plan of Action’ for children with various goals for attainment by the year 2000. Mexico was one of the first countries to lay out a programme to put these promises into effect. Salinas has since held a number of ‘evaluations’ – national versions of the showy occasion in Zacatecas – at which ministers recount achievements to prolonged and publicized applause.
This was back in August when Mexico’s ruling party was frantic to win an election. So it is easy to be cynical: to suggest that all of this ‘social policy in favour of children’ is just a sophisticated version of kissing babies on the hustings. But what cannot be doubted is that the rhetoric of the Children’s Summit has passed onto the national level – and not just in Mexico. It is commonly said that what is needed in international affairs is less rhetoric and more action on the ground. But when you find, four years on, state governors instigating new social programmes and transforming local structures, that argument falters.
Where does rhetoric end and action begin? If the 52 municipalities of Zacatecas now start packing ex-churches to herald a drop in infant mortality, will cynics still mutter ‘circuses, circuses’? When the rhetoric of reform surfaces this close to the village community, it must be possible to state with confidence that the World Summit for Children actually did something for those in whose name it was held. And this has to be the test. For all the fine words and ringing declarations, UN conferences mean nothing unless they lead to action.
International conferences became part of the world landscape in the wake of decolonization when the UN was suddenly confronted with the need for ‘development’ in the poverty-stricken South. In the 1960s and 1970s, the new post-colonial issues began surging onto the global agenda. Existing UN mechanisms could not handle them and conferences filled the vacuum. A 1972 UN conference on the environment in Stockholm set the new trend. It was followed by gatherings on population, food, women, human settlements, employment, water and desertification. Apart from establishing yet more UN bodies – all in need of funding – to take these issues forward, it was not clear what they achieved. A resolution was even passed in the General Assembly that the international chat show should cease. It barely drew breath, however.
In the 1990s, we are coming round to the same subjects for the third or fourth time. The events have become larger, noisier and more expensive; their agendas have become longer, more contentious and complex; and the crises surrounding most of the issues have deepened, not gone away. Why do governments go on supporting UN resolutions to hold yet more international conferences and allocating precious resources from their development-assistance budgets to make them happen? To some observers, these conferences are nothing more than ritualized wars of words in which only the practising parties – diplomats, delegates, lobbyists – have a meaningful interest.
Others are convinced of their importance. Stephen Lewis, former Canadian Ambassador to the UN, is one. ‘These conferences are the vehicle for the UN in the 1990s – attempts to mobilize opinion and influence the policy of member states. This is the way the world is setting its agenda.’ He points not just to the successes stemming from the World Summit, but to advances for women coming out of conferences in Nairobi and Vienna, and the positive influence of the Earth Summit’s Agenda 21 on many governments’ environmental policies. He is certain that the two conferences next year – the Social Summit in Copenhagen and the Women’s Conference in Beijing – will also be translated into action.
Conferences have become much more important, Lewis believes, since non-governmental organizations (NGOs) began to play an active part. In the 1970s, NGOs were – as now – allowed to have their own forum alongside the main event. But the conference was strictly an inter-governmental affair. By persistent lobbying and hard work, NGOs have managed to change this.
They have fought for the right to speak at formal sessions, even if they cannot take part in the negotiations. Increasingly, their representatives are being included on government delegations and given access to classified briefs. Some government delegations use NGOs’ pressure upon them as part of their own bargaining hand.
The Earth Summit was a turning-point. In the run-up to Rio, NGOs definitely made a difference, according to Koy Thompson of the International Institute for Environment and Development. He credits sustained NGO lobbying with the repeated use in Agenda 21 of language such as ‘community-driven’, ‘community-based’ and ‘participatory’ to describe the structures needed for sustainable development.
Those who participate in the ‘conference process’ in all its intensity naturally tend to develop a commitment to it. The international agreements they generate are produced only after thousands of hours of dedicated negotiation on clause after clause, word after word, in which a nuance of meaning can easily derail the mildest of formulations. Finally the war of words, on the conference floor and in the media, builds to a climax. When it’s all over, usually at midnight on the very last day, there is a great sense of triumph. But in reality this is only the beginning. Now comes the question of whether countries will stick to the agreement.
We are back to the test. And the problem with anything coming out of a UN conference is that there is absolutely no means of enforcement. The member states are not accountable to some higher international authority, even if Secretary-General Boutros-Ghali would prefer it otherwise. They would never agree to such an international authority being invented. So there is only the moral pressure to deliver on their commitments. Some governments feel they are accountable to their own words and signatures; but none is above fudging and mudging and ‘opting out’ when it suits.
Delegations at international conferences always work strenuously to avoid a form of words in the final communiqué which will oblige them to do anything that their governments weren’t already planning to do. Some countries sign even though they have no intention of complying. In the worst cases – particularly in the human-rights field – you wonder if they read the text at all, or merely hope that their signature will open an international chequebook and give their leader a moment of international visibility which will look good back home.
What is needed is something to pack moral punch and push action along at the local level. This is exactly what UNICEF’s country offices have supplied in the wake of the World Summit for Children. They have chased – politely, tactfully, expertly – senior government figures and ‘helped’ them deliver. But UNICEF is unusual. No other UN body has developed this capacity – though arguably that is just what they should have been doing all these many years since the conference circuit began.
So who is going to take forward the agenda for the 1990s which the UN conferences are producing and make sure something happens on the ground? In reality the only force that can make governments implement what they have agreed to is the force of popular disapproval or ‘organized shame’. Opposition political parties and other campaigning groups will have to police those agreements. What usually happens is that when some part of an international agreement inspires, matches and supports an issue which is burning at the national level – car emissions, contraceptive freedoms or child support, for example – that policing will be done.
The progress is modest, unspectacular – and the UN is certainly suffering from a crisis of expectations. ‘The Earth Summit will be a failure if it does not create conditions for an earth democracy,’ proclaimed one campaigner. But how could it ever have done any such thing? Meanwhile, in Zacatecas, Governor Romo has launched his ‘social policy in favour of the child’ and in Beijing a thousand flowers are about to bloom. The international show must go on.
Maggie Black is a freelance journalist who specializes in aid and development.