GENEVA — After intense negotiations on social remedies for poverty and other destructive side effects of globalization, the United Nations has hammered out an international policy pact that can make the world economy less turbulent, less cruel and much more fair.
The agreement, which capped the General Assembly’s five-day special session at the Palais des Nations, is a turning point in a process that began at the 1995 World Summit on Social Development in Copenhagen. At that time, 117 heads of state declared war on world poverty, unemployment and social disintegration. The U.N. meeting here this week was a five-year followup session to assess world social trends since Copenhagen — many of which are alarming — and to endorse unprecedented measures to intensify a coordinated antipoverty effort.
Worldwide, 1.2 billion people survive on less than $1 per day. Recent financial speculation has caused chaos in economies in Asia, Russia and Brazil. Social services such as health and education have been slashed by fledgling democratic governments faced with bankers’ demands that they repay loans incurred by repressive regimes in the past. Diseases such as HIV/AIDS and environmental damage are taking a devastating toll on poor countries’ populations. Meanwhile, overseas development assistance from wealthy countries has declined far below announced targets.
If these and similar trends are not reversed, widespread social disintegration is almost inevitable.
The General Assembly session in Geneva produced a broad range of agreements on actions that should be taken by both rich and poor countries, and by international organizations, including financial institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.
Although the General Assembly’s policy package is not legally binding, it constitutes a morally binding set of rules for globalization on which there is growing agreement. These guidelines include: a call for rich countries to annul the debts of the world’s poorest countries, where interests payments have exceeded budgets for health and education; the delivery of information technology and medical assistance to developing countries; an agreement that social “safety nets” should not be sacrificed to debt obligations in times of crisis; and a call for “transparency” and accountability, both in national policy and in the procedures of international financial organizations.
One of the most hotly debated issues at Geneva was the decision to study the feasibility of a currency transaction tax to stabilize speculative financial flows and create pools of funds that national governments could then spend on programs such as poverty alleviation. An additional aspect of the Geneva session was that nongovernmental organizations played a strong role in persuading governments to take antipoverty measures seriously.
The central problem of the globalizing economy is the extreme unevenness of the distribution of benefits: inequality of income, of employment, of access to social services such as health and education, and of opportunities for participation in government and in society.
Ensuring that humane social values rule economic globalization is the unavoidable challenge of this generation. The imperative of achieving social progress has been a growing preoccupation at many conferences, among them the ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle last November, and within many international organizations that previously were inclined to define growth as a simple matter of gross national products and bottom lines.
Based on the Geneva agreements, it is clear that social-development policy is advancing on a clear trajectory. Although governments disagree on many issues, overall there is a broadening and deepening political consensus that governments must look out for the weaker members of society, and that strong nations have a comparable responsibility to pay much closer attention to the needs of weak ones.
There is also agreement that the dynamism of the private sector is an indispensable engine driving economic growth, but that it does not, by itself, assure people-centered social development or provide the essential global public goods.
These things are achievable only when there is a balance between a robust private sector and an effective public sector at the national level, and an effective set of institutions at the international level.
The institutions that have regulated the world economy have developed an effective system of rules governing dollars-and-cents matters and the expansion of global markets, along with the means to enforce those rules. But until now those institutions have paid much less attention to labor standards, human rights, poverty reduction, protection of the environment, education and health.
The key now is whether governments will implement the set of ground rules they endorsed at Geneva. My guess is that if parliaments, voters, civil society organizations — and each of us as individuals — continue to keep up the pressure, compliance is just a matter of time.
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