POINT/COUNTERPOINT ON CONFERENCE DIPLOMACY
Point: Margaret Catley-Carlson Chair, Global Water Partnership
Special sessions - Pros from a Conference Pro.....
There is a good reason for skepticism about conference diplomacy and summits. They cost a lot, steal the time of those involved in the subject, divert time from substance to administrative detail, and often enrich the hospitality industry of the host country a great deal more than they enrich the thought process on the subject issue. And in the post battle-for-Seattle era, is it worth even trying to get leaders together and hope that the focus can be on the events in the Conference room?
And yet....and yet.....
International conference diplomacy can work, and work well, to accelerate progress on important issues. I have seen it happen twice - at the 1990 World Summit for Children and at the Cairo Conference on Population and Development. On both of these occasions, it is fair to say that a real paradigm shift occurred. After these meetings, a substantial part of the world, and certainly the senior levels of governments, looked at these issues - at least for a time - differently than they had before the conference. An interesting but very different third 5050success example for me would be the The Hague Conference on Water in March 2000. Why? What made these three different?
· For the Childrens Summit, the extraordinary importance of the event derived from the fact that heads of state and government were faced with the reality of the situation of children in their own countries, the fact that peer pressure and pressure from the inimitable James Grant was applied on them to get them to participate, and that they were also faced with the simple but powerful request that they agree to report on progress in a number of areas which impact children. The list was kept tolerably small although not small enough. This formula has, of course, been tarnished by frequent attempts to replicate it.I think what made these events significant was the degree of preparation that occurred at the national level for the international event itself.
· The Cairo Conferences success was based on the determination of groups of NGOs, well backed by UNFPA and others, to mobilize in every country in the world to take a look at reproductive health issues: difficult, taboo, sensitive issues. To these were added the demographic impact of the situation of women (though a lot of participants were more inclined to see the problem in this perspective after the conference than before it!). High media interest, because of these taboos and sensitive issues, did not hurt. Within five years, governments were tripping over themselves in their readiness to report along the lines of the new paradigms that emerged. This alacrity has both a home-grown and an international audience. NGOs and community groups provided the real yeast - whether this will continue or will feel the need to move outside the barricades will vary from issue to issue.
· The Hague Conference on Water hasnt yet impacted on government policy, but it gave impetus to the type of coalition-building across all sectors that is the necessary precursor to a more sane water policy around the world. It is a work-in-progress for a resource which has many, many sectoral demands, but no single international organization, usually no national organization or organizing ministry, and few defenders of the resource itself apart from narrower sectoral demands on its use.
Even where and when the earth does not move - and it would be wishful thinking and far-fetched to talk about paradigm shifts - conference diplomacy does have two important pluses:
· First and foremost, the opportunity for groups within countries to get together; dialogue begins, information is exchanged, problem lists are drawn up - and these can be followed by requests for meetings at senior political, private sector or social levels to enhance the level of national preparedness; the national media are mobilized around the coming event, financial support and other resources are pulled in towards the cause and, above all, coalitions of partners are formed.So what point do I make?
· Second, well organized conferences give a lot of opportunities to practitioners from all sectors - public, private, academic - to focus on success stories and to exchange experiences about best practices. This is a lot more enduring and important work than the tedious construction of never-to-be-seen-again-or-ever-read-in-their-entirety ministerial documents.
That the success or failure of a global conference - despite the hoopla attached to the ministerial events and statements - depends on whether these events have an impact on national and community level concrete actions. Does the international conference enhance these activities, does it provide impetus and support to such concrete work, or does it rob precious time and resources from it for irrelevant activities on a platform far removed from reality?
Carpe diem, carpe conference!
Counterpoint: Keith Bezanson Institute of Development Studies, Sussex
Is there a future for Summits and special Sessions of the United Nations?
There can be little doubt about the historical value of global summits. Without them the multilateral system itself would never have existed. The main institutions of the multilateral system (the World Bank, the IMF, the United Nations and its specialised agencies) were the products of global summits and they were central to the remarkable quarter century following the second world war (called the Golden Age by historian Eric Hobsbawm) of rapid economic growth and growing prosperity in all regions of the world.
Because of this, it is small wonder that summits and conference diplomacy became a preferred vehicle to address global problems. After all, it had been demonstrated that they could not only galvanise political will for shared actions, but could also mobilize the resources necessary to tackle problems.
Summits worked in the past. The question is whether there are good reasons to think that they may not work in the future? There is no unequivocal answer to this, but there are reasons to be skeptical.
First, the context for global summits has greatly changed from the Golden Age. Among other factors, the Golden Age of world economic growth was also a period of considerable international generosity. For two and a half decades, there were continuous increases in ODA to poorer countries. But the Golden Age came to an end in the early 70s, and the world entered what Hobsbawm called the Crisis Decades. With this, came the end of the prolonged period of international generosity - development assistance budgets have been cut by practically all donor countries. At the same time, new tasks have demanded a growing share of a diminishing pool of public funds for international co-operation. Post-conflict reconstruction, humanitarian relief, refugee assistance and a wide range of new needs in the area of global public goods, (e.g. biodiversity preservation, global climate change, efforts to fight drug trafficking, money laundering, and other crimes) now compete with more traditional development areas such as health and population, food and nutrition, education and training, that had previously been the main focus of development assistance.
Second, this is a time of unprecedented stress on the entire multilateral system. At no time since the founding of the United Nations and the Bretton Woods institutions over fifty years ago have multilateral institutions been forced to contend with so many pressures and paradoxes. As never before, they are challenged by poor countries demanding to be integrated into the global economy in an effort to help them alleviate the deep socio-economic fissures that such integration is clearly causing. They are asked to exercise regional and global leadership making international development efforts converge, as well as to blend the myriad of interests, differing viewpoints, and often-conflicting priorities of a vast array of actors with different agendas. They are required to seek out and function effectively in partnerships with governments, decentralized authorities, the private sector, bilateral and other multilateral agencies, NGOs and civil society, and to do so at national, trans-national and grass roots levels. They are mandated to decentralize and increase their operational presence on the ground while demonstrating greater fiscal restraint and savings in their administrative costs. Last but not least, they are confronted by angry mobs accusing them of expansionism and hidden agendas and calling for their abolition.
Third, the very nature of summits and conference diplomacy has altered irreversibly. Historically, summits were essentially inter-governmental in character. Preparatory work was conducted by national governments and those who participated in summits themselves were almost exclusively representatives of national governments. The Earth Summit of Rio in 1992 effectively changed the model. In many countries, the preparations for Rio included broadly based civil society consultations that included regional and municipal levels of government, business associations and especially NGOs. These groupings and institutions of society also attended the Rio Summit and held a parallel summit. Since Rio, efforts at summitry and special sessions have met increasing demands from such groups for commensurate representation and political weight in summits. Whatever the many benefits of this new inclusiveness, the processes of conference diplomacy have become significantly more complex, more time-consuming and more expensive. Moreover, each group of stakeholders tends to express its views and requirements in a variety of ways, in different manners and through a diversity of channels, often generating a cacophony of demands to which attention must be paid. Because of this, it is becoming increasingly questionable that future conference diplomacy will be able to sort out conflicting viewpoints and balance conflicting interests.
Fourth, there is a growing weariness with summits and with the vast gaps between the noble rhetoric and agreements that emanate from them and the actions that follow. The Earth Summit is illustrative of this. Its conference diplomacy, especially between richer and poorer countries, produced a consensus based on what came to be known as the Rio Bargain. The bargain was to bring about a new framework of international cooperation within which both rich and poor countries would act jointly to protect the environment. The bargain had three components: a major increase in ODA, advanced countries financing the poorer countries access to new, clean technologies, and the elimination of trade barriers inimical to the interests of poorer countries. Next year will be the tenth anniversary of Rio (Rio+10) and, of the above three components, progress has occurred only on the third. In the case of the other two, movement has been rather in the opposite direction.
The gap between words and actions with regard to the Earth Summit is but one example. Much of the current wave of conference diplomacy is centred on new international development targets (IDTs) - the very topic of this issue of SCN News - and the number of these targets seems to grow with each conference. Among those now officially endorsed are:
· A reduction by one half in the proportion of people living in extreme poverty by 2015.It is entirely unclear that any of these laudable targets can be achieved. What is clear is that they will not be achieved in the absence of substantial new investments and a several-fold expansion in public financing. However, to date, conference diplomacy has not addressed this key question of costs and on how these are to be met. If this continues, it would appear that frustration with summitry and special sessions can only grow.
· Universal primary education in all countries by 2015.
· Demonstrated progress towards gender equality and the empowerment of women by eliminating gender disparity in primary and secondary education by 2005.
· A reduction by two-thirds in the mortality rates for infants and children under age five and a reduction by three-fourths in maternal mortality - all by 2015.
· Access through the primary healthcare system to reproductive health services for all individuals of appropriate ages as soon as possible, and no later than 2015.
· A reduction by 50% of the proportion of people without access to safe water and sanitation by 2015.
· The implementation of national strategies for sustainable development in all counties by 2005, so as to ensure that current trends in the loss of environmental resources are effectively reversed at both global and national levels by 2015.
Summits proved of almost immeasurable value in the past, because they produced meetings of minds, agreements on joint actions and the commitment of required resources. However, the context that allowed for such success has shifted, and shifted greatly. The factors outlined above summarize reasons for growing skepticism about summits and, indeed, suggest an inauspicious future for conference diplomacy.
Do you have a point-counterpoint to offer?
Write to SCN News and we will post it in our next
Speakers Corner - firstname.lastname@example.org
A belated reading of this ACC/SCN-commissioned Report has left me with mixed feelings. I found it rich in information, well researched, overall liberal and progressive in its outlook, but caught a bit in old frames when it comes to finding ways out. What I mean is that we are given a recipe to change the situation that has perpetuated malnutrition for ages from within the paradigm. That is tough and, in a way, lacks credibility. Revamped old formulas or even new ones that do not center around a) a bottom-up, empowering approach to ending malnutrition, and b) a frontal attack on the basic causes of malnutrition underpin this lack of credibility. In short I think we need a paradigmatic break.
In summary form the Report sets out recommendations for ACC/SCN agencies in four columns, from left to right, starting with the international level and placing the local level at the extreme right. That already introduces a top-down bias. The table calls for harmonising nutrition goals without telling us what this harmonising is all about. It actually calls for new regional task forces (not well defined) and national nutrition councils to reconsider nutrition goals and set new priorities for action (...as if increased and new knowledge alone would be the engines of the political changes needed to eradicate malnutrition). We are also left in the cold as to what magic bullet these new plans of action are supposed to incorporate. It is emphasized that these new goals should be adapted to national circumstances. Havent we done that already? Arent goals - old or new - still plain wish-lists? Repeated calls are made to build national capacities, but little is said on what skills are most needed and nothing on how to train community-based activists that will foster the community mobilization that will be needed for any success to be had. The proposed village level boards sound more like bureaucratic than militant structures, and the box in the table pertaining to local level capacity building is the only one left blank.
In short, by looking at the table I get a feeling of déjà vu. Weve been there before...and the Report does acknowledge this, but hopes this time well get it right.
There are contradictions too. Statements elsewhere in the Report suggest that purposeful action will require determined political commitment and mobilizing the public at large. The Report further calls on governments and tells them they should put forward the (non-binding) draft of the Code of Conduct on Human Rights to Food. No elaboration is offered (see p 56).
Talking about societal issues, the Report, in my view, is incorrect when it says that nutrition may not even respond to improved income (p 7). I have tried to prove this wrong elsewhere2. I also disagree that, in the public-private divide, the challenge is to bridge the communications gap between both. It is much more complicated than that, as is acknowledged later on when the Report describes Codex Alimentarius negotiations in which 140 corporations were represented, compared with 105 nations; thus the interests of the developing nations are (frequently) poorly represented.
The responsibilities of governments vis à vis respecting, protecting and facilitating the rights of people to feed themselves are unfortunately presented in conditional tense (should) on page 56. Moreover, only the ethical and not so much the political imperatives of human rights considerations are highlighted.
Under its Visions, the Report further calls on us to assess why the international community has failed to implement existing knowledge before now (as if we really did not know why...) and tells us it is unclear why more has not been done. Well, it is plenty clear for some of us. I find these statements naive and incongruous with the rest of the Report, aggravated a few lines further down by the Report complaining about the failure of some major financial institutions to follow the World Bank initiatives...on food security and human health.... Have those worked? ...am I missing something?
I am also a non-believer in pro-poor structural adjustment and self-targeted safety nets with community co-financing (ugh!). Safety nets and targeting victimize the poor as if it is their fault to be malnourished. Both do nothing to redress the basic causes that are perpetuating malnutrition to begin with. But to add insult to injury, in its Annex 4, the Report calls for the IMF and the World Bank to build into their guidelines for adjustment programs specific provision for protecting the nutritional safety of vulnerable groups. Later, the Report does recognize the advantage of population approaches over targeting since they tend to deal with major national issues.
I find it difficult to envision how national nutrition councils (and sub-national nutrition boards) called for by the Report can avoid the pitfalls of the early councils. To begin with, most of the time, the will of the ruling elite in developing countries is not there. No councils can or will thus do enough, even if we set them up less top heavy on bureaucrats, with a technical secretariat and with all the other attributes of success listed on page 64. I wonder if something like a political secretariat would not have a better chance.
In any case, I agree that each country should go through an introspection exercise and reconsider the effectiveness of their current policies. But this process should be controlled by beneficiaries, not providers! From there should emerge a revisioning and a remissioning for the years to come.
Finally, the ACC/SCN is asked by the Commissioners to take an overwhelming number of new functions and roles in the new agenda for which it is not prepared, nor funded, nor staffed. Similarly, the IUNS is asked to take some roles for which it is not prepared.
Reviews like this invariably pick on the more negative aspects of a lengthy report like this and further point out contradictions, probably the result of multiple authorship. I repeat, this Report has its merits - certainly in its situation analysis and many of the agenda items set forth. I learned a lot by reading it and recommend it to all SCN News readers....so you can perhaps find your own qualms.
Claudio Schuftan: email@example.com
1. Commission on the Nutrition Challenges of the 21st Century (2000) Ending malnutrition by 2020: An agenda for change in the millennium, Final report to the ACC/SCN by the Commission on the Nutrition Challenges of the 21st Century, Food and Nutrition Bulletin Supplement, 21:3-88 pp., Sept. 2000. [Copies are available from the ACC/SCN Secretariat in Geneva - contact firstname.lastname@example.org]
2. Schuftan, C (1998) Malnutrition and income: Are we being misled? (A dissenting view) The Ecology of Food and Nutrition, 37:101-121.
TRANSITIONS AFFECTING NUTRITION AND AGEING:
An update on SCN News 19
There is much good news to report about ageing. Advances in nutrition and public health mean that higher life expectancy is likely and the potential is great for most people in the world to live to an old age with a high quality of life. But caution is indicated. With abundance, we may be creating new problems.
Five transitions affect the nutritional status of ageing people worldwide:
· The demographic transition involves a rapid shift from young population profiles to older profiles with low birth and death rates. These changes will result in dramatic increases in those over age 60, from 10% of the population in 2000 to over 22% in 2050, with the vast majority of these new elders in the developing countries.The goals for ageing people remain. They aim at achieving a balanced, healthy diet, and maintaining an active lifestyle in a safe and caring environment. The challenge is universal, the task is immense. Countries must collaborate in this effort.
· The epidemiological transition involves a shift away from the high prevalence of infectious diseases and undernutrition to a pattern of high prevalence of chronic diseases (diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, hypertension) and overnutrition. These trends will have powerful effects on morbidity and mortality patterns.
· Third, there is the nutrition transition: Today, in much of the world, diets are higher in micronutrients and energy than ever before; to this, one has to add inadequate physical activity patterns. These increases in energy intake, coupled with low energy outputs, have led to an epidemic of excess adiposity, as well as disuse (muscular) atrophy in many elders. We now have a better understanding of both nutrition and aging at the cellular level. Biotechnology has great potential to provide us more nutritious foods while promoting sustainable agriculture and higher quality of life especially for senior citizens.
· The information transition involves new ways to exchange information and knowledge through the electronic media. These technologies make the transfer of nutrition information much more accessible to everybody worldwide.
· Finally, there is the globalization transition. The globalization of countries economies could facilitate the implementation of nutrition advances, but it also has the potential to cause diets to deteriorate especially those of urban migrants. Global approaches are necessary, including those to deal with the rapidly growing aging group. This challenge will have to be tackled alongside our fight against hunger, food insecurity and illnesses in traditionally vulnerable groups.
Our work is supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Opinions here expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of the USDA.
Odilia I. Bermudez: email@example.com
Johanna T. Dwyer: firstname.lastname@example.org
NUTRITION AND THE ENVIRONMENT:
An update on SCN News 21
In general, there are three ways in which humans can adversely affect the environment: by neglect, by directly destroying it, and/or by polluting it. Especially where the environment has been exploited for the supply of energy and resources (such as raw materials and food) and where people create larger settlements and set up industries, as humans we fail to sustain the environment and contribute to its deterioration. Given natural cycles of regeneration, if humans simply ignore the natural environment, the environment can actually be restored. Destruction of the commons and pollution of the waters are the most devastating and irreversible of insults. But not enough is reported about this. It is alarming, for example, that MEDLINE citations indexed with the keyword pollution are declining in the health literature, and that the combination of nutrition-pollution lags far behind the combination of nutrition-food and nutrition-infection.
It has been only six months since the publication of SCN News 21 on the theme of Nutrition and the Environment (to which we both contributed). In the meantime, interest on this topic has grown. Proof of this comes from a recent opinion poll among the USA citizens in which 53% rated the environment as their primary concern as compared to 33% who ranked the economy first. This derives, in part, from the evolving worldwide awareness and discussions of environmental matters that have arisen in reaction to the policies disclosed by the new US Administration. Most notable has been the announcement that the USA will not ratify the Kyoto Treaty on greenhouse gases. To this was added the relaxation of standards on the arsenic content of drinking water, new restrictions in the protection of endangered species, and the green light to drilling for oil in the Alaskan wilderness. Other issues in the news originating from Europe have included environmental issues such as mad cow disease and foot-and-mouth disease.
We feel that human nutrition depends directly on diet, health and the environment. The research community should capitalise on the renewed worldwide interest in the environment and initiate the research needed to put the nutrition-environment relationships on firmer empirical ground so that needed advocacy can be done based on facts.
Rainer Gross: email@example.com
Noel W. Solomons: firstname.lastname@example.org
Wed like to hear your views. Write to us at SPEAKERS CORNER. If theres something you feel strongly about, let us know.