The important thing about the United Nations World Summit for Social Development is that it is being held, which represents a world consensus that poverty of many is distress for all.
The giant meeting that began with some 3,000 non-governmental organizations yesterday will conclude at the weekend with a record number (any figure above 108) of heads of state and government. That alone ratifies the importance in the world agenda of attacking poverty, malnutrition, disease, illiteracy, child exploitation and related ills.
Which is as much as the summit can be expected to accomplish. Its concluding Action Plan, hammered out in 12 preparatory meetings leaving key disagreements to be settled, will not be binding on any regime. At best it will be a benchmark against which to measure efforts.
Even more impressive than the legendary world figures present will be those absent, starting with President Clinton. Vice President Al Gore will grace the summit and Hillary Clinton the meetings of NGOs, which doesn't fool anyone. The U.S. is keeping some distance from a conference that may want to decide how to spend U.S. money.
The most important of this string of U.N. conferences on world problems in the 1990s was that on the environment at Rio de Janeiro in 1992, which entailed obligations by governments toward each other. Nothing of the sort is likely this week at Copenhagen, or at the conference on women in Beijing in September.
What these mega-meetings do accomplish is to identify problems, if not solutions, on which the world community can agree. The poorest nations' governments want to have their debts forgiven; the wealthy nations want them to crack down on exploited child labor. The World Bank would like to commit the wealthy to aid for health and education, and the poorest to spending on those things.
Actually, the wealthy-country governments are preoccupied with domestic frailties and the poorest governments with building armies to remain in power.
World leaders ought indeed to be worried by the 1.3 billion people in extreme poverty, cited by U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali in opening the conference. "We know today that most of the armed conflicts with which the Untied Nations organization is faced are domestic conflicts. We also know that most of them have evident social and economic causes."
Fewer countries would have mind-numbing poverty and social injustice if they could be like the host country, Denmark: small, prosperous and egalitarian. This conference will not have the last word on its subject. At least, it may have the first.