The Common Good
December 2005

Missing the Kairos Moment?

by Debayani Kar | December 2005

The U.N. World Summit comes up short.

Missing the Kairos Moment?

The year 2005 has been a chosen focus of civil society groups working to end poverty, especially in Africa. These groups have concentrated on three main areas: aid, debt cancellation, and trade justice.

Yet September’s United Nations World Summit, intended to further progress on internationally agreed development targets—the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)—ended in disappointment for many campaigners who were hopeful that world leaders would have made stronger commitments to new policies to “make poverty history.” Instead, even U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan agreed that the summit’s outcome document had been watered down. This reflected the difficulty of having so many countries agree to joint strategies, with the U.S. government in particular playing a problematic role on the language concerning the MDGs. The United States’ U.N. ambassador, John Bolton, worked to limit new commitments on development made by the U.S. and other rich countries.

As the U.N. Millennium Campaign noted in its statement on the summit’s outcome document, “The current slow progress on achieving the Millennium Development Goals should have led to a much greater sense of urgency among world leaders on the need for action, compelling them to announce concrete measures to meet the goals at a minimum by 2015.”

What did happen in the three areas of aid, debt, and trade? On aid, those countries that had already made a commitment to contribute 0.7 percent of their GDP towards overseas development assistance (and only those countries) were asked to create a firm timetable to meet this goal by 2015.

The one area of major support from the United States was on debt cancellation, where President Bush exhorted other world leaders to ensure approval of the Group of 8 (G-8) nations’ debt agreement at the executive boards of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank. This was the only substantive step forward, though it was mostly a reaffirming of the commitment made by the G-8 at their July summit in Scotland.

Bush’s emphasis on the importance of approval and implementation of the G-8 debt agreement betrayed the difficulty that the G-8 had encountered since July from IMF and World Bank officials, who had been raising objections to the basic tenet of the deal, irrevocable 100 percent debt cancellation (for 18 specific countries). The U.N. outcome document did contain language referencing countries in addition to those 18, but only in the context of these countries possibly seeing debt restructuring or maybe debt relief.

Echoing the G-8 summit, the discussion on trade at the World Summit was not substantive, especially as the rich nations preferred moving the dialogue to the World Trade Organization’s Ministerial Conference to be held in Hong Kong in mid-December. But without honest discussion from the outset on reforming terms of trade to benefit impoverished countries, it is unclear how the outcome of the Hong Kong ministerial will enable real trade justice. Rich countries must also re-evaluate the work of their international financial institutions—such as the IMF and World Bank—which mandate trade liberalization that exposes smallholder farmers to unfair competition, including subsidized imports from rich countries.

The World Summit did not yield the desired results that people of faith and conscience around the world are demanding from their governments. Moving forward, campaigners must continue to hold their governments to commitments already made, such as the G-8 debt agreement, but also push them further to contribute more and better aid, cancel the debts of all impoverished countries without harmful economic conditions, and re-evaluate the overarching economic model to create true trade justice. Without such bold steps, we will lose the opportunity of this kairos moment to eradicate poverty and realize sustainable human development.

Debayani Kar is communications and advocacy coordinator at Jubilee USA Network, the U.S. arm of the international movement working for debt cancellation for impoverished nations.

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