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30 June 2000

Ecumenical Team Assesses First Results of Geneva 2000

cf. WCC Press Release, PR-00-18, of 20 June 2000
cf. WCC Press Update, Up-00-22, of 28 June 2000
cf. WCC Press Update, Up-00-23, of 28 June 2000

As Geneva 2000 - the Special Session of the UN General Assembly on Social Development - winds down, members of the Ecumenical Team who have followed UN work in this area since 1998 have expressed disappointment at many of the probable results, but have also indicated some areas of hope for future action.

"Better World for All" report threatens outcome of the Special Session
The release on Monday 26 June of the report "A Better World for All" by the United Nations secretary-general with the senior officers of the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development generated an immediate strongly negative reaction from non-governmental organizations. Frustration and anger were expressed not only on content but also on timing.

Bernardino Mandlate, a Methodist bishop from Maputo, Mozambique, called the launch of the report on Monday, "abhorrent", saying "it preempted the work being done this week". Joy Kennedy from the Anglican Church of Canada also thought the release had affected the possible outcome of the Special Session. "The secretary-general's report has created a problem in determining what comes after this Special Session on social development... People are really questioning the integrity of the UN if the secretary-general can be so in line with the directors of the agencies involved in the problems. Do we have to start looking at other alternatives?" she asked.

On the other hand, the strong and collective NGO response to the report was seen as a positive sign for the week and for future cooperative efforts in civil society. Helen Wangusa, an Anglican based in Kampala, Uganda, lauded "the capacity of NGOs to quickly critique the document and engage these organizations on substantive content", which "legitimizes the NGOs' capacity to monitor these organizations".

Mandlate hoped the reaction had impacted the rest of the process. Attempts to use the report as "the bible of development" had "suffered some setbacks", he observed. "I hope the secretary-general will now pay more attention to the Special Session outcome rather than to the report. Our reaction showed them we are watching."

Little movement on debt cancellation
Poverty eradication and debt cancellation were among the Ecumenical Team's top priorities for the session. Ecumenical Team members expressed disappointment that negotiations continue in the framework of the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) Initiative, and that Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) have not been addressed.

Kennedy noted that "There will be some gain on the debt issue, but... there are still conditionalities and they are not talking cancellation." Wangusa questioned the UN's ability to move these discussions forward after issuing "A Better World for All". "The independence of the UN from the World Bank and IMF is questioned," she said.

Mandlate felt that continued intense discussion "shows that some of our concerns are finding fertile ground". And both Wangusa and Mandlate stressed that strong civil society efforts for debt cancellation will continue, particularly in the South. "For us in the South, this is not a campaign. It is life and death," Wangusa said.

Political opposition stalling Tobin Tax
Proposals for a study of a Currency Transfer Tax, also called the Tobin Tax, met with strong opposition during the Special Session, particularly from the United States, Japan and Australia. Kennedy says no progress has been made since the last preparatory meetings in June in New York when some support was expressed by the European Union, G-77 and Norway. The issue, she notes, could feed into the Conference for Financing for Development in 2001, "although it is more than that. This is about the wealth of the world supporting the needs of the world". Recalling one ambassador's remark that "It is just a matter of time", "But it could be a long time, and we want to shorten that," she said.

Beyond Geneva 2000
Team members are carefully assessing where social development is going from this session and what role churches and ecumenical groups can play. Albert Gyan, a Ghanaian Catholic working with Kairos Europa, emphasized the need for "clarity on what form the official direction will take". "To look at existing processes and link issues, like with the Conference on Financing for Development" is one possibility for ecumenical work, he suggested.

All team members felt that the churches had made a significant impact during Geneva 2000. "We are seeing that the churches and the ecumenical movement have a higher credibility, visibility and presence in the whole process, especially among NGOs," Wangusa noted. And Kennedy commented that "The Ecumenical Team made a significant contribution to the discourse and the work - the talk and the walk. Our constituencies expect no less from us."

As they look to the future, the presence and common action of NGOs again provides new hope and energy for future efforts for justice for poor and excluded people and communities. As Kennedy noted, "The words in the final [United Nations] text will not reflect the level of conversion of groups in civil society. We are getting clearer about what's needed. We are coming together."

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The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches, now 337, in more than 100 countries in all continents from virtually all Christian traditions. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member church but works cooperatively with the WCC. The highest governing body is the assembly, which meets approximately every seven years. The WCC was formally inaugurated in 1948 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Its staff is headed by general secretary Konrad Raiser from the Evangelical Church in Germany.