The Unbearable Lightness of Summits

“International action” is something that everyone wants to resolve any major global problem. How well does it work in practice? We gleaned one small insight from Chris Giles’ brilliant article in the FT on the international finance ministers’ get together in advance of the April G 20 summit. The resulting joint communiqué was a meaningless piece of diplomatic doublespeak, he said, which failed the “five tests of relevance and importance.”

These included the rigorous “not test,” the “new test” and the “was it worth it?” test. We wondered how some recent aid summit documents would fare when put to some of these same tests.

Many of the documents we examined failed Giles’ “not test.” This test checks whether it is possible to negate the statement and create a sentence that any sane person would utter in public. We apply it here by giving the NOT statement for each statement that we review. Apply it to a sentence from last year’s UN summit declaration on food security, at a time when there was a major hunger crisis:

We urge national governments, all financial institutions, donors and the entire international community to NOT have a people-centred policy framework supportive of the poor in rural, peri-urban and urban areas and people’s livelihoods in developing countries.

This same document, which was agreed upon only “after hours of bickering over language” according to press reports, has a conclusion to which we give the NOT equivalent:

We firmly resolve to NOT alleviate the suffering caused by the current crisis, to NOT stimulate food production and to NOT increase investment in agriculture, to NOT address obstacles to food access and to NOT use the planet’s resources sustainably, for present and future generations.

This likely also flunks the "was it worth it" test: the outcome was roundly condemned for failing to require concrete action on any of the most pressing issues.

This is far from being water under the bridge, as today’s FT reports that the hunger crisis continues to worsen, with the chronically hungry worldwide passing 1 billion. In response to the farce of the previous summit, the head of UN Food and Agriculture Organization Jacques Diouf calls for another summit in November 2009.

Another example was the UN conference on drugs concluded six days ago in Vienna, but apparently the final declaration was so contentious that it still has not been released in final form. The UNODC did give a statement. Here it is in NOT form:

[The declaration] recognizes that countries do NOT have a shared responsibility for solving the world drugs problem, that a ‘balanced and comprehensive approach’ is NOT called for and that human rights do NOT need to be recognized.

That one does poorly on the “new test” to boot: the director of the Open Society Institute’s Global Drug Policy Program called it a “watered-down political declaration” that “fails to acknowledge crucial lessons that have been learned over the last decade,” and an article on complained that “government representatives at the United Nations's Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) have once again decided that the effluent empire of crime must be fought as it has always been.”

Just imagine how different these documents could be if they had to pass these simple tests. What if every “summit declaration” made an unambiguous statement that somebody could actually disagree with? And what if each “joint communiqué” had to require at least one of the parties to actually change their behavior in a concrete, measurable way?