The United Nations World Conferences:
A Brief Introduction *

Since 1990, the international community has convened 12 major conferences which have committed Governments to address urgently some of the most pressing problems facing the world today. Taken together, these high profile meetings have achieved a global consensus on the priorities for a new development agenda for the 1990s and beyond.

This continuum of conferences represents a remarkable achievement for the United Nations system. Through the conference process the entire international community has come together to agree on shared values, on shared goals and on strategies to achieve them. This effort shows one of the United Nations system’s greatest strengths: the ability to move from consciousness-raising to agenda-setting to agreement on action by Member States to follow-up on conference commitments and to effective assistance for the countries that need help in realizing their commitments.

Taken individually, each conference marked the culmination of many months of consultations among Member States, UN experts and non-governmental representatives, who reviewed vast amounts of information and shared a broad spectrum of experiences in child welfare, environmental protection, human rights, the advancement of women, productive employment, reproductive health and urban development, and the links of these to peace, development and human security. Each conference forged agreements on specific issues in a new spirit of global cooperation and purpose. Every meeting has demonstrated the universality of concern regarding the issues in question.

All were convened with the strong support of the UN General Assembly, currently the voice of 185 Member States, and the recognition that the end of the cold war presented the opportunity — indeed, the necessity — to revitalize international cooperation on development issues. All addressed problems of a global magnitude which Member States recognized had grown beyond their individual capacities to solve and which needed a concerted international effort. All of them reflect the work of Member States and a growing number of other actors in the field of international development, particularly non-governmental organizations (NGOs). All of them actively sought out media attention, capturing the imaginations of millions of people around the world and greatly enhancing awareness and understanding of the issues in the public at large.

Global conferences have made a long-term impact by:
mobilizing national and local governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to take action on a major global problem;
establishing international standards and guidelines for national policy;
serving as a forum where new proposals can be debated and consensus sought;
setting in motion a process, whereby governments make commitments and report back regularly to the United Nations.

To ensure effective follow-up, a series of special sessions of the UN General Assembly is being held to assess implementation of each Conference's action plan at the five-year mark, and to set future priorities.

However, apart from all the mechanisms and institutions which have been established at governmental and inter-governmental levels, it takes the universal participation and strong commitment by all stakeholders to make the Global Plans of Action a reality.


The Challenges Ahead

The world conferences reaffirmed many long-standing principles and helped articulate new ones that reflect the experience — both the successes and failures — of the past 50 years of work in the principal areas of the UN mandate. Both the conferences and the parallel work on “An Agenda for Development”, the evolving proposal for a new approach to development, currently being revised by the General Assembly, have focused attention on problems of development and reflect the new thinking that has emerged over the past decade in the face of ever-changing circumstances. The Agenda’s call for a “common framework” for the various initiatives for development and the emphasis placed on integrated follow-up have been echoed in the conferences. The conferences also linked the themes and action plans to each other in a deliberate way. Although there is no universal prescription for successful development, the conferences reflect the growing convergence of views that democracy, development and respect for all human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the right to development, are interdependent and mutually reinforcing. There is also concern that the “top-down” approach to development be countered by genuine input from the community level to the policy-making process. These are concepts that mark major shifts in thinking, not simply among some development specialists or academics, but by government leaders and policy makers who are setting policy at the highest levels. These can be expected to have a far-reaching impact at all levels of society.

There is increasing acceptance of a common concept of development, which is centred on human beings, their needs, rights and aspirations, fostered by sustainable global economic growth and supported by a revitalized and equitable system of multilateral cooperation. These major international conferences have played a key role in building this consensus and in identifying the actions needed to fulfill common goals.


New approaches to development

A variety of guidelines and principles reflecting the new thinking about development are highlighted in the action plans of the world conferences. The action plans call for their integration into policy and programme formulation at both the national and international levels. These constitute the bases for evaluation of the Conference accomplishments over time.

Development should be centred on human beings. Because an individual’s well-being is multifaceted, a multidimensional approach to development is essential. Therefore, any formulation of strategies, policies, and national, regional and international actions has to be based on an integrated and comprehensive approach.

Central goals of development include the eradication of poverty, the fulfilment of the basic needs of all people and the protection of all human rights and fundamental freedoms, the right to development among them. Development requires that governments apply active social and environmental policies, and the promotion and protection of all human rights and fundamental freedoms on the basis of democratic and widely participatory institutions. Goals of economic growth and social progress in larger freedom must therefore be pursued simultaneously and in an integrated manner.

Investments in health, education and training are critical to the development of human resources. Social development is best pursued if governments actively promote empowerment and participation in a democratic and pluralistic system respectful of all human rights. Processes to promote increased and equal economic opportunities, to avoid exclusion and overcome socially divisive disparities while respecting diversity are also a necessary part of an enabling environment for social development.

The improvement of the status of women, including their empowerment, is central to all efforts to achieve sustainable development in its economic, social and environmental dimensions.

Diversion of resources away from social priorities should be avoided and, where it has occurred, be corrected. The formulation of structural adjustment policies and programmes should take these considerations into account.

An open and equitable framework for trade, investment and technology transfer, as well as enhanced cooperation in the management of a globalized world economy and in the formulation and implementation of macroeconomic policies, are critical for the promotion of sustained economic growth. While the private sector is the primary motor for economic development, the importance of an active role for governments in the formulation of social and environmental policies should not be underestimated.

An acceleration of the rate of economic growth is essential for expanding the resource base for development and hence for economic, technical and social transformation. Economic growth generates the required financial, physical, human and technological resources and creates a basis for sustained global economic growth and sustainable development as well as for international economic cooperation. It is also essential to the eradication of poverty.

taken & adapted from: UN Briefing Papers/The World Conferences: Developing Priorities for the 21st Century. 1997, 112 pp., ISBN 92-1-100631-7, Sales No. E.97.I.5. Available now in English, forthcoming in French and Spanish. $12.00.
available at:
and from: United Nations Conferences: What have They Accomplished? at


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