UNITED NATIONS - The United Nations General Assembly kicked off a three-day conference on the world financial crisis Wednesday with calls for a substantial overhaul of the decades-long model under which the world's richest countries set the terms of global fiscal and trade policy.
"At this critical moment, we must all join our efforts to prevent the global crisis, with its myriad faces, from turning into a social, environmental and humanitarian tragedy," General Assembly President Miguel D'Escoto told attendees.
"It is neither humane nor responsible to build a Noah's Ark only to save the existing economic system, leaving the vast majority of humanity to their fate and to suffer the negative effects of a system imposed by an irresponsible but powerful minority," D'Escoto said. "We must take decisions that affect us all collectively to the greatest extent possible."
The decision to hold a U.N. summit on the global economic crisis was taken by all 192 member states - by consensus - at an international conference on financing for development held in the Qatari capital of Doha last November.
The summit is considered by some observers to mark a key moment for the future of the United Nations, particularly in terms of its role in forging a new, more democratic roadmap for global financial and economic governance.
However, both World Bank President Robert Zoellick and IMF Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn are skipping the conference, as are virtually all of the political leaders of Western nations, including the United States, Britain, France and Germany.
Participants in the Jun. 24-26 meet include two heads of state, four vice presidents, 10 heads of government, three deputy prime ministers and 32 ministers - an overwhelming majority of them from the developing world.
Overall, 142 countries have sent delegates. They are currently discussing a draft outcome document that includes references to preserving "hard-won economic and development gains...including progress toward the MDGs" (Millennium Development Goals), fostering a green and sustainable recovery, strengthening the role of the United Nations in responding to the crisis, and reforming key global institutions like the IMF and World Bank, "based on a fair and equitable representation of developing countries."
Endorsing the venue of the 192-member U.N. General Assembly to debate solutions to the financial crisis - a debate that thus far has been largely confined to groupings of the world's most powerful economies like the G8 and G20 - Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon underscored that the problem is "not a cause for any one person, nation or group of nations. It is a challenge for us all."
Ban called for approaches that widen access to education, promote environmentally sustainable growth, help subsistence farmers and increase resources to fight diseases such as AIDS and tuberculosis.
"The world institutions, created generations ago, must be made more accountable, more representative and more effective," he said, conceding that the issue of reforming financial institutions like the IMF and World Bank has divided member states, and urging a "renewed multilateralism".
Parallel to the conference, side events are taking place on a variety of topics such as health care, migration and gender rights.
At the German Mission, the Freidrich Ebert Stiftung foundation held a panel discussion where economic experts discussed flaws in the current global economic architecture and how it could be changed.
"We do not have a system of global economic government," said Jomo Kwame Sundaram, the assistant secretary-general for economic development.
"What we've had since the end of 1971 is a non-system instead of a system," he said, referring to the demise of the gold standard (the elite World Economic Forum held annually in Davos, Switzerland was also founded that year).
Jomo acknowledged that "in the mid-1990s, a number of proposals did come out, especially for something called the World Financial Authority...none of which materialised."
He listed the myriad challenges that the global community now faces: heavy debt, a lack of accountability, and a "lack of coherence in the international multilateral system".
Roberto Bissio, the coordinator of Social Watch, said the current global economic structure favoured wealthier countries over poorer ones.
"When you start looking at the money and where it's going, you find that the flow goes upstream, and it's actually going from the south to the north, and that is a very well documented situation in which the financial architecture has vanished," he explained.
"This is nonsense, because those are the same countries where the majority of the world's poor live, and they are spending all their money to subsidise the unsustainable highly invested rich countries," he added.
The best way to reform the current system would be to "enforce transparent methods" and a "rule-based system" that would equally discipline wealthy and poor nations and require the opinions of the South to be taken into account by the North, the panel concluded.
Many other civil society activists appear to agree with this assessment, and note that women's concerns have been largely sidelined as well.
"In failing to reform the conditionalities of institutions such as the IMF, which force governments to cut social spending and consequently place an even greater burden on women by forcing them to pick up the slack caused by the withdrawal of these services, rich countries betray their lack of willingness to address the gender dimension of this crisis," said Diana Aguiar of the International Gender and Trade Network in a statement.
Added John Foster from North-South Institute/Social Watch, "We remain deeply concerned that the Conference has failed to address reforms deep and wide enough not only to adequately relieve the horrendous impacts of the current crisis on so many, but to prevent further such crises."
"We will continue pressuring our governments to ensure that every paragraph of the declaration leads to concrete actions for a just and sustainable world," he commented.