Twenty years after the World Summit on Social Development, can the SDGs rescue the principle of universality?

By Marina Ponti, Social Watch

versión en español

The year 2015 –amongst many other things- marks the 20th Anniversary of the UN World Social Summit. The Social Summit brought about the principle of universality as its main outcome determined that that all countries have to pursue the objectives of eradicating poverty, achieving full employment and enabling greater social inclusion simultaneously. The Social Summit generated an extraordinary participation by civil society organizations ranging from development NGOs, women’s organizations, trade unions, social movements and other groups focused on domestic issues. It also inspired the creation of the Social Watch[1] network, report and movement.

The Economic and Social Council of the United Nations organized a high-level panel discussion to mark the 20th anniversary of the UN Social Summit. Held in March 1995 in Copenhagen, the Summit for Social Development put –for the first time- people and social concerns at the center of the global agenda.

The Social Summit played a key role as it affirmed what the SDG’s ratify only twenty years later: the need to integrate the three pillars of development: inclusive economic growth, social integration and environmental sustainability.

The commemoration event benefitted from the presence of the Social Summit Chair, Ambassador Juan Somavia, who reminded participants on the importance and urgency (for all countries and the United Nations system as a whole) to integrate economic, social and environmental priorities to achieve sustainable development objectives. He also welcomed the SDGs as they rescued the principle of universality and addressed some key issues neglected by the MDGs such as inequalities.

The UN Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson was also present at the event and said: “We are embarking on a voyage of transformative change affecting all sectors of our societies. This change must be built on universality, sustainability and acceptance of interdependence as a win-win proposition for both nations and people”.

Roberto Bissio, Founder of Social Watch, made the closing remarks. In his words: “As we advance into the post-2015 agenda, some key ideas endorsed by the Social Summit are being reaffirmed. Inequalities are back in the agenda, after having disappeared for 15 years, and universality is recovered, with a strong sense of social protection floor. It is urgent, though, to make serious progress in the implementation of those agreed aspirations. Inequalities are in the title of a goal but nowhere to be found on the proposed indicators and a clear financing commitment on social protection floors (cash transfers/benefits for children, for people of working age in cases of maternity, unemployment, disability or work injury, and pensions for older persons, and other schemes) is still missing, even when now, as in 1995, the resources are there”.

As the outcome of the events that are taking place in 2015 will affect global political, economic, social and environmental priorities for many, many years to come, let us use the lessons of the past and make sure that this time around universality and the transformative nature of the SDG’s agenda will be acted upon and translated into bold policies at the global, national and local level putting people and the planet first.


[1] Social Watch is an international network of citizens’ organizations in the struggle to eradicate poverty and the causes of poverty, to end all forms of discrimination and racism, to ensure an equitable distribution of wealth and the realization of human rights. The network is committed to peace, social, economic, environment and gender justice, and it emphasizes the right of all people not to be poor.

By Marina Ponti, Social Watch

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