Published January 13, 2015
It's hard to commiserate about dire poverty when lodging at a $500-a-night, five-star hotel in Aspen, Colo. At least it was hard for me.
But apparently not for many others attending the Fortune magazine conference in Aspen last month. Over gourmet meals and vintage wines, participants stressed the "moral imperative" of lifting the world's neediests' income to $2 per day.
It may not be hard for the throngs who gathered for the biggest, gushiest and costliest United Nations talkfest ever. The "World Summit on Sustainable Development" -- a whopping 60,000 participants, press, NGOs, and business types strong -- opened Monday in Johannesburg, South Africa.
It's another massive waste of money. Another diversion from the real needs of the poor. Another boondoggle for the rich to jet somewhere exotic to gush over their concern for the poor.
If I sound aggravated, it's because I lived in a desolate African nation (Zaire, not the Congo) for more than two years in the early 1970s. So I've experienced the wrenching misery of Third World poverty -- up close and personal.
It's also because I served as a U.S. ambassador to the U.N. in the early 1980s. So I've learned the inanity of U.N. conferences -- again, up close and personal.
As head of the U.S. delegation to several such conferences, I heard hundreds of speeches urging each conference to increase the "political will" to implement past U.N. conference declarations.
The Johannesburg summit does likewise. It will urge implementation for the U.N. conference 10 years ago in Rio.
Since Rio, there have been four U.N. preparatory conferences -- PrepComs, in the vernacular, which are U.N. conferences to prepare for this jumbo U.N. conference. The last "PrepCom" was in Bali, with some of the finest beaches in the world.
The dirty little secret of United Nations conferences on poverty is that they never meet where there's much poverty. Hence, Bali rather than Jakarta, and Johannesburg rather than Soweto.
U.N. conferences feature addresses from each world government, now numbering more than 180. Kiribati, Tonga, Lesotho, St. Kitts, even Tuvalu get equal billing as the United States, Japan, China, and Britain.
In all, 106 heads of state and government will speak. Thankfully, President Bush realized he has more important things to do.
Plus there's a veritable galaxy of concerned celebrities -- Bill Clinton, Bono, Al Gore, Jimmy Carter, whomever.
Hearing all of them becomes a terrible strain. Take one typical hour next Monday afternoon, between 2:00 and 3:00. If you fear missing something by staying home, delegates there will hear orations by representatives from Mali, Kazakhstan, Bulgaria, Senegal, New Zealand, Andorra, Lebanon, and Croatia.
All eight presidents and prime ministers in one hour! And these eight come after the lineup of opening speakers and similarly formal addresses by 26 top officials that morning before lunch.
If this sounds exhausting, believe me, it is. I frequently turned my earphones on to simultaneous Chinese translations, whose musical qualities stimulated my brain more than the English words of the speeches.
Though admiring theater of the absurd, I lost patience for U.N. talkfests when estimating their expense. Each such hortatory indulgence gets simultaneously translated, by pricey U.N. linguists into English, French, Spanish, Russian, and Chinese.
Worse yet, every page of each discourse gets printed in English, French, Spanish, Russian, and Chinese. The translating and printing costs alone come to several hundred dollars per page. Add on the participants' travel, room and board -- to say nothing of the executive time burnt up.
The Jo'burg "World Summit" is attracting 60,000 people -- the biggest ever. It's located in the furthest spot for a major conference, costing yet more in transportation fees for most participants.
Millions of dollars spent on the wealthy traveling to a neat tourist spot to produce multi-lingual speeches and documents about the poor. This U.N. conference has a budget of an exorbitant $55 million. The South African government, plagued by widespread poverty among blacks, will contribute $20 million.
Instead of the 60,000 jetting to South Africa for another round of U.N. speeches and declarations, just imagine how many poor Africans could be helped by $55 million spent on real programs to raise levels to $2 per day.
Several friends in Congolese families could live off just the costs of Chinese and Russian versions of the Andorra's prime minister's speech next Monday.
Where's any perspective on this World Summit? Does anyone else feel a sense of disappointment, if not outrage?
Kenneth Adelman is a frequent guest commentator on Fox News, was assistant to U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld from 1975 to 1977 and, under President Ronald Reagan, U.N. ambassador and arms-control director. Mr. Adelman is now co-host of TechCentralStation.com.