The World Summit on Social Development 25 years later: Are We Meeting Ambitions?

IOM Office UN (NY)
5 min readFeb 10, 2020


The article was written by Chris Richter, Migration Policy Officer at IOM’s Office to the United Nations.

World Summit for Social Development, Copenhagen, 6–12 March 1995. UN Photo ©Milton Grant

In 1995, United Nations member states adopted the Copenhagen Declaration on social development, an international agreement about better meeting individuals’ “material and spiritual needs”. People, it said, should be at the centre of development, and economies should be directed to meet human needs more effectively. It was an international framework based on the idea that economic growth alone is insufficient to meet human needs, without also considering social and environmental concerns.

In what at the time was a forward-looking outcome, the Declaration included several references to migrants, calling on governments to, amongst other things, ensure that migrant workers benefit from the protections provided by national and international law, and to take concrete and effective measures against the exploitation of migrant workers. This followed soon after the adoption of a separate global framework on Population and Development, at the time the most detailed agreement to address migration.

The Copenhagen Declaration takes concrete and effective measures against the exploitation of migrant workers. IOM in Cambodia partners with a local hospitality school where students are trained in the culinary arts, hotel management, and catering. Graduates from this program are in good spots to get jobs abroad with reputable hotel chains which allows them to be able to migrate legally for work. Photo Cambodia ©Muse Mohammed/2016

The Copenhagen conference was the first of its kind in history. It was the moment that social development — the idea that improving the well-being of every individual in society is good for society as a whole — found a permanent place on the international political agenda. But twenty-five years later, there are significant doubts about how well we are meeting the ambitions it put forward.

One of the commitments of the Copenhagen Declaration is to promote and attain the goals of universal and equitable access to quality education. Since its early days, IOM has had a large portfolio on education and training-related activities, adapted to the needs of migrants. Photo: New York ©Sebastiao Salgado/IOM 1994

Although there has been positive progress in many areas — literacy rates have risen steadily to 86 per cent in 2016; maternal deaths have been halved since 1990; and the global incidence of HIV declined by 22 per cent between 2010 and 2017 — troubling gaps remain.[1] Amongst them is the growing level of inequality within countries. The most vulnerable groups in society are being left further and further behind, the very antithesis of social development. Even in wealthier nations, social progress seems stalled. Disillusionment with public institutions is spreading. Perceptions of low social mobility are proliferating.

The situation of many migrants around the world is also vexing. Although migration by and large takes place safely and in accordance with legal norms and frameworks, for many people this is not the case. Conflict, both civil and transnational, continues to have a strong effect on displacement and broader migration patterns. The impact of climate change will intensify, and in combination with increased inequality, ongoing fragility and demographic change, will lead to more internal, regional and international mobility. Illicit actors — notably smugglers and traffickers — will continue to prey upon migrants in situations of vulnerability, and to increase their susceptibility to exploitation.

It is in this dour environment that governments will meet at the UN in February to assess progress towards the Copenhagen Declaration and, by extension, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. This meeting, which marks the 58th session of the Commission for Social Development, will be another opportunity to inject some much-needed momentum into global efforts to promote a more sustainable future. Momentum that has, to this point, been insufficient.

One of the targets of SDG 10 ‘Reduce inequality within and among countries’ of the 2030 Agenda is to “facilitate orderly, safe, regular and responsible migration and mobility of people, including through the implementation of planned and well-managed migration policies.” Photo: Moscow, Russia ©Elyor Nematov/IOM 2018

Several recent UN gatherings — including the July 2019 High-level Political Forum and its September counterpart in the SDG Summit — have all come to the same conclusion: that the international community is off-track to meet the 2030 Agenda in the next ten years. If the Commission for Social Development takes a clear-eyed view of the current state of the world, which no doubt it will, then its conclusion is likely to be the same. But this begs the question of what the Commission should do, practically speaking, to mobilize additional action.

In the migration context, one thing would be to help promote a broader understanding about how empowering migrants to fulfil their individual ambitions creates benefits for society as a whole. This is one of the underlying principles of the Copenhagen Declaration, which states that:

“the most productive policies and investments are those that empower people to maximize their capacities, resources and opportunities”.

Although migrants feature in the text of the Declaration, it never quite draws the direct conclusion that migrants should be empowered too.

The Copenhagen Declaration was concerned that too many young people, including those with formal education, have little hope of finding productive work. An IOM programme in Kyrgyzstan carried out empowerment initiatives in schools to address school drop-outs, girls’ early marriages, and job segregation, as well as low levels of skilled employment amongst youth. Photo Kyrgyzstan ©IOM/2013

This is, however, one of the principal objectives of the recently adopted Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. Objective 16 of that agreement calls on governments to empower migrants and societies to realize full inclusion and social cohesion, with a view to helping migrants become “active members of society”. Incorporating this broader perspective into the deliberations of the Commission on Social Development, bringing it into alignment with the most recent agreement dealing with migration, would be a positive outcome.

A second action would be to ensure that the Commission’s priority theme — this year focused on affordable housing and social protection to address homelessness — also takes migration dimensions into consideration. Although migrants are not often part of the discussion on housing and issues around homelessness, they are in fact critical to it if the international community is to make progress in that area. This is because migration is essentially an urban affair: many migrants, both internal and international, move to cities and urban areas.[2] This creates a need for new approaches to urban governance and migration that better link the two areas of public policy, including in the context of housing.

Nearly all migrants, whether international or internal, are destined for cities, for it is in the city that their human capital is most rewarded [3]. Scenery shot of Oxford Circus. Photo: London ©Muse Mohammed/2017

By giving more robust consideration to migration issues in its upcoming session, the Commission for Social Development would go some way to addressing the gaps that are inhibiting progress towards the 2030 Agenda and the Copenhagen Declaration itself. Though this may be a small step forward, especially in a broader context of slow implementation and — in some cases, inaction — the international community must continue to reiterate its commitments, to ensure its frameworks are aligned across the board, and to ensure that all members of society, including migrants, are part of the discussion.

[1] United Nations, 2019, ‘Implementation of the outcome of the World Summit for Social Development and of the twenty-fourth special session of the General Assembly’, Report of the Secretary General, New York.

[2] International Organization for Migration, 2015, ‘Migrants and cities: new partnerships to manage mobility’, World Migration Report, Geneva.

[3] International Organization for Migration, 2017, ‘Migrants and Cities: Stepping Beyond World Migration Report 2015’, World Migration Report 2018, Geneva.



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