UNITED NATIONS — A week before the UN World Summit, the world body convened a meeting of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) designed to give grassroots, civil society input into the global meeting. The three-day summit, which opened here Sept. 14, is the largest gathering of heads of state in history and is intended to set the UN’s future course.

The NGO meeting, entitled “Our Challenge: Voices for Peace, Partnerships and Renewal,” took place under the shadow of recent actions by U.S. Ambassador John Bolton. On the eve of the summit, Bolton unilaterally proposed hundreds of changes to a UN committee’s draft “outcome document.” Bolton’s abrupt proposals threatened to jeopardize the summit and the very future of the UN itself, many observers said.

Over 3,000 NGOs were invited to participate in three days of plenary sessions, interactive workshops and roundtable discussions, making this the most participatory NGO session in UN history.

An overall theme of the summit and NGO meetings is a five-year report card on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which were agreed to in September 2000. The UN gave itself 15 years to achieve the goals, which take up the reduction of hunger and extreme poverty, universal access to primary education, gender equality, the reduction of infant and maternal mortality rates, the reversal of the spread of HIV/AIDS, protection of the environment, and the development of a partnership among all nations to achieve these goals.

Bolton’s version of the outcome document eliminated all reference to the MDGs, but the meeting of NGOs made clear that while the Bush administration may not be on board with them, the world’s people are.

Wahu Kaara, ecumenical coordinator for the goals and candidate for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, appealed to everyone to make the fight against poverty their own. She said that while most of the discussion was centered on the developing world, everyone has much at stake in the fight, “a big stake for that matter. Please listen to … your own citizens who are asking you to take action against poverty.”

Alluding to the resources of the developed, industrialized nations, Kaara added, “Don’t tell us you don’t have enough money to meet your aid commitments and cancel debts of all poor countries. You found a lot more money overnight for the war on Iraq and canceling Iraq’s debts.” She received thunderous applause.

One of the commitments to which Kaara referred was made by developed nations decades ago, and reaffirmed in 2000, when they agreed to move towards earmarking 0.7 percent of their national income for aid to the developing world. Bolton stripped this figure out of his version of the outcome document.

Liu Mingzu, chairman of the Agricultural and Rural Affairs Committee of the National People’s Congress of the People’s Republic of China, spoke of the advances the PRC was making in eradicating poverty, but said that more needs to be done. He said that China had already met its target by halving its poor population 13 years ahead of schedule. He also added that reaching the MDGs was necessary to ensure world peace.

The importance of the peace issue, especially in view of the continuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, was underscored in the remarks of General Assembly President Jean Ping of Gabon.

Ziad Abdel from the Arab Network for Development urged the abolition of all weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East. Allowing WMDs in Israel is “simply not right,” he said.

Gareth Evans, president and chief executive of the International Crisis Group, stressed the UN’s peace-building role and the critical importance of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Oxfam’s Bernice Romero cited trade unions and women’s groups as key to the advocacy of the UN and the implementation of the MDGs.

The summit was also set to consider reform of the UN’s management, terrorism, a proposal to allow the UN to intervene in countries practicing genocide, nuclear issues and a discussion of human rights.

It takes place at a time when the whole idea of multilateral decision-making is under attack from the Bush administration. While everyone is appalled at the UN oil-for-food scandal, critics charge that the Bush administration is using it as a battering ram against the UN.

At press time, a new draft summit outcome agreement had been reached, but many expressed disappointment because it showed the influence of Bolton’s proposals.