Do #summits solve problems?

The shoe-shine boys and phone card hawkers that usually throng the entrance to the UN complex in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, were cleared away, replaced by armed police who kept watch as politicians from around the globe pulled up in stretched limos.

Private jets crowded the tarmac at Addis Ababa Bole International Airport and nearly all the city’s hotels were fully booked, creating brisk business for taxi drivers but causing traffic chaos in the already crowded capital.

A UN official told IRIN it couldn't put an official number on how many delegates attended the third Financing for Development (FFD3) summit – convened to discuss how to pay for the soon-to-be-ratified post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – but estimates range from between 5,000 and 12,000.

READ: The Addis Conference in numbers

FFD3 is the first in a triumvirate of high-level UN conferences this year focusing on the post-2015 agenda. A summit to formally adopt the new goals will be held in September in New York, and, a few weeks later, Paris will host a separate climate conference.

But what was the point of gathering everyone first in Addis? Were there any new commitments or was it simply a talking shop?

After four days of sound bite-laden keynote speeches, plenaries and side events, many attendees packed up their bags and hotel toiletries wondering what had been achieved apart from a lot of Twitter traffic under the hashtag #FFD3.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon hailed the Addis Ababa Action Agenda, which was endorsed by 193 UN Member States attending the conference as a “critical step forward in building a sustainable future for all.”

“The results here in Addis Ababa give us the foundation of a revitalised global partnership for sustainable development that will leave no one behind,” he said.

READ MORE: Aid: it's complicated 

But not everyone in attendance was so sure.

“I wanted this to be a conference about new money and new pledges, but instead it has ended up being a staging post in the diplomatic negotiations towards New York in September and Paris in December,” lamented Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah, secretary general of global civil society network Civicus.

“The breadth of the Addis Ababa Action Agenda is matched by its shallowness,” blogged Owen Barder, a senior fellow and director of Centre for Global Development Europe.

“Nobody is making any meaningful commitments,” he said. “There is nothing here against which anyone can be judged. This might be why there is so little conflict about the contents of this agreement: perhaps nobody thinks it matters.”

And referring to what he called “a tendency to alchemy,” he said: “Additional finance will not come from communiqués… The constraint on investment in developing countries is not a lack of internationally mobile capital: it is the lack of a pipeline of investible propositions…. too little of what we have heard so far in Addis has convinced me that this will change.”

Romilly Greenhill, team leader for development finance at London’s Overseas Development Institute (ODI), said the summit’s outcome document was “not a bad start” in promoting social protection, health and education for some of the poorest countries.

But, she told IRIN: “We are disappointed by the lack of concrete commitments to make that vision a reality. We wanted to see both a commitment to the 0.7% aid target and a commitment of 50% of aid going to the least developed countries, and we’ve got neither of those things.”

A number of other NGOs, however, expressed dismay.

READ the full Addis Ababa Action Agenda

Oxfam’s International Executive Director Winnie Byanyima said rich countries attending had “failed poor people” and criticised the push by the World Bank and others to turn over development financing to the private sector.

“One in seven people live in poverty and Addis was a once in a decade chance to find the resources needed to end this scandal,” she said in a statement.

“But the Addis Action Agenda has allowed aid commitments to dry up, and has merely handed over development to the private sector without adequate safeguards.”

Byanyima was also critical of the lack of commitment to meaningful global tax reform to control illicit financial outflows that dwarf aid spending.

“Fair taxation is vital in the fight against poverty and inequality,” she said “It is just not logical to ask developing countries to raise more of their own resources without also reforming the global tax system that prevents them doing this.”

Beyond the conference rooms and communiqués, Ethiopia was in itself an interesting choice to host such a summit.

Once responsible for the shocking images of starving children that launched a new genre of celebrity aid activism with Irish singer Bob Geldof’s Band Aid campaign, the country is now feted as one of Africa’s most thriving economies and a development model for Africa.

But a decade of double-digit growth has been accompanied by strict controls on civil society and independent journalism, leaving many to describe Ethiopia now as a police state where democracy is a façade.

Nonetheless, despite these well-reported concerns about the Ethiopian authorities’ iron-fisted approach to governance, aid money has continued to flow into the country

Ethiopia is one of the world’s largest recipients of Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) as well as being the largest refugee-hosting country in Africa.

And, just as rights issues are largely left out of discussions when sending aid to Ethiopia, so they were conspicuously absent from discussions at this week’s conference, said Sriskandarajah of CIVICUS.

“I think the pessimists among us worry that this is a technical conversation removed from the rights based genesis of why we are here, which is: there are too many people in the world who don’t enjoy the basic freedoms and basic social floor that every human is entitled too,” he said.

“I do fear that we’ve lost the perspective on what should be a conversation about how do we ensure that no one is left behind when it comes to the realisation of their fundamental rights.”

From outside the conference centre and panel-hosting hotels, few Ethiopians seemed inspired by the talks.

“What is the benefit for us (Ethiopians), (from) this conference? I don’t think any,” grumbled one taxi driver, as he lurched his old Russian Lada through the dense traffic.

Another driver, Tsegaye Mamo, added: “I’m always surprised when I hear the news saying the economy has grown. When you see the life of people in Ethiopia you will be shocked that most of us are living in extreme poverty.”

As he served delegates at an upmarket restaurant near one of the main meeting rooms, Ethiopian waiter Mekedes Yohannes remarked: “We have no voice. The government doesn’t care about us.”

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READ MORE: The World Humanitarian Summit: talking shop or game changer?