NEW YORK – If everyone who came to the United Nations General Assembly really cared about the things they say they care about, wouldn’t the world be a better place right now?
After decades of progress in reducing poverty and improving health outcomes, in recent years the world has begun to fall far behind efforts to achieve the 17 UN sustainable development goals (SDGs). to achieve, which all governments agreed to in 2015. On a number of issues, including gender. equality, the world is going backwards.
So what is the point of 150 heads of state and government meeting in New York this week? And can a series of summits – bringing together everyone from Clinton administration alums to tech activists to European royalty – change anything?
There is now a two-week festival in New York City in the second half of September that attracts everyone who deals with global challenges.
It is often about seeing and being seen.
Celebrities here can take an easy stand, without crossing domestic partisan political lines. Everyone from Korean megastars BTS to American actors like Matt Damon and Goldie Hawn use UNGA as a platform for their causes.
What gave national leaders the opportunity to give speeches on the world stage or grab the ear of the president of the United States is now a late summer version of Davos, but it is more.
“When I first came to UNGA in the 1990s it was very sterile. One prepared speech after another. Today it is the opposite of sterile, it is where global ideas are tested,” said Werner Hoyer, president of the European Investment Bank.
Access to the UNGA does not cost $50,000 per person — as does the World Economic Forum — and New York is the best shopping for dictators’ wives. No wonder UNGA has become WEF on steroids.
Like the WEF main stage, the official UNGA program for leaders’ speeches is now frequent.
In the shadow of Queen Elizabeth’s funeral, and with the most powerful authoritarian leaders in the world as shows, 2022 will certainly be like that.
This year’s speeches can’t be worse than the completely remote UNGA 2020 – which turned into a 30-hour video call – but will nevertheless be “pretty worthless,” said Richard Gowan, a process expert at of the UN who heads the United Nations office of the International Crisis Group. .
In part, it’s because the leaders don’t listen to each other’s speeches – and send their own views to a domestic audience. “When POTUS leaves, you have presidents and prime ministers speaking with the diplomatic equivalent of two men and a dog,” Gowan said.
Mark Suzman, CEO of the Gates Foundation, which invests more than any other NGO in health and social campaigns supported by the UN, called after all those coming to Manhattan this week.
“The attention of rich countries is distracted. There’s not a lot of focus,” Suzman told POLITICO, lamenting the lack of progress on key global equity programs. “[We’re]seriously off track for the vast majority of the SDGs.”
Too big, and it fails
Many participants this week doubt that UNGA is equipped to put the world back to work.
“UNGA has become a gabfest” said David Miliband, president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee. “Let’s not forget the legitimacy and the authority and the responsibility that attaches to nations. If the multilateral system doesn’t work, everything else compensates for that,” he told POLITICO.
Louise Blais, Canada’s former ambassador to the UN, agrees that UNGA is falling short of its potential. “Giving civil society a voice is vital,” she said, but “trying to include as many as possible” means the UNGA has a “poor track record in helping achieve the SDGs.”
Blais said UNGA is becoming unmanageable for many organizations, even large governments.
During her tenure as ambassador from 2017 to 2021, she said 40-50 Canadian diplomats were assigned to work through a 50-page spreadsheet of invitations to between 400 and 500 events during the UNGA, to decide whether or not to send a Canadian official. right.
Zia Khan, senior vice president for innovation at the Rockefeller Foundation, says UNGA focuses on the right problems, but UN insiders and external actors often fail to marry their strengths. “There is a disconnect between the entrepreneurs who can innovate, and the institutions who can scale,” he said.
“Many social entrepreneurs have a hard time scaling. They’re brave and inspiring, but it’s like trying to change the way people eat cheese by setting up a hipster cheese shop in Brooklyn. You have to go to the big grocery chains,” Khan said.
The UNGA equivalent of such big chains as the Gates Foundation and GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance, are global non-profits.
The UN relies more on these external organizations to respond to global challenges, and the UNGA crowd has taken the cue.
It is more important to be present for the launch of the Gates Foundation’s Reserves report or at week-long events such as Goals House – a meeting point organized by the Freuds consultancy that appears at global events throughout the year – than to discuss with officials health and development. from national governments.
And big business is getting in on the act too. Previously viewed largely as donors – UNICEF raises around $2 billion annually from private sources – corporations have expanded their role to become think tanks and partners at major UN events.
Microsoft is the “main strategic sponsor” of the COP27 climate summit scheduled for November in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt. The company also opened a new United Nations office in mid-September, which is larger than many United Nations embassies – taking up the walnut-paneled 34th floor of a skyscraper overlooking the headquarters of the NA in downtown Manhattan.
Microsoft executives say they are focusing on using their collective power to engineer large-scale change, doing to global challenges what the company has done with software and other digital markets.
“Yesterday, we had the President of the General Assembly here setting out his plans to take us forward to the SDG summit next year. We had the Deputy Secretary General the previous evening talking about the importance of data and sustainable development. In the first three days of this place being open, it feels like we’re having some really important conversations,” said Chris Sharrock, Microsoft’s vice president for UN affairs and international organizations.
‘Giant petri dish’
The fringe festival around UNGA is a victim of its own success.
“We all know it’s a complete shit show,” said one executive at a global humanitarian organization, who asked to remain anonymous because they were not authorized to speak to the media. “But that’s also how it continues to grow: we try to do more and more early on, to avoid the shit show, but we expand it in the end,” she said.
“It’s a huge Petri dish where everyone is pitching in, but to actually do something, you need a plan and a deadline after the UNGA buzz dies down,” Khan said.
Sharrock agrees. “Given the scale of the global challenges which are very difficult, it is not right to pretend that you can provide solutions in a week,” he said.
If there is one concept that animates UNGA people, it is partnerships: “People want to be smart at UNGA. I keep hearing ‘We need more partnerships,’ and ‘we need to break silos,’” said Khan.
More partnerships don’t automatically mean more success in limiting climate change or ensuring balanced pandemic responses, “but a silo approach helps people focus time, attention and resources to do something,” he said. he.
Rena Greifinger, who heads experiential philanthropy at PSI, a healthcare nonprofit, and is managing director of the Maverick Collective, a community of women’s philanthropy, takes a different view. “This is a week for coordination. Often it’s not the lack of resources, it’s the lack of coordination that attracts us,” she said.
“It was recognized this week that there is an ecosystem of more people, and that it takes so many different types of players to achieve the UN’s global goals and make systemic change,” Greifinger said.
As leaders reach $1,400 a night in hotels to receive awards for improving food security, and as crystal statues and visages are placed on heads of state and government who have been forced to resign, or have been assassinated, even think if there is more of the systematic. change needs to start at home.
But they will always have New York.