UN and the MDGs – a time for action

By Joseph C Donnelly
Head of Caritas Internationalis’ delegation at the UN

Joseph C Donnelly

Monday morning around the United Nations headquarters unfolded quietly, at least more so than usual.

The “Frozen Zone” perimeter around Midtown’s trendy Eastside Turtle Bay meant that the global village around the UN was locked in with preventive security which greatly restricted traffic.

It’s an annual occurrence. Army helicopters fly overhead, sharp shooters hover around rooftops and UN issued ID badges are a top commodity.

The primary business of the day found Member States rallied around a special General Assembly Meeting at UN headquarters to assess the state of development in Africa.
Looking into the hard facts and reality checks this means the food and fuel crises, hunger and nutrition, HIV-AIDS treatment and prevention, climate change, water and sanitation.

On the margins of these intense thematic and humanitarian debates vital diplomatic discourse looks into conflict prevention, conflict resolution, security and democracy. It’s a full house with a very full agenda.

These days set the tone for the General Assembly agenda for the next year. Wisdom and patience are as critical to real progress as the political will to assume responsibility and do good. The Millennium Development Goals are a pivotal part of the great debate – things achieved, lives saved, lives lost, promises not kept, goals missed.

In this charged atmosphere – faith based organizations, regional and international networks, along with NGOs from all over the world, fill in every possible space where civil society can speak truth to power. These voices echo out from profound grassroots, from investments and commitments to accompany the poor. These voices have also gathered in New York this week around these exact same urgent concerns on every continent. They demand responsible government action now.

The MDGs have reached their midpoint, years after historic pledges were made before all the world at the UN’s Millennium Summit as the new century unfolded. It has unfolded to reveal the skill, power and resources necessary to alleviate poverty and hunger, in our time.

Monday evening saw gatherings of all kinds around Manhattan. As one taxi driver said: “They’re here. They’re all here. Here we go again. Maybe they’ll do something this time!”  More than a year ago the UK Prime Minister drew attention to the state of the MDGs, highlighting growing anxiety that the goals were too far off to be met and too disconnected from communities in  need around the world.

In the “Frozen Zone” a network of civil society organizations hosted an International Interfaith Manifestation, a special event, to draw others into a discussion on what the MDGs were intended to accomplish. It was a moment to consider these tools, to see the real needs of real human beings on every continent and in every possible context of society. The MDG-NGO convening group, led by Caritas Internationalis, sent hundreds of invitations to heads of state, UN Missions, diplomats, non-governmental organizations, economists, academics and international religious leaders and others.

At the UN Church Center, home to dozens of NGOs, a standing room only event unfolded at sunset Monday to the beat of African drums.

The fresh energy of the performers offered stakeholders from all sectors the space to ask the hard questions. Hearing the Call to Action demands a planned and committed response from governments and civil society alike. It isn’t possible to pursue peace and security while hunger grows, while national resources are exploited, lands and are lives damaged. Diplomatic leaders unabashedly exclaimed: “Without NGOs very little is achieved, yet they receive so little support or openness from too many governments.” One international expert admitted: “Most of the NGOs here were working on the MDGs long before I even knew what they were.”

The Call to Action is pressuring all parties to engage right here! right now! This is the place and now is the time. MDGs: Partners for Justice. Every day lives are lost needlessly.

Let’s face it together to end the incredible scandal of sustained poverty and the exploitation of natural resources.

Day two

After the intensity of African issues and development concerns on Monday, heads of state from France, Iran and USA were just three of the countries to take the UN General Assembly podium today to give their own views of the challenges we face.

They are three of the 192 countries who are members. Many people wonder who will be the 193rd, a healthy sign of nation building decades after the UN was established.

Amid the broad history and global rhetoric, there are the lives of at least one billion people. They are dubbed “the bottom billion” by journalists and humanitarian experts.

They are those without food. Those without means. Those destined to die if the world does not to notice the misery of living on less than a dollar a day. Those whose stories too often go untold, whose voices are silenced or ignored.

Not so today. In the UN Church Centre, people from around the globe met to further focus on human rights. From religious leaders to former heads of state, from doctors to social workers, boat makers to scholars, brave ones came to give voice, their own voices, to witness boldly the violations of their community’s human rights.

There is a new advocacy tool to help. The Millennium Development Goals and Human Rights has been produced by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human rights and the Millennium Campaign. It coincides with the 60th anniversary year of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That’s the meaning. This is the moment. Dignity and justice for all of us.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, gets the message loud and clear. He said, “Passing the midpoint to the 2015 deadline for the Millennium Development Goals, we face a development emergency. Millions of people are still trapped in structural poverty and go hungry everyday. As we celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, let us remember that development should not be a privilege of the few but a right for all.”

What good is development without community survival. What good is nation building without development. What is good governance without protection of the environment and natural resources.

There is cynicism in some circles. Issues travel up, down, around the roundtables, square tables and the Security Council’s famous u-shaped table. Everything has its well-ordered place even if the world order is far from just.

On the 25th, there will be 24 hours of talks around the Millennium Development Goals at the UN. Another 24 hours to stand up, give voice to precisely what we know about eradicating poverty, restoring human dignity, sustaining fragile environments.

“Can the gains of development really be sustained if rights are not anchored in laws and institutions, and if duty-bearers are not held accountable for their efforts – and outcomes?” This is according to the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Maybe our best “lessons learned” come as ever from walking in the shoes of the other… Maybe we need to walk differently to see differently and to act responsibly.

Day three

We say every voice counts; we’ve been saying this for years, decades, forever.

We say all are created equal, but we recognize all do not live with equality. The tension of realities around the UN this week have taken up much space, but still far from enough, far from where they need to break through status quo.

The UN General Assembly Call to Action has altered the annual opening space at the UN. The leading governments have changed the stakes of partnership. We can’t continue to pretend things are getting substantially better. “The bottom billion” know it; we know it – and more are getting to know it.

Globalization brings both blessings and burdens. Hi-tech communications have brought unprecedented access to information, information bursting with exacting details, images, facts, faces and more.

As the UN Secretary-General noted on Wednesday to leaders from all sectors:

“We know it! We know it! We all know it – as I know it…We know the problems. We know the opportunities. We need to act now – together.”

We don’t need more words, we don’t need more summits to identify roadmaps. Looking at the Millennium Development Goals, are we 30 percent closer to achieving them, 50 percent, 10 percent?

This is part of the urgent conversation this week in New York and everywhere. More funds are needed; more understanding of the possibilities is needed. The MDG gaps are there; the gaps are known, reviewed, they demand a response.

There’s a UN report to read which invites every stakeholder to act on it all. There’s a UNDP report on the MDGs-2008; excellent information & challenge.

There are other reports – from every corner of the continents. For example,  Caritas Internationalis regularly releases reports from members in 162 countries, highlighting lessons learned across the globe.

When the food crisis, the fuel crisis or the economic crisis preoccupies every new outlet around the world we should ask immediately – why is this a surprise to anyone?

But where are the stories today about devastated communities, villages, suffering with environmental pollution, still recovering slowly from the Tsunami? Who will write about the estimated 4 million nurses needed globally? Will anyone write about the need for 80 million teachers?

That’s the conversation echoing all over the streets of Midtown Manhattan this week – the same streets where public demonstrations about Iraq, Iran, Myanmar, Colombia, Sri Lanka, USA, Pakistan and more take place.

All this in that high security “Frozen Zone” which limits access to most people. The problems/solutions remain matters of access – access to the leaders, access to the resources, access to the decisions.

Current levels of human isolation have greatly enlarged the gaps, distances. Meanwhile, we know some partnerships are flourishing, some governments are thinking outside the box, inviting shared investments.

Some governments are absolutely convinced that faith-based organizations hold unprecedented records of profound commitments to people day by day.

This week at the UN this is the moment: Act Now! Be responsible! Act now together to accomplish more and implement existing commitments! While UN protocols take exception to the impassioned use of exclamation marks, the noise is getting heard, like it or not, as reasonable leaders face facts.

A former UN Secretary-General once said: “You must remind governments of what they know. You must disturb them, reminding them that you know what they know. You know what they have seen in your communities, in your programs, in the best of times and very worst of times. Never let them forget. Honest ones will respect you for that, even if it adds to their burdens.”

NGOs are the window to reality. With looming consequences from a year of traumatic global crises, it would be grossly irresponsible to continue with business as usual.

A broken world expects our global response. Will we walk a mile, a step, a moment in the shoes, strapped sandals, sneakers, bare feet of our neighbors?

1 Comment

Filed under Advocacy, Development, High-Level Meetings and Events, MDG, Poverty Elimination

One response to “UN and the MDGs – a time for action

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