UN and the MDGs – food crisis and credit crisis vie for attention in NY

By Emer Mullins, Trócaire

Day one

There’s a great buzz in New York any time but this week it’s very noticeable around the UN building on 44th Street at 1st Avenue, as the world’s leaders gather for the annual general assembly and the midway review of the Millennium Development Goals, a series of eight targets designed to significantly reduce poverty and disease by 2015.

Among those attending this year are Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, US President George Bush, former President Bill Clinton, former Irish President Mary Robinson and of course our new Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, accompanied by Foreign Affairs Minister Michael Martin and Minister of State for Overseas Development, Peter Power. US Vice Presidential candidate for the Republican party, Sarah Palin, is also rumoured to be making an appearance. Security is very tight, and armed police line the streets around the building.

Also planned for this week in New York is the launch of the Irish government’s Hunger Task Force report, which will take place on Thursday morning in the UN.

Today, Monday, was kicked off by a high level meeting on Africa’s development needs. The main topic of discussion was food: the food crisis, food sovereignty, where countries could themselves produce all the food required without having to rely on imports, and the cost of food and oil. Trócaire had observer status at the meeting, where the head of the African Union, the president of Tanzania, spoke of how many countries had not kept their previous commitments when it came to resources. There were renewed calls for the billions of dollars required to meet Africa’s development needs.

NGOs were at a side event on the response to the world food crisis attended by the President of Malawi, Bingu Wa Mutharika and Professor Jeffrey Sachs of Colombia University (and the author of The End of Poverty) among others.

Later there was an interesting event at the UN Church Centre led by Caritas Internationalis, the confederation of Catholic development agencies, of which Trócaire is a member. The gathering included the head of the UN’s Millennium Campaign and a number of government and religious leaders who saw a very strong dramatisation based on the MDGs and how people tend to measure them by statistics, incremental improvements or declines, rather than really seeing and hearing the actual people in the developing world behind the numbers. The event was a recommitment from NGOs to making sure that these goals – minimal as they are – are reached by the deadline of 2015.

Meanwhile, Minister for Overseas Development Peter Power is visiting Ireland’s famine memorial in New York today. Another manmade food crisis, if you will.

New York media are talking about yet another crisis – the financial crisis on Wall Street which saw two more major investment banks morph into commercial banks yesterday. Commentators on main news channels last night were talking about a return to the days of the Great Depression after the Wall Street crash in the 1920s. The price of oil hit a new one-day high and the government’s financial rescue plan is being hotly debated between Republicans and Democrats.

Events at the UN are unfolding against this backdrop of local politics which suggests that the attention of the politicians is clearly focused on the local rather than the international. But today comes a large event on the MDGs by the Global Call to Action against Poverty (GCAP). So everybody’s talking about the Goals but the question remains: what will the rest of the week bring in terms of new commitments to their achievement? Stay tuned.

Day two

As the government prepares to launch its Hunger Task Force report tomorrow in New York, we had the opportunity yesterday to visit the Irish Hunger Memorial in Battery Park in the city. Located on a half acre site of prime Manhattan real estate, the memorial at first glance is not very prepossessing. I had heard of it but never seen any photos.

I suppose I expected something evocative like the famine sculptures in Mayo and even in Dublin, but this seemed to be a little field with overgrown stone walls, the remnants of a typical Irish cottage.

On closer inspection though there were stones in the ground inscribed with the names of each county, and writings around the base of the memorial outlining some of the horrific statistics from the famine days as well as the generosity of those who gave, including the American Indians and prisoners from Sing Sing jail. The Malthusian principles of population control from Thomas Malthus all those years ago explained that Ireland was settled by too many people and the eradication of a significant number was warranted.

The famine, or now known as the great hunger, was political in nature, caused primarily by the policies of the British government at the time. Hunger in the world today is also political, caused by government policies or lack thereof. It seemed to me as we stood at the base of the memorial that this week is a real opportunity for governments to acknowledge that hunger is their responsibility and to state clearly how they will fund its eradication.

But the economic crunch here in the city is dominating the news shows, and despite the security lock down imposed around the UN because of the unpopularity of some of the visiting heads of state, including Iran’s, there is very little news coverage so far of the UN events.

Wall Street, the great bastion of capitalism, dominates. The numbers being discussed for the government bail out of banks are so large that people can’t even grasp the implications yet. Republicans and Democrats are squabbling over the proposed plan, which has to be signed off by Friday.

Meanwhile, there’s an event at the UN Church Centre today discussing women and poverty in New York. Poverty levels will be greatly increased once the cost of the rescue plan trickles down. And the US government is expected to recommit to its achievement of the MDGs later this week, as is Ireland. Tomorrow will reveal all!


Day three

Nancy Aburi, a member of the Irish government’s hunger task force from Kenya, said if we are to positively affect development in Africa we should concentrate on women’s empowerment and education. The women of Africa, she said, will help build communities and develop the continent.

We were speaking after Taoiseach Brian Cowen launched the Hunger Task Force report in New York at the UN. The Task Force was set up last year to look at ways in which Ireland could have an impact on the fight against hunger.

The launch was attended by members of the Task Force, such as Nancy, and Sheila Sisulu, from the World Food Programme, another African woman. She was supposed to lend a little gender equality to the dais, but an accident saw her breaking her leg and her wheelchair could not be accommodated at the top table. That left Task Force Chair Joe Walsh, former minister for agriculture, Bono, Ban Ki-Moon, secretary general of the UN, Jeffrey Sachs of Colombia University, Taoiseach Brian Cowen, Minister for Foreign Affairs Michael Martin and Minister of State for Overseas Development Peter Power seated at the top of the ECOSOC chamber.

In the chamber itself, Britain, Norway, Sweden and Australia were some of the countries represented. However, African leaders were also conspicuous by their absence, Nancy pointed out.

The photographers were delighted when Bob Geldof and Bono appeared in time for a few private words with the Irish politicians before the event kicked off. Launching the event, Chairman Joe Walsh said that hunger epitomised the most gross consequences of sustained injustice and that the only tolerable approach to it must be to pursue its early global elimination as a goal of unparalleled importance.

He spoke of the three key recommendations in the report, the focus on agriculture, the need to focus on nutrition and the need for governance to ensure that all governments are held to account to follow through on their commitments.

Economist Jeffrey Sachs mentioned Ireland’s commitment to spending 0.7 per cent of GDP on aid by 2012, and the Taoiseach’s speech reaffirmed Ireland’s commitment to the MDGs and the target date of 2015.

He said the government would reflect on the report’s findings and determine how best to move forward. “Hunger is our greatest challenge,” he said.

“It is nothing short of scandalous that there are over 860 million hungry people in the world today. We do not need to make further pledges if we just deliver on what we have already promised. The commitments and the know-how are already there. It is the political will and action that will make the difference in the fight against hunger.”

Bono, also a task force member, offered some musings on the psychological scars left by the Irish famine, and remarked that it was not the result of crop failure and bad luck, but bad management by those in power who were exporting food at the same time. He said that while it’s fashionable in some quarters to dismiss aid, it does work. Ireland had benefited from EU aid, he added.

With the right policies and interventions we can make a difference for people on the ground, he said. He thanked Bob Geldof for being there – and for shaving and putting on a suit for the occasion.

When the official event was over, Irish media and photographers swarmed all over Bono, seeking his opinion on the US presidential election candidate for the vice-presidency, Sarah Palin, whom he was supposed to meet yesterday. He was dodging the questions, moaned one, wouldn’t be drawn on what he thought of her.

Sometimes the person becomes bigger than the issue, but Bono was on message today.

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

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