Inside the gates of the UN, world leaders are using the spotlight to speak — to each other and to the entire planet. Outside, across New York, civil society groups and major charities are taking matters into their own hands in a series of cocktail parties, meetings and protests.
Nonprofits send their senior leaders to the sidelines of the UN General Assembly at considerable expense to make sure their voices are heard in the right chambers. Activists come from all over the world to try to influence the decisions of international politicians. Many executives who keep NGOs running day-to-day are coming together to chart new ways forward.
“The week is an opportunity for many people who come to the city to complete some good strategic work and collaboration, start or advance,” said Elizabeth Cousens, president and CEO of the United Nations Foundation.
A priority for this year's assembly is progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals, which countries agreed in 2015 to strive to achieve by 2030. At the halfway point, the outlook is bleak for most measures. The fifth goal — achieving gender equality — is only 15% on track, according to the UN's own analysis.
Cousens, who was the lead US negotiator on the targets, said it was no secret that the world was completely off track, but that setting ambitious targets was the right thing to do.
“You wouldn't want to set a goal that says, ‘Let's end some forms of violence and discrimination against some of the women some of the time,'” she said.
All this week behind the scenes, the biggest donor countries for gender equality will be discussing their priorities, said Monika Aleman, international program director of the Ford Foundation. It will monitor the positions these leaders take and where they direct their funding.
“I think it's very, very important because we're living in a time where we're seeing a backlash in the normative framework, particularly in the UN, around women's rights and around the overall framework of gender equality,” she said, speaking in the James room Baldwin at the foundation's headquarters, a stone's throw from the UN
Funders, researchers and activists ate salmon and sandwiches for lunch on the 11th floor of the foundation's headquarters on Friday before General Assembly week during a conference on gender-based violence that one participant said was valuable to the gathering a strategic group of leaders. It was one of about 40 events the Ford Foundation hosted in connection with the week of the General Assembly, increasing its convening powers.
The sidelines of the General Assembly first began to draw large crowds in 2014, when a UN Climate Summit was convened alongside the usual speeches by politicians.
Protesters also understand the value of proximity. On Sunday, tens of thousands of activists marched through downtown Manhattan, blocking traffic for hours, to show their support for urgent and transformative action to address the effects of climate change.
“If you just look at the summer and the fires and storms and floods, it's like the number of people suffering is so huge,” said Keya Chatterjee, who helped organize a busload of protesters that drove up from Washington on Sunday . in the morning. “And the question becomes how much human suffering do we suffer in the name of greed?”
Speaking next to a 6-foot-tall model of the planet Earth that would be transported through the streets, Chatterjee said she wants President Joe Biden to stop the development of new fossil fuel sources, including the Mountain Valley pipeline.
None of the leaders of the United States, China, India, Russia, the United Kingdom or France attended Wednesday's climate summit convened by Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. They had no new commitments to announce on curbing heat-trapping gas pollution.
Another theme discussed at small panels and major conferences, including one hosted by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is that researchers and practitioners have many inexpensive solutions that could immediately improve health outcomes and increase well-being and access to education.
Mark Suzman, chief executive of the Gates Foundation, told his gatekeepers conference on Wednesday that he was angry that wealthier countries did not refocus and commit to spending money on the SDGs after putting in trillions of dollars to boost their own economies as response to the pandemic.
“What we are describing today is not pie in the sky. They are very specific, actionable, low-cost actions. They save lives. They can be released today, tomorrow, next week, next month,” Suzman said, referring to a series of interventions to reduce child and maternal mortality that the foundation highlighted in a recent report.
Similarly, leaders of the large NGO Opportunity International, which links private funding to small farmers, said they were speaking on panels with political leaders and meeting with donors to support funding for their services, which reach some of the least connected people thanks to in the new availability of cheap mobile phones, access to the Internet and other technologies.
“It's these very basic things that make a huge difference,” said Atul Tandon, CEO of Opportunity International, who said he remains optimistic that the world can meet the SDGs in his lifetime.
His organization hosted a breakfast panel Monday in a rented meeting room on private funding for affordable education, another major focus of their work. An employee of a South African-based education organization, who walked through the rain to listen, said it's at fringe events like these that she learns about what's happening in the education sector.
Zia Khan, senior vice president for innovation at the Rockefeller Foundation, which has hosted back-to-back events throughout the week, believes the culture of conferences, panels and planning meetings on the SDGs during the week of the General Assembly should not be confused by trying to achieve the goals.
To this end, together with the Brookings Institution, the foundation is convening working groups for each of the 17 goals to design a specific project, for example, bringing a system of direct cash payments that one country has successfully implemented to many others the next year and a half.
The framework, he said, helps teams “focus on a fairly specific action that may seem small, given the SDGs, but still has an impact. And so we use this phrase, which is: big enough to matter, but small enough to do.”
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