NEW YORK — If everyone who comes to the United Nations General Assembly really cared about the things they say they care about, wouldn’t the world be a better place by now?
After decades of progress in reducing poverty and improving health outcomes, in recent years the world has begun to fall far behind in efforts to achieve the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which all governments agreed to in 2015 .On some issues, including gender equality, the world is going backwards.
So what is the purpose of gathering 150 heads of state and government in New York this week? And can a series of side summits — bringing together everyone from Clinton administration cheerleaders to tech activists to European royalty — make a difference?
New York in the second half of September is now a two-week festival that attracts everyone who faces global challenges.
It’s often about seeing and being seen.
Celebrities here can take an easy stance without crossing domestic party political lines. Everyone from Korean megastars BTS to American actors like Matt Damon and Goldie Hawn use the UNGA as a platform for their causes.
What was once an opportunity for national leaders to deliver speeches on the world stage or catch the ear of the US president in a corridor is now a late-summer version of Davos, but bigger.
“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, where global ideas are tested,” said Werner Hoyer, president of the European Investment Bank.
Access to the UNGA doesn’t cost $50,000 a person – like the World Economic Forum – and shopping in New York is best for dictators’ wives. No wonder the UNGA has become the WEF on steroids.
Like the main stage of the WEF, the official program of UNGA leaders’ speeches is now often the sideshow.
In the shadow of Queen Elizabeth’s funeral, and with the world’s most powerful authoritarian leaders as no-shows, this is sure to happen in 2022.
This year’s speeches can be no worse than 2020’s completely remote UNGA – which turned into a 30-hour video call – but will nevertheless be “pretty useless”, said Richard Gowan, a UN procedures expert who leads the office of the UN’s International Crisis Group. .
In part, that’s because leaders don’t listen to each other’s speeches — and direct their own remarks to domestic audiences. “Once the POTUS is gone, you have presidents and prime ministers speaking in 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 UN-backed health and social media campaigns, has a wake-up call for everyone descending on Manhattan this week.
“Rich countries are getting 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 failure
Many participants this week doubt that the UNGA is equipped to put people back to work.
“The UNGA has become a celebration,” said David Miliband, president and chief executive of the International Rescue Committee. “Let us not lose sight of the legitimacy, authority, and responsibility vested in nations. If the multilateral system doesn’t work, everything else makes up for it,” he told POLITICO.
Louise Blais, Canada’s former ambassador to the UN, agrees that the UNGA falls short of its potential. “Giving civil society a voice is vital,” he said, but “trying to squeeze in as much as possible” means the UNGA “has a poor track record in contributing to the achievement of the SDGs.”
Blais said the 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 tasked with working through a 50-page spreadsheet of invitations to 400 to 500 events during the UNGA to decide whether to to send a Canadian official.
Zia Khan, senior vice president for innovation at the Rockefeller Foundation, says the UNGA focuses on the right problems, but that both internal and external UN activists often fail to marry their strengths. “There is a disconnect between entrepreneurs who can innovate and institutions who can scale,” he said.
“Many social entrepreneurs struggle to scale. They’re brave and inspired, but it’s like they’re trying to change the way people eat cheese by creating a hipster cheese shop in Brooklyn. You have to get to the big grocery chains,” Hahn said.
The UNGA equivalent of these big chains are global non-profit organizations like the Gates Foundation and GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance.
The UN is increasingly relying on these external organizations to respond to global challenges, and the UNGA crowds have taken the hint.
It’s more important to show up at the Gates Foundation Goalkeepers exhibition or weekly events like Goals House – a meeting place organized by the consultancy Freuds that appears at global events throughout the year – than to mingle with health and development officials from national governments.
And big business is getting in on the act, too. Previously seen as donors—UNICEF raises about $2 billion each year from private sources—the companies have expanded their role as sources of ideas and partners at major UN events.
Microsoft is the “strategic lead sponsor” of the COP27 climate summit scheduled for November in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt. The company also opened a new UN office in mid-September, which is larger than many UN embassies – occupying the 34th floor of a walnut-clad skyscraper overlooking UN headquarters in midtown Manhattan.
Microsoft executives say they are focused on using the power of convening to create large-scale change, doing for global challenges what the company has done in software and other digital markets.
“Yesterday, we had the president of the General Assembly here laying out his plans to lead us to the SDG summit next year. We had the Deputy Secretary General the night before talking about the importance of data and sustainable development. In the first three days that this place is open, we feel like we’re having some really important conversations,” said Chris Sharrock, Microsoft’s vice president of UN affairs and international organizations.
“A giant petri dish”
The fringe festival around the UNGA is a victim of its own success.
“We all know it’s an absolute show,” said an executive at a global charity, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media. “But even so it’s constantly growing: we try to do more and more things early, to avoid shit, but we end up expanding it,” he said.
“It’s a giant petri dish where everyone is colliding, but to really get something done, you need a plan and a deadline for when the UNGA buzz dies down,” Khan said.
Sharrock agrees. “Given the scale of the truly difficult global challenges, it’s not right to pretend you can come up with solutions in a week,” he said.
If there’s one idea that enlivens UNGA visitors, it’s collaborations: “People want to sound smart at UNGA. I always hear, ‘We need more partnerships,’ and ‘we need to break down silos,'” Khan said.
More partnerships don’t automatically mean more success in curbing climate change or ensuring equitable responses to the pandemic, “but a silo approach helps people focus time, attention and resources to do something,” he said.
Rena Greifinger, who leads experiential philanthropy at PSI, a healthcare nonprofit, and is CEO of the Maverick Collective, a community of women philanthropists, takes a different view. “This is a week of coordination. It’s often not a lack of resources, but a lack of coordination that gets us,” he said.
“This week there was a recognition that there is a larger ecosystem of people and that it takes so many types of players to achieve the UN’s global goals and make systemic change,” Greifinger said.
As leaders arrive at $1,400-a-night hotels to receive awards for improving food security, and as crystal statues and video tributes are thrown to heads of state and government who have been forced to resign or assassinated, it’s worth asking whether more than the systemic U. change must start at home.
But they’ll always have New York.